Eric Musselman Chasing Greatness With a Nevada Program Built in His Father's Image
This story appears in the Nov. 5, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Sometimes the DNA is right there to see. Eric Musselman, 53, is the basketball coach at Nevada. In 2015 he took over a program that had won 36 games in its previous three seasons and has won 81 in the three since, including two consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament and a narrow loss to Loyola-Chicago in last year’s Sweet 16. His team is sure to be very good again this season, ranked No. 6 by Sports Illustrated. Musselman is short (5' 7") and wiry, driven and constantly in motion, as if chasing something. He became a head coach at 23 and has held 15 jobs in 30 years at every level above high school. He loves to coach so much that from 2007 to ’10, when he took time off to recharge, he burned up phone lines building a stellar AAU team for his two sons. Because he didn’t want to stop.
Eric’s father was Bill Musselman, who died of primary systemic amyloidosis in 2000, four months before his 60th birthday. Bill was short (5' 10") and wiry, driven and constantly in motion, as if chasing something. He first became a head coach at 23 and held 15 jobs in 37 years at every level, including high school. He loved to coach so much that in 2000, when he was an assistant with the Trail Blazers, enfeebled by a stroke, wheelchair-bound and close to death at the Mayo Clinic, he was calling his players to encourage them in advance of playoff games. Because he didn’t want to stop. (Disclaimer: Being out of coaching and suffering a fatal illness are not to be considered analogous.)
On winter nights in Reno, Danyelle, Eric’s wife of nine years, will awaken to find their bed half-empty and her husband in the family room, studying game tape and texting. “I’ll fall asleep texting with Coach at 2 a.m.,” says Anthony Ruta, one of Musselman’s assistants, “and then I’ll wake up at 5 a.m. with a whole bunch of new texts. Coach never shuts it off, he just keeps bringing it.”
On winter nights in cities from Ashland, Ohio, to Minneapolis to Tampa to Albany, N.Y., to Mobile, Bill Musselman would lie in the darkness, dialing anyone who would talk basketball. In the winter of 1985, I was sleeping in a Tampa motel while covering a Continental Basketball Association playoff between my hometown Albany Patroons (whom Musselman would later coach) and Musselman’s Tampa Bay Thrillers. The bedside phone rang well past midnight. “Tim, this is Bill Musselman.” We talked—well, Musselman talked—for an hour about basketball. Nothing else. “My college roommates still laugh about all the calls and messages in the middle of the night,” says Nicole Musselman, 48, Bill’s daughter and one of Eric’s siblings. “He never slept, so he would just call anyone he could get a hold of.”
Over his four years at Nevada, Eric has brought in 14 transfers, plus, this year, graduate transfer Trey Porter, a 6' 11" forward who was at George Mason and Old Dominion. (He’s also a diabetic who plays with a tiny insulin patch on his hip.) Musselman has opened his program to the frustrated and the disenfranchised, offering second chances while speeding the Wolf Pack’s path to success with experienced athletes. Bill Musselman traveled from franchise to franchise with a black book. It might not have been black, or even a book, but it was full of numbers that Musselman could call to land a familiar veteran player to fill out his roster, loyal to his guys and they to him.
The same word is often applied to both the father and the son, as described by former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who played hoops for Bill Musselman at Minnesota in the early 1970s. “IN-tense,” says Dungy, almost melodically.
Wizards coach Scott Brooks knows Eric and knew Bill. He played for Bill with the CBA’s Patroons in 1987–88 and with the Timberwolves in ’90–91, when Eric was an assistant; he was also an assistant under Eric with the 2006–07 Kings. “The only real difference between Bill and Eric,” says Brooks, laughing not because he is joking but because he is not, “is their first names.”
But is that the only difference? Consider this: On a Thursday afternoon in the third week of September, Musselman ran the Wolf Pack through an urgent two-hour practice, including his customary 10-push-up punishment for the entire team (and coaches and managers) after any turnover. The session crackled with energy. Shots were challenged. Hard fouls taken. Downtime minimal. During one of the few brief pauses, Musselman gathered his players to warn them. “The next month is the toughest time of the year, because we’re playing ourselves every day,” Musselman said. He was in shorts and a T-shirt, dwarfed by even his shortest players but taut from his own two-hour workouts every morning. (His father trained fiercely, as well, usually recruiting partners and transforming a stationary bike session into a blood-and-guts race.) The practice resumed at a quickened pace.
