Editor's note: In only his second season at Arkansas, former Nevada coach Eric Musselman has led the Razorbacks to its first Sweet 16 berth since 1996. With Musselman's name trending, I figured I'd share the feature story I wrote on Musselman when he was hired by Nevada in March 2015. Here is that full article, which centered on Musselman's life in basketball and his decision to become a college coach after his NBA career fizzled out. A warning: Wolf Pack fans might not want to read the last paragraph.
Eric Musselman's love affair with basketball began in the 1960s in Ashland, Ohio, a town of 20,000 that sits 65 miles southwest of Cleveland and is the self-proclaimed "World Headquarters of Nice People."
This is where Musselman was born. This was where he'd dribble a basketball wherever he went — to school, through the airport, inside the house, down the street to a friend's house. And when Musselman turns back the clock to his first memory of the game that not only has shaped his life and became his profession but also serves as his driving force, Musselman's mind returns to Ashland.
It is there where Eric's father, Bill Musselman, a two-time NBA head coach and one of the most intense humans to walk this planet, got his first college job: head coach of the Division II Ashland University Eagles, which played its games in the 3,000-seat Kates Gymnasium, which was packed to capacity every night during Musselman's tenure from 1965-71. Among those in attendance was Eric from ages 1-7.
"It was just rocking," said Musselman, who was hired last week to rebuild the Nevada basketball team. "Lines around the building. I'd go to games and afterward we'd walk out of the arena with my dad. He'd have my younger sister in his arms and I'd be walking right there by his side. I can remember that vividly, exiting the arena and walking into the cold of the night in Ohio. I was hooked on the game immediately."
Basketball has taken the 50-year-old Musselman across the country and around the world. It gave him a free education as a player (he played at the University of San Diego). It gave him a purpose as a young adult. It brought color to his life so much so that he feels like a "zombie" when he's not immersed in it.
"It's his life," Musselman's wife, Danyelle, said. "He's said in interviews before that he doesn't have any hobbies. It sounds bad, but it's also pretty true. I try and balance him. I'll say, 'This is what's going on in the world today in case anybody asks you.' But basketball is his life. It's been ingrained in him since he was a kid."
Said Musselman's mom, Kris: "That's all he talked about as a kid. It's all he wanted to do. When he went to San Diego, I begged him to go to law school, but no way would he go to law school. He has always wanted to be a coach. He's always been driven to do that. His father was the same way. For somebody in this world to do something they love and feel destined to do, it's the most remarkable thing."
Like father, like son
Bill Musselman had a saying: "Defeat is worse than death because you have to live with defeat."
That summed up Eric's father. Bill was intense and demanding, a disciplinarian and perfectionist. During practices, Musselman would dive headfirst onto the court during loose-ball drills.
"His dad was fiery as any coach as I've ever seen," former Wolf Pack coach Sonny Allen said.
Eric Musselman isn't far behind. Despite being 5-foot-7, Musselman's in-game foot stomps are so violent you're surprised the hardwood floor beneath him doesn't crater. Anybody who knew Bill, who died in 2000 of heart and kidney failure, sees a lot of him in Eric. The competitiveness. The Xs-and-Os ingenuity. The never-ending passion and fire coupled with an unbreakable loyalty to their players.
"My dad was my idol," the younger Musselman said. "I gravitated to following in the footsteps. The highs and lows of winning and losing is enlivening. When I'm not working, I'm kind of walking around like a zombie. The rush of winning, the rush of watching guys get better, competition. I love all of that. Some people love competition and some people shy away from it. For me, competition is the ultimate."
The Musselmans' will to win drove both to the top of their profession. After a standout tenure coaching the University of Minnesota, Bill moved to the pro level. He eventually became the head coach of the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and then the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. Eric took notes along the way.
Still in elementary school, Eric put together a three-ring binder full of plays. He'd take some from his dad and some from other coaches. He'd add his own wrinkles. Even at that age, Musselman lived for the game. When his dad coached the Minnesota Gophers, Eric went on the team's road trips. He'd spend almost every day in Minnesota's gym, working alongside his father, a coach in waiting.
"After school, my mom would take me to University of Minnesota practices and drop me off and I'd go home at 10 o'clock and go to bed," Musselman said. "Then I'd wake up, go to school and go back to practice. My wife makes fun of me that without basketball I wouldn't know what to do with myself."
Perhaps Musselman wasn't born with the coaching instinct, but it didn't take long to acquire.
"He took a lot from his dad," said Jim Brovelli, Musselman's former coach at USD. "I was around his dad a lot and you could see that competitiveness in him all of the time. They were always thinking, 'How can we defeat this next opponent?' A lot of guys know the Xs and Os, but if you don't have a feel for the game and a total understanding of the game, it's very difficult. Eric got that from his father early on."
