In the spring of 2013, Eric Musselman boarded a flight to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He knew nothing about LSU’s head coach, Johnny Jones, and was unfamiliar with the city. He viewed the trip as another way to build connections in the ever-growing world of basketball. Nothing more and nothing less.
Of course, interest from a variety of basketball programs or teams wasn’t anything new to Musselman. 2013 marked his 25th year coaching basketball, either in the CBA, NBA, D-League, college or overseas. He’s mentored the likes of Gerald Green, Danny Green, and Hassan Whiteside, but Musselman was on the hunt for his “home base,” having never stayed at one destination for more than three years.
Baton Rouge didn’t look to be a game changer. Musselman was interviewing to be an assistant on Jones’ staff, but flew into the city already wielding an offer that would be hard to pass up. Flip Saunders, the President of the Minnesota Timberwolves, had called offering him a similar position. Saunders knew and loved the Musselman family, having played for Eric Musselman’s father, Bill, a legendary coach of his own, in the NBA. Everything seemed to be in the bag.
“It went against all common sense because the Timberwolves thing would’ve been a perfect job for me with a lifetime friend in Flip,” Musselman said. “We ended up going to Baton Rouge and it was the best decision of my life.”
Four years later, Musselman’s self-proclaimed “leap of faith” is paying off. His Baton Rouge stopover, which lasted just one season, led to increased interest by other college programs. He is now the head coach of a booming college basketball program in Reno, the Nevada Wolf Pack. Fresh off a stunning Sweet 16 run that included a miracle comeback over Cincinnati in the Second Round, Musselman is one of the hottest names in college coaching, and Nevada is expected to only get better.
When building his own program at Nevada, Musselman asked himself one question: “How can we be as competitive as possible as quickly as possible, but also have sustainability?”
The obvious answer was to find the best transfers in the country — guys who could buy into the Wolf Pack identity and stretch their limits like never before.
Nevada will have eight eligible transfers on its roster next season, more than any other program. Of course, the Pack are physically and emotionally led by the Martin twins (formerly of NC State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois).
Caroline was pursued by a plethora of schools when transferring, including Xavier, Cincinnati, and Minnesota. Nevada always felt like it wasn’t just pitching a college experience, but a toolbox of skills ready for immediate use in the NBA.
“When you transfer, it’s sort of like a free agent situation,” Caroline said. “[At Nevada], I could be a part of something new, a new brand of basketball.”
Musselman said his experience coaching in both the D-League and NBA helped him pitch to transfers. He consistently had players in their contract year or D-League players just looking to scrap something together, so he was always in persuasion mode.
But, transfers alone didn’t build the Nevada empire.
“If Lindsey Drew doesn’t come here and Cam Oliver doesn’t come here and in year one we don’t make the decision to start them no matter what...they kickstarted the whole thing,” Musselman said.
Drew was one of Musselman’s prize recruits out of high school and actually flipped his decision from Arizona State to Nevada after talking to Musselman.
“My dad [Cavaliers assistant coach, Larry Drew] didn’t even know who Musselman was,” Drew said. “ [But] there was something about that phone call that stood out to me.”
So many transfers have bought into the Nevada program, but Musselman is quick to admit that it isn’t for everyone. The sit-out year required after transferring is viewed as a transformative experience at Nevada in which Musselman says he treats all newcomers “like they are the star player.” The difference: transfers don’t watch practice film, instead opting for more skills development with assistant coaches. They are expected to be all-in, nevertheless.
“They have to get drastically better in the year they are with us,” Musselman said. “If they don’t, we as a coaching staff have done a really poor job.”
The all-in mentality extends past the players and bleeds into the coaching staff and family atmosphere present in Reno. Nevada’s newest graduate assistant is Musselman’s son, Michael. He witnesses it daily.
“24/7 if you walk into our gym, guys are getting shots up from six in the morning to two in the [next] morning,” Michael Musselman said.
He too is expected to sit in on almost every meeting, whether it be about social media or game socks. And yes, Michael Musselman is quick to say he told all of his teachers he wouldn’t be in class at the University of San Diego last March because he had, well, “another thing going on.”
It’s a path Michael chose rather than pursuing some big-time NBA opportunities.
And the family connection goes beyond Musselman and his son. If it weren’t for Musselman’s wife, Danyelle Sargent-Musselman, he wouldn’t have another one of his most valuable assets at Nevada: a savviness with the media. Danyelle, a former NFL Network anchor, assisted Musselman in studying the media and how to use it to his advantage while coaching.
In his break from coaching from 2008-10, Musselman worked as an NBA analyst for Fox Sports Radio, and as a color commentator for college basketball and D-League games. He wanted time with his family in the Bay Area, even though he had offers to work for several NBA teams. Musselman says he was “studying the game” in those years off, getting to know his now-wife Danyelle, and whether he knows it or not, mastering the media.
Nevada is one of the few college basketball programs that has several staff members dedicated to social media. They were also one of the few NCAA Tournament schools to give the media 100 percent unfiltered access to the team during their historic run.
Sargent-Musselman’s influence extends to the players as well.
“It’s literally like we have 12 more kids [and] I would adopt any of them,” Sargent-Musselman said. “There’s phone calls at 11:30 at night, it’s beyond just the coaching.”
The late-night phone calls aspect of being a “team mom” should not be overlooked. Sargent-Musselman specifically recalls phone calls last year after a player’s girlfriend had gone into labor. When the girlfriend needed to care for a baby in its first few days, she looked no further than the Musselman family.
More regularly, the Musselmans turn to offseason team dinners and cycling classes taught by Sargent-Musselman. It’s clear there’s no time to rest for anyone involved in Reno and that starts with the head coach himself.
Matthew Musselman will be a high school senior next year and college looms on the horizon. Nevada is just one of Matthew’s contenders, though he would have the opportunity to walk-on to the Wolf Pack.
So, yes, the elder Musselman is currently locked in a recruiting battle for his own son. It all comes back to family.