Reno has some hoops history: The Wolf Pack went to the NCAA tournament four consecutive years, from 2004 to ’07, and won 28 games as recently as ’11–12, but the program went quickly downhill and fell to 9–22 in ’14–15. Success for most non-Power 5 schools is tenuous, a house of cards waiting to collapse. Musselman moved quickly to restore the program. “I didn’t want to rebuild, so I built this team like an NBA team,” he says, with transfers serving as free agents. His first team, in ’15–16, won 24 games and the College Basketball Invitational title; there were four transfers on the bench, waiting. They helped the Wolf Pack to 28 victories the next year ... when four more transfers waited, and shared in last season’s run ... with four more ready to join in now.
Nevada is undeniably stacked, with its three top scorers and rebounders back from a year ago. Senior twins Caleb and Cody Martin, 6' 7" wings who can play and guard five positions, and junior Jordan Caroline, another 6' 7" wing, all bailed late on the NBA draft not just to improve their status, but also to attempt a deeper NCAA run. Porter joins 6' 11" freshman Jordan Brown, Musselman’s first five-star recruit, and those four eligible transfers with Division I experience. For the first time in his four years, Musselman might struggle to find minutes for all who deserve them. (It’s a family trait to settle on a short rotation.) Expectations, and the stress that comes with them, are high.
Yet as this practice was winding down, a student manager pulled open a door to let in the mountain sunshine—and the familiar calliope tune of an ice cream truck. From the serving window came a voice, shouting, Ice cream! Come and get ice cream! It belonged to Musselman, who dished out cones and smoothies. Players giggled as they slurped up their treats. A few days later I told the story to Lowes Moore, an NBA point guard in the early 1980s who had played for Musselman père in Albany. Moore shook his head. “Bill Musselman would not have done that,” said Moore. “Ice cream truck? No. Not Bill.”
There is an essential truth at the heart of this story: Eric Musselman loved his father. “He was my best friend and my idol,” he says. “Not a day went by, our entire adult lives, when I didn’t talk to him on the phone. Every. Single. Day.” On this day, students who come to the basketball office are given a T-shirt inscribed IN MUSS WE TRUST and, if they’re lucky, a picture with Coach. Most of them are lucky. The scene is one giant metaphor for a rising program. But Bill Musselman is here too. In Reno, everybody calls Eric “Muss.” That’s what everybody called his dad, too.
Bill Musselman is a legendary figure in American basketball, though not in the same way as, say, John Wooden or Julius Erving. He is admired not on the front porch but in the backyard, where coaches and players trade stories that never quite enter the mainstream. He was a boy wonder whose failure to achieve greatness never diminished his lust for his work. Chasing something. He hounded his players, yet many remember him fondly. He created a catchphrase and believed it: “Defeat is worse than death, because you have to live with defeat.”
Musselman became the coach at Ashland (Ohio) College at 25 and, after a 10–10 first season, went 109–20 in the next five. His teams played a fierce matchup zone and in 1968–69 held opponents to 33.9 points. (This was pre–shot clock, but still.) They practiced in weighted vests with medicine balls and didn’t shoot for long periods. Musselman and his first wife, Kris (Eric’s mother), hosted team dinners on weekends. “He loved team camaraderie, but he was one-dimensional,” says Gary Urcheck, 72, who played for Musselman at Ashland and later became a close friend. “You wouldn’t see him out trimming the lawn. It was all basketball.”
He took the same drive to Minnesota, where in his first year he ended the Golden Gophers’ 53-year Big Ten title drought. Musselman might have stayed in Minneapolis for decades, but that was not his destiny or his nature. That 1971–72 championship season was marred by a melee in which two Ohio State players were injured; Musselman was blamed by many for inciting his players and the home crowd. (Others, including Eric, have suggested that the incident was more complicated, and that racial insults had been directed at the Gophers.) The brawl followed Musselman to his death. He left Minnesota in the summer of ’75, and less than a year later the school was placed on NCAA probation for more than 100 violations, most of which Musselman denied.
Musselman became a basketball nomad, never keeping a job for more than three years. The Cavaliers hired him in 1980 then fired him after 71 games; he returned as interim coach in ’81–82 and went 2–21. He had a turn as the Red Auerbach of the CBA, winning three consecutive titles with the Thrillers—two in Tampa and one in Rapid City, S.D. His 1987–88 Albany Patroons went 48–6 with a roster that included Brooks, Rick Carlisle (briefly) and Micheal Ray Richardson, who was signed off the scrap heap after multiple drug suspensions. Tom Thibodeau, now the Timberwolves’ coach, was an assistant at Harvard then and drove to Albany to meet with Musselman in the musty Washington Avenue Armory. “I was blown away by his practices,’’ says Thibodeau. “The perception is that he was just this fierce competitor, and he was, but he was also a great teacher and communicator. His practices were so structured and defined.”
