The Nevada men’s basketball team has a pressing decision to make before every game. What uniform to wear tonight? The choices are numerous (eight), colorful (black, blue, pink, traditional) and feature a variety of designs, which of course is the way coach Eric Musselman has laid it all out.
In two fast-paced seasons on the thriving brick campus that hugs the northern edge of the city, the one-time Kings coach has revived a slumping program and forged a new career in the thin mountain air.
If not exactly reborn again, because Musselman never stopped dabbling, he reinvented himself. After an intrepid career that included tours in the minor leagues, as an NBA assistant with three teams, as head coach with two NBA franchises (Golden State Warriors and Kings) and more recently as an assistant for two prominent college programs, the high-wire act known as “Muss” has landed and dug in with a mid-major institution.
He is a college coach. He is a college coach. He is a college coach.
Stop already? Well, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Believe it. Musselman, 52, whose Wolf Pack (25-6) won their first Mountain West Conference title Saturday with an 85-72 victory over Colorado State (21-10) at Lawlor Events Center, has no plans to sell and buy another house. This is home, geographically, professionally, emotionally.
The on-site 11,500-seat facility sold out for the season finale days ago. In four of the previous five home games, crowds exceeded 10,000, many boisterously thumbing their snowboards at UNLV, Nevada’s nemesis and higher-profile downstate rival, while pushing for more: Saturday’s victory also gave the Wolf Pack the No. 1 seed for this week’s conference tournament and provided a slightly smoother path to a tourney title and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.
I failed in Sacramento for a variety of reasons. That said, sitting out, after being let go, was the best thing to happen because I became a dad again.
It is happening fast, and it’s furious, but in a casino-fueled fantasy land, all things are possible. There is anticipation in the air and energy in the coffee bars, fitness centers, hotel lobbies, student union. Once again, the Wolf Pack are relevant. Nevada assistant Dave Rice, who played for Jerry Tarkanian’s 1990 NCAA championship and 1991 Final Four squads at UNLV and was the Rebels’ head coach from 2011-16, is experiencing a slight sense of déjà vu.
“When I got to UNLV in the late 1980s, Las Vegas was casino-driven, but not so corporate,” he said. “It was still a small town and there was tremendous support for the program. Here, even though we are a growing metropolitan area, obviously with Tesla coming in, it’s still a relatively big city with a small-town feel, and very much a college town. And the community is very excited about what’s happening.”
The starting lineup is athletic, long and balanced, led by Marcus Marshall (19.7 points), Jordan Caroline (9.0 rebounds) and former Grant High School standout Cameron Oliver. The versatile sophomore forward – and potential NBA prospect – is contributing 15.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game and was tied for ninth in the NCAA with 79 blocks.
Musselman, who called a lot of plays and controlled games during his NBA days, bites hard on his knuckles, but has taken his hands off the whiteboard; his Wolf Pack play fast and furious and exploit their length and athleticism.
“The players would all say they have ultimate freedom to score, to shoot, maybe too much,” Musselman said after Friday’s practice. “My philosophy just kind of evolved. We play fast and apply a lot of defensive pressure, which is the way the game is going today.”
So how did this happen so quickly? And what exactly prompted the Musselman-to-college metamorphosis? Blame or credit the Kings, Sacramento, getting fired, being bored, staying curious.
Musselman, who never established much of a rapport with then-general manager Geoff Petrie, was fired after guiding a modestly talented club to a 33-49 record in 2006-07. With three additional years of salary guaranteed, he returned to the Bay Area and became a hoops version of the stay-at-home dad. Divorced, with shared custody of sons Matthew and Michael, he became a fixture at games, AAU tournaments, school functions, even the dreaded carpool lane.
“I failed in Sacramento,” he said bluntly, “for a variety of reasons. That said, sitting out, after being let go, was the best thing to happen because I became a dad again. I always had horrible guilt for missing my kids’ games because I was coaching and traveling all the time. So I got that time back with my boys. I met my wife (Danyelle Sargent). Personally, it was the best three years of my life.”
But then again, this is the late Bill Musselman’s son here. He has learned to breathe in and breathe out occasionally, but is still far more comfortable racing on a treadmill than stretching in yoga class. Late in his sabbatical, he recalls being stuck in a middle school carpool lane, his blood pressure rising, contemplating his future. His days consisted of (a) taking the boys to school, (b) working out for two hours, (c) doing the family laundry, (d) picking the boys up after school, and (e) snuggling on the couch with Danyelle and watching NBA games from 4 p.m. to the late-night news.
“Danyelle finally said, ‘You got to get to work. This isn’t you,’ ” Musselman said. “She was the only one working (as a freelance sports reporter). And after that it was like, ‘All right. I had my taste of NBA head coaching. Now I have to go in a different direction. I have to reinvent myself.’ So I tried the D-League (Reno and Los Angeles), but ... . ”
Acknowledging his poor prospects for landing another NBA head-coaching position, he shifted his emphasis to college and spent three seasons working as an assistant at Arizona State and LSU before Nevada officials approached. Eager to kick-start the program after it finished 12-19, 15-17 and 9-22 the previous three seasons, the administration wanted a jolt, a teacher, a passionate presence with a sense of humor.
48-20 Nevada’s record in two seasons under coach Eric Musselman entering Saturday
The slightly built Musselman, with his boyish features and still trim, wiry physique, is all of that. Close friends say he is genuinely content in his new surroundings and even receptive to a softer, less combative approach. Danyelle laughs and says her husband has “mellowed, somewhat, because he is coaching 18-year-old kids,” but also because the couple have a 7-year-old daughter who dons cheerleader garb and joins the performances during games, only to yank on her own basketball jersey for a pee-wee game the following night.
“It’s been great,” said Musselman, who led the Wolf Pack to a 24-14 record last season. “And so quick, right?”
Much of his success, he said, is attributed to his personal maturity, but also to his basketball pedigree, his NBA contacts, his minor-league experiences, the name recognition and his insatiable appetite for social media; he is a tweeting fool. (Metta World Peace and his son Ron Artest III reached out and plan an unofficial recruiting visit.) But just to prove that not everything has changed, that Musselman hasn’t completely lost his mind or his grip, he cites his intimate and ongoing involvement with the following: the shape and design of the logo on the new basketball floor at Lawlor Events Center; the introduction of an occasional charter team flight; the decor in the renovated locker rooms.
Those eight jerseys the players select from? All eight samples hang on the wall in the locker room, including the one preferred by the players – black with white numbering.
“I am not an artist, but I look at magazines and everything, and came up with the designs, but with a lot of help,” Musselman said, laughing. “I asked the players for input, sent samples to my sons, told them to ask their friends. I would ask people in the health club, ‘Which ones do you like?’ ”
With that, he laughs. The Pack are back, and so it seems is Eric Musselman. He half-jokingly says he has found his calling, in all places, on a stately grounds of a prestigious university. In years past, the image would have made him laugh. Today, it makes him smile.