By Jack Rieger
When Nevada tips off their season on Friday Nov. 13, they will be led by their lively new basketball coach, Eric Musselman.
Musselman was hired in March to replace former Nevada coach David Carter, who combined for a 24-39 record in his final two seasons with the Pack. Musselman is one of the most seasoned coaches in all of college basketball, with over 25 years of coaching experience, including head coaching stints with the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. He is the only coach in the Mountain West Conference with NBA head coaching experience.
Mussleman’s basketball romance began in Ashland, Ohio, where his father, Bill Musselman, coached the Division II Ashland University Eagles.
“I would come home from school and my mom would drop me off at dad’s practices,” said Musselman. “When most kids were watching cartoons in the morning, game film was on in our house.”
Eric’s father was a notoriously fierce coach who once famously said, “Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat.” Bill was so obsessed with his work, that he would sleep 3 to 5 hours a night and would keep a VCR machine by his bed in order to watch game film as he drifted off to sleep. The younger Mussleman is also an ultra-competitor, which he says stems directly from his father.
“He was the most competitive person I’ve ever been around in my life,” said Musselman. “He used to call them the three E’s. Energy, effort and enthusiasm. And I think in any walk of life you have to have all three of those to be successful.”
Coach Musselman has applied his father’s theory on energy and competitiveness to his coaching style. In both of Nevada’s two scrimmages this year, they’ve been adamant about pushing the ball in transition and creating fast break opportunities. D.J. Fenner and Cameron Oliver both had highlight reel dunks that ignited Lawlor Events Center, something that has been lacking in recent years.
“We want to play in a way that’s cosmetically pleasing to the fans,” said Musselman. “We want to play a fast and up-tempo game.”
Like many coaches, Musselman’s road to success included several stints in developmental leagues like the Continental Basketball Association and the United States Basketball League. At the age of 23, he was the youngest coach in CBA history, and also became the youngest coach to win 100 games. He spent the next 13 years bouncing around different leagues, including multiple assistant coaching positions in the NBA.
Following his stint with the Kings in 2007, Musselman spent time coaching the Reno Big Horns, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, and most recently as an assistant coach for Arizona State and LSU. He has a 566-340 record in his 25-year coaching career, and is described as “a brilliant offensive mind” by former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy.
Given his extensive coaching experience and proven success, why would Eric Musselman choose to coach at a smaller school like the University of Nevada? It’s a fair question to ask considering Nevada’s limited success as a basketball program, their restricted budget which ranks near the bottom of their conference and their lack of support from the local community. According to Musselman, his decision had to do with family, geography and recruiting.
“I’ve lived in Reno before while coaching the Big Horns,” said Musselman. “My wife loves it here; we have a 5-year-old daughter and we know it’s a great area to raise kids. And then just as important as anything, I thought we could win here. When I looked at areas that we would want to recruit, it was L.A., San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, and Las Vegas. All those areas are places I’ve spent a lot of time and I know a lot of the high schools and AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] programs in those areas, so I thought geographically it made sense.”
Regardless of why Musselman chose Nevada, the Wolf Pack has struck gold. A team with just four NCAA tournament wins, and hasn’t been to the dance since 2007, is now led by a two-time NBA head coach.
Although Musselman has an extensive history of success, turning Nevada basketball into a consistent winner will be no easy task. Nevada won just nine out of 31 games last year, and hasn’t had a winning season since leaving the Western Athletic Conference in 2012. But now with Musselman, Nevada has the most elusive gift in sports: hope.
Jack Rieger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JackRieger.