There's one major difference between the Musselman boys, Eric's mother said. Charisma. Bill was black and white, a hard-driver with no off switch. Eric has more nuance to his personality, which has become one of his greatest strengths as a coach. He's intense, which can be polarizing, but also likeable.
"If you meet Eric for the first time, you would feel like, 'Eric and I are best friends,'" Brovelli said. "He has that type of intangible that he reaches people and is very easy and likable right away. I think that carries over to not only his peers but the players that he coaches. He's a great communicator, which isn't easy."
Getting to the top
After a four-year career at the University of San Diego, Musselman, a team captain and self-described "scrappy" player who drew limited minutes, knew what came next: coaching.
At 23, he was the coach of the Continental Basketball Association's Rapid City Thrillers, making him the youngest coach in CBA history. It's easy to assume given his last name that Musselman's career path would be a smooth ride. It wasn't. He made six stops in three different leagues before becoming a head coach in the NBA. Most of the teams he coached back then don't even exist today. He had to grind.
In 2002, Musselman was named the head coach of Golden State, reaching the top of his profession at 37. That marked the first time in NBA history that a father and son had both been NBA head coaches.
"I dreamed of being an NBA coach, but I never thought my dad and I would be the first father-son head coaches in the NBA," Musselman said. "To me, it's mind-boggling."
In his first season in Golden State, Musselman was runner-up for NBA coach of the year after improving the Warriors' win total by 17 games. After losing three of his top four scorers in the offseason, Musselman's team went from 38 to 37 wins the following year before he was fired after a change in the front office. Musselman got a second head-coaching chance with the Sacramento Kings in 2006 but lasted just one season.
After a couple of years away from the game following his stint with the Kings, Musselman returned to the game. In 2010, he coached the NBA D-League's Reno Bighorns. The following year, he coached the D-League's L.A. Defenders. In both seasons, those teams had the best record in their organization's history. And during those years, Musselman developed a reputation as an elite player developer.
In the D-League, Musselman helped launch Jeremy Lin, Danny Green, Steve Novak and Gerald Green to the NBA.
Lin became the talk of the NBA for a two-week stretch called "Linsanity," when he thrived with the New York Knicks. Green became a starter on the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Novak, who was playing at his local YMCA when Musselman recruited him to Reno, has spent the last five seasons in the NBA.
"Of the top-10 D-League success stories ever, four or five played for Muss," said Zak Basch, the former Bighorns communications manager and basketball operations director. "That's incredible. Danny Green was almost the NBA Finals MVP and he was in the D-League and nobody wanted him. Gerald Green is on the cover of the Suns program. Nobody wanted him. Jeremy Lin was a castoff sent to the D-League and then 'Linsanity' happens. Once, maybe it's luck. This is three or four times he's saved players' careers."
Back to college
After back-to-back successful seasons in the D-League, Musselman sat down with his family to chart the future. He wanted to be an NBA head coach again, but knew it was unlikely. Colleges were his future.
"I did the research," Musselman said. "There are a lot of guys who have one NBA head-coaching job. There are not a lot who have had two. There's very, very few who get three. I knew my dad had great success in college. I wanted to try it and when I did try it I loved it and wanted to keep pursuing it."
In 2012, Musselman turned down an NBA assistant coach job offer to join the Arizona State staff. There would be no quick fix. He would start from the bottom again and build his way back up to being a head coach. He would learn the ins and outs of the college game before running his own program. Not many former NBA head coaches would go and pay their dues as a college assistant, but Musselman did.
"He's egoless," Danyelle Musselman said. "Few people can really understand this, but the only thing that really matters to him is basketball. It's not money. It's not fame. It's just basketball. All he wanted was the basketball. He wanted to learn, so if he had to be an assistant, that's what he was going to do."
Musselman said he's never been a better coach or more prepared for an opportunity. Not only did his time at Arizona State and LSU (where he was the associate head coach last season) prepare him, but so did stints as the coach of the national teams in the Dominican (from 2010-2011) and Venezuela (from 2011-13). Given the language barrier, Musselman learned how to teach better than ever before.
Like he has at all of his stops, Musselman also won over his players. Two days before leaving for Venezuela, Musselman tore his Achilles playing pickup ball with his son. Surgery would have meant he couldn't fly to South America to coach the team. Instead, he opted to let the injury heal on its own.
"He had a problem with his Achilles, and he would throw his crutches down and literally crawl to get after you," Venezuela's Gregory Echenique once said. "From the first day we met him to when we left, his intensity never changed. It didn't matter who you were. He was in your face if he needed to be. At the same time, he was so positive. He always believed we could win. He was the guy that put the fire in us."
That blend of intensity and positivity has become Musselman's calling card. It can be a hard mix to pull off, but he's done it at just about every stop he's made on his basketball odyssey.
"It's one of those personalities that's hard to describe, but it comes down to how much you feel like he cares," Basch said. "It's sincere that he cares and you buy into that. You just believe him. You want to believe him and you do believe him. And he treats everybody the same. Everybody is important to him."
