It almost seems that you cannot call yourself a basketball coach unless you have hired Eric Musselman to work for you. The list goes on and on: Mike Fratello, Chuck Daly, Doc Rivers, Lon Kruger, Herb Sendek, and of course his father Bill. All of this experience helped turn him into a successful head coach: back-to-back USBL titles, 2012 D-League COY, the 2016 CBI title, and the 2017 MWC tourney title. HoopsHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with Coach Musselman about coaching in the NBA and winning the 2016 CBI.
In the 1987 NCAA tourney as a player at San Diego you had a 1-PT loss to Auburn after Danny Means missed a FT and Paul Leonard was called for a double-dribble in the final 6 seconds: where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? Over the course of a 4-year playing career it was an unbelievable experience to cap off my time at USD by playing in 2 NCAA Tournaments. Playing in the Hoosier Dome was an awesome experience and we knew that we would have our work cut out for us by playing against an SEC opponent. That loss as a senior, knowing it was the last game I would ever play, helped me learn and put in perspective what our players go through at the end of their own college careers.
After graduating you were named head coach of the Rapid City Thrillers at age 23, and your 68.8 career winning percentage remains #2 in CBA history behind George Karl: how were you able to be so successful despite starting at such a young age? My dad gave me great advice: try to recruit players who have played under great coaches. For instance, some of the players that we acquired the rights to in the CBA had played for Hall of Fame coaches like Bobby Knight at Indiana (Keith Smart/Jimmy Thomas) and Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV (Jarvis Basnight). We also had players with extremely high basketball IQ’s like Craig Neal (whose father was a long-time high school coach), Wayne Tinkle, Leon Wood, and Lester Conner. Many of those guys even went on to become head coaches themselves.
You were an assistant for several notable NBA coaches including Chuck Daly/Doc Rivers/Lon Kruger/your father Bill: which of them had the biggest influence on your own coaching career? My dad had an influence on my coaching career before I even got into the business. Growing up, basketball was my life and everything centered around it. I would wake up, eat some cereal, and then instead of watching cartoons there would be game tape on the screen. Immediately after school my mom would drop me off at Minnesota to watch basketball practice, and the next day it would start all over again. Every coach who I have worked under has had a tremendous influence and I am grateful for the mentorship that they all have provided. Coach Daly was like a second father figure to me. He took me under his wings and was really the person who had the most influence over my career. Doc Rivers was an unbelievable motivator. Lon Kruger/Herb Sendek/Johnny Jones all helped develop me into a college coach who knew about both recruiting as well as X’s and O’s. Mike Fratello/Hubie Brown are the 2 most organized people who I have ever coached under and both were defensive geniuses. Additionally, I have been able to work alongside great coaches like Tom Thibodeau/David Fizdale/Scotty Brooks. All have taught me so much about basketball, coaching, and even life.
You were also the head coach of Golden State/Sacramento: what is the biggest difference between being a head coach in the NBA vs. the NCAA? There are drastic differences between pro basketball and college basketball. From an X’s and O’s standpoint the side out-of-bounds plays in the NBA are so important, while in the college game the baseline out-of-bounds plays are important. Substitution patterns during an 82-game season/48-minute game in the NBA vs. a 30-game season/40-minute game in college are also very different so managing a team can be challenging. Off the floor, the college game is about developing young men and getting them ready for the real world off the floor as much as it is about preparing them for success on the court. You take on the role of a parent and it is important to instill discipline, stress the importance of academics, and help set them up for life after college.
In the final game of the 2016 CBI championship series you had a 3-PT OT win over Morehead State: what did it mean to you to win a title? It is hard to win a championship at any level, especially in the postseason. The thing that made us proudest was how far our team came in such a short amount of time. We were coming off of a 9-win season with a team that did not believe in itself, but that eventually allowed us to coach them with maximum energy/enthusiasm while they bought into our vision.
Last year you added former Oregon State/Iowa State player Hallice Cooke to your staff as an undergraduate assistant: how difficult was it for the 21-year old to stop playing basketball to protect his health after doctors found a growth in his heart? It was devastating news but Hallice and his family handled it in an incredible manner. We felt like he was such an important part of our program that even if he was unable to suit up and play we still wanted him to be a coach. We are all very fortunate that he received the great news that he is now able to play.
In April you hired former LSU head coach Johnny Jones to be 1 of your assistants: what does he bring to the table? We are excited about our current staff as we have moved some of our younger staff members up in roles: Brandon Chambers has switched from Video Coordinator to Director of Operations, Hays Myers from Graduate Assistant to Director of Player Development, and Anthony Ruta from Director of Basketball Operations to Assistant Coach. We feel like we have a tremendous staff. Anthony is the ultimate grinder and someone who has worked his way up through loyalty, trust, and hard work. Gus Argenal was hired as an Assistant Coach and gives us a another coach with head coaching experience and connections to the Bay Area: he is a rising star. Johnny Jones being a Head Coach for 33 years gives me a lot of experience to lean on both during games as well in the recruiting world.
You have many transfers on your roster: what is the key to having everyone come together and bond as a team? We do a ton of team-bonding stuff. We feel like chemistry off the floor is as important as anything we do on the floor. Our transfers have done a great job of blending in with the core freshman we have brought in over the first 2 years including Cam Oliver/Josh Hall/Lindsey Drew. Throughout the summer we did a ton of stuff with our players to help them bond off the floor. Activities like a boxing class or a 3-mile run through Lake Tahoe help get our players out of their element, challenge them, and bring them closer together. While in Costa Rica we did things like whitewater rafting, zip lining, and ATV riding: it is nice to have some fun but also to learn a little more about each other. These experiences are critical for team chemistry.
Your non-conference schedule includes games against Rhode Island/Texas Tech/TCU: which of these games do you feel will present your biggest test? We feel like every game on our schedule has its own challenge. Obviously to play a Big 12 team on the road like Texas Tech that is as well-coached as it is will be a huge hurdle. We also feel like Rhode Island/TCU are potential top-25 teams in the country and will have legitimate chances to make the NCAA Tournament at the season’s end. Both will present big challenges, just as our 5 non-conference road games will as well.
What are your goals for the upcoming season, and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? We have tremendous respect for everyone on our schedule so we take everything 1 game at a time. In the 2 years we have been at Nevada we have prided ourselves on finishing the season stronger/better than when we began. We pride ourselves on getting 1 percent better as coaches, support staff, and players on the court.