Brooks remembers that. “We must have had 1,000 plays,” he says. “Maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much. We would practice five-on-zero like it was Game 7 of the NBA Finals.”
During a game for Albany, Brooks suffered a sprained ankle. As it swelled and turned black-and-blue at halftime, he told Musselman that he couldn’t go back in. “Bill said, ‘O.K., I’ll let the team secretary know and we’ll get you on a flight out of here tomorrow,’” Brooks recalls. “I was like, Whoa, this pro basketball stuff is serious. But really, Bill taught me a lot of lessons about toughness and being professional. There’s a line, when it comes to physical and mental toughness. Bill didn’t cross it, but he was always right on it.”
Musselman’s last chance in the NBA came with the expansion Timberwolves in 1988. He signed many of his former CBA players and won 51 games in two years. He also chafed at being told by ownership to develop young talent at the expense of victories. The T-Wolves axed Musselman in April 1991 for, in effect, trying too hard to win. There was a final act: In ’97 he took South Alabama to the NCAA tournament. Barely three years later, he was dead.
Eric Musselman was by his father’s side for nearly all of this. His mom would drive him straight from elementary school to Williams Arena for Gophers practice. There were days when Bill took Eric to a tennis facility, drew an X on the hitting wall, and had Eric endlessly throw behind-the-back passes at the letter. When the family moved to Cleveland, Bill took Eric on scouting visits to high schools, where Eric, then 15, would scrimmage with varsity players ... and Bill would play, too. This was completely normal to Eric, because he had played pickup with his father for years, and would for years afterward. Once, when Bill’s Tampa team was playing in Albany, Eric, then 23, visited his father and the Musselmans went three-on-three full-court with Patroons coach Phil Jackson (6' 8"), assistant Charley Rosen (6' 10") and two others. “Bill wanted to play with Eric,” says Rosen. “We had to talk him out of it.” Eric averaged 23.0 points as a senior at Brecksville-Broadview High, while his dad was coaching the Cavs. He remembers opposing fans throwing hot dogs at him, because he played a flashy style but also because his dad’s team was struggling. “In my mind he was at every game,” says Eric. “But I’m sure he missed a bunch.”
Bill once heard that Boston College assistant coach Kevin Mackey would be scouting Eric. Before the game, he told Eric to pass, not shoot, because BC needed a distributor. Bill sat with Mackey and at halftime, grabbed Eric outside the locker room and told him, “Hey, you gotta start shooting; BC doesn’t think you can score.”
When Eric was a freshman at San Diego, where he played four years but saw little action, his father came to the campus to tell Eric that he and Kris were divorcing. Bill stayed in Eric’s dorm room for a week and never broke the news. “He just couldn’t do it,’’ says Eric. “He called me when I was booking my ticket home for Christmas.” Father and son came together when Bill got the Timberwolves’ job and hired Eric, then 25, as an assistant. Both of them moved in with Urcheck, who was living in Minneapolis, but Eric lasted only a few weeks. “Every night, two or three in the morning, my dad would wake me up: ‘Let’s talk about pick-and-rolls.’ I called Thibs [who was also an assistant] and said, ‘Where are you staying? I can’t live with this guy. He never sleeps.’”
In a sense, Bill Musselman’s full-throttle ferocity was a gift to his son. It allowed Eric to copy some attributes and put aside others, though it has been a work in progress. Eric took over the Warriors at 37 and improved the franchise with 75 wins over two years, but he alienated some players with his drive and bluntness. He coached the Kings in 2006–07 but was fired after he won only 33 games and served a two-game suspension for a DUI arrest. The last decade has been a gradual reboot for Musselman. He took three years off to watch his sons, Michael, now 22, and Matthew, now 18, play basketball and to coach their AAU teams in the Bay Area, where Eric shared custody with the boys’ mother, Wendy Bauer. (The couple divorced in 2005.) “After every game,” says Michael, “I would get a text from my dad with two or three things I did well, and then a Word document of things I need to get better at.” But it’s all cool: Michael graduated from San Diego last spring and is a grad assistant in Reno; Matthew is a senior guard at Monte Vista High, choosing between San Diego and Nevada.
In 2012, Eric took a left turn and went into college coaching. He spent two years as an assistant at Arizona State. After the second he faced an agonizing decision: Flip Saunders offered him a job on the Timberwolves’ staff, and LSU wanted him as its top assistant. Saunders had played for Bill Musselman at Minnesota, and Eric had idolized him: He wore Saunders’s uniform number, 14, and clamped his knees together on jump shots, just like Flip. They were close friends. “Hardest decision I’ve had to make,” says Musselman. He went to Baton Rouge, and a year later Nevada signed Musselman for $400,000 a year. “A no-brainer for us,” says athletic director Doug Knuth. Two seasons later Knuth made him the MWC’s highest-paid coach, at $1 million. The program has grown with Muss’s salary. Season ticket sales have increased almost 90% (to over 8,000) at the 11,356-seat Lawlor Events Center in the four years since his arrival. In October 2016, a $1 million gift from former Wolf Pack guard Ramon Sessions, who has played for seven NBA teams over parts of 11 seasons, jump-started the building of a practice facility named after Sessions.
Colleges are for learning, and Musselman is learning that he likes the environment. He has posted dozens of videos—announcing Brown’s signing, jumping out of a car and dunking on low driveway hoops around Reno, wearing a Halloween costume, dressing up in uniforms to support other Nevada teams. Eric’s promotional streak is also in his DNA. At Ashland and Minnesota, Bill Musselman devised an intricately choreographed, Globetrotter-esque warmup show that included not only showtime dunking but also jugglers and a unicyclist. It put fans in seats and provided a counterweight to the grinding defensive games that followed.
After the seventh-seeded Wolf Pack came from 22 points down to upset Cincinnati and reach the Sweet 16, Musselman ripped off his shirt in the locker room. “That was all him,” says senior guard Lindsey Drew, who will probably redshirt while rehabbing an Achilles tear from last February. “He’s done it a few times. It’s no act. Just Muss.” In almost three decades as a coach Musselman has never stayed anywhere for this long. But: “The amount of laughs I’ve had here in three years,” says Musselman, “are more than I’ve had in my entire life.” Nicole Musselman, a fashion designer who lives in Dallas, sees her family’s blood in all of this. Not just Bill, but also her mother, Kris, a schoolteacher who became a stay-at-home mom while Bill coached. (Kris lives in San Diego and attends many of Eric’s games.) “My mother connects with people in a soulful way and encouraged us to find a sense of joy in all of life’s moments,” says Nicole. “Eric has blended her thoughtfulness with my father’s intensity and perseverance.”
The Martin twins grew up poor in Mocksville, N.C., and were tempted by the possibility of NBA wealth. They came back to play for Musselman. “He’s a coach who doesn’t b.s. you,” says Cody. Caleb adds, “When we first told people we were going to Nevada, they said, ‘Oh, UNLV.’ I don’t have to explain myself anymore.” Jordan Caroline, who also could have left, says, “Muss is just goofy and fun. He says unequivocally all the time. Everything is unequivocally this or that. It’s funny. But when we close the door, he’s intense.” That word again. And a little of his dad surfaces with regularity. “We lost to Oregon State before Christmas my freshman year,” says Drew, “and Muss comes into the locker room and says, ‘Thanks to you guys, this is going to be the worst Christmas of my life.’” (Never mind that the Wolf Pack had four more games until the actual holiday.)
Sometimes Musselman is Fun Eric and Intense Eric in nearly the same moment. For a throwback exhibition game against Division II San Francisco State on Oct. 27, he dressed Run DMC-style in a fedora, chains and oversized glasses. When his team started slowly, Musselman stripped off the costume and lit into his players.
There is another lesson that Bill left his son: his early death. “I’m trying to have fun,’’ says Eric. “My dad was not even living six years from my age right now. I think about that all the time.’’ Also, Saunders died of cancer in 2015, just a few months older than Bill Musselman had been. And Danyelle had a stroke while eight months pregnant with the couple’s now eight-year-old daughter, Mariah. (She went viral last spring by interviewing Loyola’s famous Sister Jean.) “You always think, I’m so young,’’ says Danyelle. “But then you get sick and it’s very scary.” So she works out with her husband and helps him tap the brakes on his work. But in the end, there are games to play, and win.
When Bill Musselman died, he left behind a battered leather suitcase filled with clippings, playbooks and, among other things, the details of his old pregame warmup show. The suitcase is the story of his life and his passion. The father was on a lifelong basketball journey that never quite brought him fulfillment or closure. The son carries on.