Eric Musselman is in his fourth year as head coach of Nevada men’s basketball. When he started, the team had not seen an NCAA tournament in years. Last season, the Pack advanced to the Sweet 16 and now heads to the Big Dance for its third consecutive year. Tonight, the Pack plays Florida in Iowa, and the winner of that game will advance to play either Michigan or Bradley on Saturday.
KUNR's Holly Hutchings actually met Musselman while working out at the gym, and they soon formed a friendship. In a Storycorps-style interview, Holly spoke with him about a time when he wasn’t on top and what he learned from a difficult setback.
Take me to the turning point that we’re going to talk about today. What was going on in your life, and what happened?
Well, I was the head coach of the Sacramento Kings. During that time, I had just gotten recently divorced, which is as hard as anything any human being can go through. I was close enough to my kids; Michael and Matthew were in the Bay area in Danville, California. Door-to-door was about an hour and fifteen minutes. So I was trying to be a dad, trying to go watch [when] my son would have a little league game. I’d drive over, watch it right after practice, and drive back that night. So I was trying to serve two things: be a dad, which was an hour and a half away, and coach an NBA team, and it was difficult. Got fired after one year. Not even on the job for twelve months.
It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had failed professionally. I had been a head coach with the Golden State Warriors, and had a job for two years there and had got fired, but it was a change in management, so it didn’t really feel like I had failed.
Yeah, it wasn’t really like a “personal” thing.”
Right, but the Kings situation, it’s the one job to this day that I feel like, given more time, more opportunity, results could have been different, but things happen in life.
You know, I think that when you’re fired, it’s humbling. I made a decision for three years then to not coach. It was the first time in my life I was away from being with the team.
I got into doing media stuff. I started doing college TV games. I moved back with my sons, and then after three years I was sitting in a carpool lane, and I kind of looked around, and there was people that were not going to work. And I said, “You know what? I probably need to get back into this coaching thing.”
Did you step back because of those feelings? Like, “Oh, maybe I’m not as good at this as I should be?” Or were you bummed?
Yeah, I didn’t really lose any confidence as a coach. I was more worn out. The scrutiny of coaching an NBA team: 82 games, every game’s televised, most nationally, and then you add in print media, social media.
I just needed a break, and it was really good for me professionally. It was good for me to reconnect with my sons, and then I met my current wife, so all good things happened during that time. But while it’s going on, you really don’t know where your career’s going, and I didn’t know.
I started to enjoy the media stuff but I missed the highs and lows of coaching.
So, now that you’ve got some distance, and you can reflect on that, and you’ve had success, what are your takeaways from that? Cliché as it is, would you change anything that happened?
No. I think that whenever you hit adversity, it makes you stronger. Everybody says that, but when you’re going through that, it’s difficult. There was a point where I didn’t know if I was going to coach.
During those three years, I was the head coach of the Venezuelan national team. I was the head coach of the Dominican Republic national team. I did those in the summer.
Coaching in Caracas and coaching a group of guys where only half the guys speak English–that’s not easy, but it made me a better coach. When you have people who don’t speak your language, you have to demonstrate better.
So all these things that were hard at the time, I look back now, and if I have a friend, or someone in the coaching profession, come and watch practice, and they say, “Wow, that was really detailed how you demonstrated some drill or some footwork on a defensive stance,” I always revert back and laugh and say, “Yeah, because I was coaching guys who couldn’t speak the same language.”
Yeah, that’s your same language, the sport.
But I think it was all good what happened. Both [of] the experiences, I think, really helped define who I am. They made me appreciate the jobs I had following being fired much more than, probably at the time, of being a young guy rising up in the coaching profession.
This interview is part of a longer conversation that Holly Hutchings had with Nevada Basketball Coach Eric Musselman on her podcast called How I Broke This.