How Eric Musselman turned Reno into Nevada's basketball capital

Eric Musselman has Nevada at 19-1 and climbing the top 10. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

RENO, Nev. -- Eric Musselman knows the question is coming.

It's the first question most recruits and transfers ask the Nevada Wolf Pack coach when they arrive on campus.

How far are we from Vegas?

"I thought it was Vegas," Wolf Pack senior Caleb Martin said of his initial exposure to the existence of Reno. "Everybody thought it was Vegas."

"I didn't even know it existed," Caleb's twin brother, Cody Martin, added. "I was the typical East Coast guy who thought Reno was Vegas and thought that it was going to be sunny and hot all the time. And then we got here, I was like, 'Y'all aren't in Vegas?' I had no idea where I was going to."

Sin City, Reno isn't. Farther west than Los Angeles (yep, check a map), Reno is closer to Sacramento and San Francisco than Las Vegas. It's more Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains than glitz and the Strip. That's part of why the job that Musselman has done with the Wolf Pack since he took over four years ago is so impressive.

By the way, the answer is seven hours.

"It's the worst drive in the world," Musselman said.

During Musselman's freshman season at University of San Diego in 1983-84, the Toreros reached the NCAA tournament behind senior star Mike Whitmarsh and 7-foot freshman Scott Thompson. They went up against Princeton in the play-in round at The Palestra in Philadelphia, and it wasn't all that close. Pete Carril's Princeton offense of half-court sets and backdoor cuts -- and 38 points from Kevin "Moon" Mullin -- carved up San Diego, and the game was out of reach in the final minutes.

San Diego coach Jim Brovelli cleared the bench, sending in Musselman, seniors Randy Brickley and Bill Penfold and a couple of other reserves.

But Brickley didn't want to go in. His playing time had disappeared in his final year, and he was stung by the notion of mop-up duty.

"I wasn't going to go in," Brickley recalled last week. "I had had it."

Then Musselman got in his ear.

"He said, 'Dude, you can't do that. You gotta go in.' I'm pretty sure the words, 'Regret it for the rest of your life,' came up," Brickley said. "So, I got up and went in."

Brickley, Penfold and Musselman all played a few possessions that game, and they appear in an NCAA tournament box score. Brickley attempted a shot, an air ball from the baseline -- "I maintain it was an assist" -- but he likely would have sat out if not for Musselman's urging him to go into the game.

"It would have been pretty stupid," Brickley said. "I'm thankful that Eric did that."

Musselman laughs when recounting the story and jokes about his role on that first San Diego team. He was roommates with Thompson and two other freshmen, so he received spot minutes just to keep his more talented classmates happy. His primary job during his first season was to make sure Thompson woke up and went to class on time.

"I looked at myself as a coach even as a freshman," Musselman said.

Musselman's path to coaching goes back further than that, as he is the son of former NBA, CBA and college coach Bill Musselman. He remembers going to Williams Arena after school when his father coached at the University of Minnesota, dribbling a basketball during practice and watching film with his father afterward. He remembers being back in California, lying on one bunk bed in his bedroom with his father on the other, listening to Chick Hearn announce Los Angeles Lakers games at night.

He remembers his father quizzing him on box scores from the previous night's games every morning before school.

"He was my best friend. He was my idol," Musselman said. "I wanted to do what he did."

Musselman was drafted by the Albany Patroons of the CBA out of college. Instead, he spent two seasons with the CBA's Rapid City Thrillers, first as the general manager and then as the head coach. He spent one season working under his father as an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves before returning to the CBA with the Rapid City Thrillers (later renamed the Florida Beach Dogs). During his time in the CBA, Musselman coached in South Dakota or Florida for eight months out of the year, then went back to San Diego for four months to relax on the beach.

"I was sitting there alone. The press conference was in 20 minutes. They said, 'You can sit in your office, gather your thoughts.' I closed the door, and I started bawling. I was thinking about what my dad would think of me as a head coach." Eric Musselman

It wasn't a bad life, but Musselman wanted more. He was getting bored.

He approached his father about coaching in the USBL during the summers between the CBA seasons. His dad initially pushed back, telling Musselman he should just relax in his time off.

"I want to coach," Musselman responded, saying it was additional time to get better as a coach -- and he could get to know players in the USBL and recruit them for his CBA team.

So his father spoke with his dentist, his stockbroker and a third investor who was involved with computer technologies, and the four of them purchased a USBL team in Sarasota, Florida, where Musselman's dad lived at the time.

"They literally bought a USBL franchise," Musselman said. "We ended up breaking every attendance record. ... It was awesome for me. Because I experimented. I tried all these different things, wacky things -- triple pick-and-rolls -- just stuff that no one did."

Musselman eventually made the move back to the NBA as an assistant with the Orlando Magic and then the Atlanta Hawks.

His big break came in 2002, two years after his father died at age 59 of heart and kidney failure related to liver disease, when Musselman was hired as the coach of the Golden State Warriors.