Balancing family life
Danyelle Musselman compares her husband to Beyoncé.
"It's almost like a performer when he's on the court," she said. "Like Beyoncé has an alter ego when she gets on the stage. That's kind of how Eric is. When I met him, he wasn't working. He was this very nice, sweet, funny guy. All of sudden, he started coaching and I was, like, 'Whoa. There is this other side where he's so intense, so focused, so dedicated that it's almost like he's a different person.'"
But, at home, Musselman can just relax and be dad.
He has a 5-year-old daughter, Mariah, as well as two sons from a previous marriage who live in the Bay Area. While it can be difficult for some to balance basketball and family, Musselman puts family first.
"Nobody loves their family more than my husband," said Danyelle, a former ESPN, Fox Sports and NFL Network broadcaster. "Everything that he does, the decisions he makes in life, it's with his family in mind."
Family has softened Musselman. While the intensity is still there when he hits the court, he's able to compartmentalize his job and life better now than ever before. After all, it's difficult to obsess over Xs and Os when your daughter wants you to play Barbies with her.
"Mariah has really brought out this side in him that I don't think he thought he had," said Danyelle, a self-described tomboy as a child. "It's funny because I don't think he ever imagined himself having a girl. Not only is she a girl, she's the girliest girl ever. We laugh all the time that she's God's joke on us. She only wants to wear skirts. She wants to sing and dance and be a princess all the time."
Musselman's mother, Kris, has noticed a change in her son as well. He's still driven like few others — she credits that to his German background — but there's a more mature approach to life. Eric might not have hobbies and he's still basketball-crazed, but even he admits his favorite thing about coaching has changed.
"As I've gotten older it's that fact you get to have an impact on people," Musselman said. "When I was younger it was just the sheer thrill of competing with a scoreboard up there and coming out on top. Even losing is great because you have to go back and figure out how to improve and you get the chance to go do it again. But one of the things I really love about college is the impact you can have on a kid."
Rebuilding the Wolf Pack
Talk to anybody about Musselman and the phrase "basketball genius" is sure to pop up.
That's exactly what the Wolf Pack has been in dire need of. After a great run during the mid-to-late 2000s, Nevada has struggled of late, posting losing seasons in each of the last three years.
The Wolf Pack's move to the Mountain West, where Nevada is behind in funding and facilities, has been a rough one. Musselman was hired to make Wolf Pack basketball relevant again.
"When I talked to people around the country and said, 'What do you think of Eric Musselman?' they all said, 'He's the best or one of the best basketball minds in the country and if you can get him, there's no question. He's the guy you have to go after,'" Wolf Pack athletic director Doug Knuth said. "He has the ability, the personality, the energy, the passion to get people fired up again about Wolf Pack basketball."
Musselman, who has interviewed for a number of college head coaching positions the last two offseasons, said he didn't find the right fit until Nevada came along. He's take a relatively paltry salary ($400,000 per season, well below the MW average) because he believes in Knuth and the Wolf Pack's potential.
Musselman, a perfect fit geographically for Nevada given his recruiting ties in California, hasn't guaranteed future championships or NCAA Tournament appearances. Those are the goals, but as he's traveled around Reno (where his dad coincidentally coached in 1979-80) Musselman has noticed Wolf Pack logos everywhere he's been. He sees a fan base that is hungry for success again.
"My vision is to see Lawlor as packed as possible where if we're playing on a Wednesday people are talking about it on a Monday," Musselman said. "I would like to see an energy in the whole community."
Those who know Musselman well said he'll be a success. Chris Grant, a South Tahoe High graduate who was a front office executive with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks when Musselman was an assistant there, said Nevada couldn't have found a better fit.
"He's smart," Grant said. "He has a good disposition. He's a worker. He cares about people. He cares about the game. He leads with his heart. Teams generally mirror their coach's energy, and he has great energy. His team will follow his lead. There's no doubt he'll have an immediate impact."
Former NBA head coach Mike Fratello, who hired Musselman as an assistant when he took over Memphis in 2004, said Musselman's work ethic will lead to success no matter where he's coaching.
"He has one of those clocks with no hands on it, meaning it doesn't matter how much time it takes to get something done," Fratello said. "He'll be in the office putting in whatever amount of time it takes to get it headed in the right direction. He has a great work ethic, he's organized, an excellent basketball coach."
After making 20 stops on his basketball journey, Musselman said this stop at Nevada could be his final destination.
"We want this to be our home, and I'd like nothing more than for this to be my last stop," Musselman said. "I'm 50 years old. I'd love to coach here for as long as possible. All of the things I wanted to accomplish at the pro level, I've already accomplished those. Since we made the decision to take the college route, this was the goal. I'm excited. I've never been more excited by an opportunity."
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMurray.