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At North Florida, Matthew Driscoll has built a program from the ground up

Driscoll has turned North Florida into a contender

Robert Morris v North Florida Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Coach Matthew Driscoll took over North Florida before the 2009-10 basketball season and has quickly made a name for himself in the Atlantic Sun. In four of his six seasons, UNF has finished at .500 or better, and the Ospreys have made consecutive postseason appearances, including a trip to the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Over the past seven seasons, his faith, background and eye for talent have all contributed to his quick rise in Jacksonville.

Q: What influenced your outlook on life growing up?

A: When you manage a McDonalds, which I did at age 20, Ray Kroc was about as good an owner/leader as you will get. The one thing you learn is not just how to serve, but how to deal with those things that pop up that you’re not prepared for. Whether it’s a person telling you a story about a burger that’s really not true, the fry machine going down or someone not showing up for work. I was blessed at such a young age to have all those experiences. We are really transparent with our team and our staff. We have to share these things to become better men, better fathers and better husbands. I think those things help us for when things happen on the basketball court, come into the locker room or onto the team bus. It’s the reason people want to hire athletes, because they’ve been through adversity.

Q: You were an assistant at Baylor for a number of years. What led you to UNF?

A: In 1997, I was an assistant at Wyoming for about 13 months. Then we moved on to Clemson. The Athletic Director here was the AD at Wyoming. We tell our kids all the time to not burn bridges.

When the Baylor job came about, we were following the murder scandal and in five years turned the program around. Now the 4th year, I’m trying to get the Robert Morris job and we’re doing better. In the meantime, St. Francis (PA) came open. It’s right next door to a prison, so I figured no one in their right mind would take it. My interview went great, so I knew I was gonna get that job. I don’t get the job — they gave it to a Division III guy they wanted to hire. I’m a human being, I was depressed and disappointed. My wife looks me in my eyes and says, “God ain’t ready for you to be a head coach.” I’m like.....what? Are you kidding me? Do you know what we did? Do you know what we just went through? I’m ticked off! I’m crushed! Here’s my wife telling me I’m not ready.

In order for me to get the UNF job, Larry Shyatt had to say no to it. Coach Shyatt had been the head coach in Wyoming in 1997 with the very same Athletic Director. He was at Florida winning back-to-back National Championships and would have been a home run hire, but for a number of reasons, he didn’t want it. I took the job, sight unseen. Coach Shyatt told me to not even go see it, just take it.

Q: How difficult was it transitioning to the Division I level? What have been some of the ups and downs?

One of the difficult things is we play over $500,000 worth of guarantee games every year, so you are talking about six to seven potential losses to start with. Now, we’ve beaten both Purdue and Illinois and done a great job, but you have to do it every year. To me, UNF was a diamond in the rough. They had never won more than 15 games, so it wasn’t like our standards are high. There was not any tradition. Our president is a former mayor. They put $250,000 into the campus.

The first class we brought in had three 1,000-point scorers and two of these kids started every game in their careers. We’re really good at recognizing talent. You’re a little too short, you’re a little too slow, you’re a little too unathletic....Nobody wanted Dallas Moore!

In our second year, we lost to Belmont in the Atlantic Sun final. We were starting to roll, and then in our fourth year, we had a setback. One of our seniors lost his father right before the season. I’ve never dealt with the loss of a parent. Long story short, he leaves the team before the season is over. That season of promise ended up not so good, while seeing Florida Gulf Coast go to the Sweet 16. So, you can imagine people around here were saying if Gulf Coast can do it, why can’t you? Going into year five, we get stipulations put on us: either you win X amount of games or we’re gonna have to let you go. I’m thinking to myself: you gotta be freakin’ kidding me. We just built this thing, but I get it, it’s a business. I respect the guy who hired me.

What we did is remain faithful to who we were, faithful to what we believed and faithful to what our culture stands for. We defeated Mercer twice, including at Mercer in the next-to-last game of the season. This was the season they upset Duke in the NCAA Tournament. Part of our stipulation was to go 10-8. It’s just amazing how God transformed this whole thing.

Expectations are extremely high, we don’t treat it like the elephant in the room. We talk about it and embrace it. We accept those expectations because we earned that right, so to speak.

Q: You qualified for the NIT last season and I know that wasn’t your goal, but how big was it to have the opportunity to host Florida.

A: For the fans, it gave us more of a national flavor. It was phenomenal, so much so, we’re playing them again. We’ll be playing Miami at home too this season. It was a big deal — we sold more beer than any time in the history of the school. Your fans wanna know: when you are gonna play Kentucky, Florida and Florida State?

Q: Do you still feel the expectations of job security?

A. I don’t feel my job is in jeopardy, but the disappointment of the people around the program when we don’t make it back to the NCAA Tournament is fuel. We want to get back there. We didn’t inherit or sustain, we built this program. Now, can you continue that success, and most importantly, can you do what Gonzaga or Butler or Davidson did to go to the next step? The next step is to constantly battle for championships. Can we continue to recruit against so-called “sexier, higher level” programs or do you just sit back and hope you hit the mother-load? We knew how talented Dallas Moore and Beau Beech were. We’re not trying to hit grand slams. We’re more like Derek Jeter, hitting singles and doubles. The more singles and doubles, the more wins.