"I was sitting there alone. The press conference was in 20 minutes. They said, 'You can sit in your office, gather your thoughts,'" Musselman recalled. "I closed the door, and I started bawling. I was thinking about what my dad would think of me as a head coach. And at that time, we were the first father-son coaches in the history of the NBA. I was just thinking about, I can't believe my dad was a head coach, and since I was in junior high, I've been hoping that this dream would come true, and now it is, and he's not even here to see it."

Musselman led the Warriors to a 17-game improvement and finished second in the coach of the year voting to Gregg Popovich. Perhaps most notably, Musselman's team finished second in the NBA in scoring offense in his first season at the helm.

"At such a young age, just constantly climbing the ladder and doing it really quickly," Musselman said. "The top of it was the Warriors."

Musselman won his 100th game at Nevada on Jan. 23 against Colorado State. That made him the 27th-fastest coach in Division I history to reach that milestone -- and the first one to get there among coaches hired in the spring of 2015.

"I'm really old to get to 100," the 54-year-old Musselman said after the victory. "It's 100 in college. I've won a lot more than that, just in a bunch of different leagues that you guys have never heard of, with a bunch of different letters."

A decade ago, Musselman was at the lowest point of his coaching career. After being fired following a tumultuous second season in Golden State -- during which he reportedly clashed with players and management -- he was let go after one season coaching the Sacramento Kings, a tenure that started with a drunken driving charge during the preseason.

Musselman was out of the business for a couple of years. He turned down an opportunity to coach in St. Petersburg, Russia, and returned to California with his now-wife, Danyelle, a former sports broadcaster. They got married in 2009 and welcomed a daughter in 2010. But in Musselman's third year out of a job, with most of his time being spent with his family, including his two sons from his first marriage, he realized he missed being a coach.

He wanted to return to the NBA as a head coach but wasn't getting any calls or interviews, so he spent two seasons in the D-League with the Reno Bighorns and Los Angeles D-Fenders, winning the regular-season championship with both teams and having a number of players called up to the NBA. But he still wasn't getting much buzz for an NBA head-coaching job, and he didn't want to become an NBA assistant coach. So he turned to college, serving as an assistant under Herb Sendek at Arizona State for two seasons.

Then Flip Saunders called offering a job. Saunders, then the head coach of the Timberwolves, knew Musselman's father and knew Musselman had a relationship with Thrillers-turned-Wolves Sam Mitchell and Sidney Lowe. A short time later, LSU assistant coach David Patrick called. Patrick told Musselman the Tigers were going to land Ben Simmons and that head coach Johnny Jones wanted an NBA guy on staff.

Musselman had a decision to make.

"This was like the defining college moment," Musselman said.

Musselman was leaning toward Minnesota and the NBA, closer to his comfort zone. He knew Saunders well.

His wife said no.

"We spent two years at Arizona State, and no. We're going to Baton Rouge. I don't care how comfortable you are. This is the best thing to do," Musselman recalled her saying. "She was supportive, but she was like, 'Let's go to Baton Rouge and see where it takes us.'"

One year later, it took them to Reno.

Musselman's NBA fingerprints are all over this Nevada team, immediately noticeable in his constant NBA references during practice, from Gilbert Arenas' motivational tactics to the Houston Rockets' style of cutting to the basket.

It also was his NBA experience that helped shape how Musselman planned to rebuild Nevada when he arrived in the spring of 2015. The Wolf Pack were coming off a 9-22 campaign and hadn't been to the NCAA tournament since 2007.

Musselman tried to act like a general manager, treating his 13 scholarships like NBA roster spots. In other words, he did not use a scholarship just to get a body on the roster. Instead of playing older players, he went the NBA route of using younger players more to build for the future.

"I think the plan was, how can we be as good as we can, as quick as we can, with sustainability?" he said. "Having our fourth year be our best year. That was our plan from day one."

"[Musselman] brings in guys who have a chip on their shoulder. And he's got a chip on his shoulder too. He's been through his own type of adversity in his coaching career. He wants to prove people wrong, and he brings in kids who want to prove people wrong too." Nevada's Caleb Martin

Within weeks of getting the job, Musselman hit the transfer market with Marcus Marshall (Missouri State) and Jordan Caroline (Southern Illinois) and landed one-time Arizona State commit Lindsey Drew. Musselman hadn't coached a game in Reno yet, but the momentum was shifting.

"When I came here, we were coming off a 9-22 season, so everybody's like, 'Why the hell are you going there?'" Caroline said. "I just believed in Muss' vision. I want to be a part of something special, in turning something around."

In Musselman's first year at the helm, Nevada had a 15-win improvement and won the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) championship. He went back to the transfer market, landing Kendall Stephens (Purdue) and Hallice Cooke (Iowa State), as well as Caleb and Cody Martin from NC State.

"There was a lot of teams -- you could tell they wanted [Caleb] more than me, and they didn't do their research," Cody Martin said. "Here, it was different. You could tell [Musselman] did his research, and he knew my game inside and out and knew how I was going to be able to impact the team. ... It was eye-opening."

A Mountain West Conference title and an NCAA tournament appearance followed, as did a first-round loss to Iowa State. Last season brought more improvement, another Mountain West championship, another NCAA tournament -- and this time, a run to the Sweet 16 that included comeback wins over Texas and Cincinnati.

Musselman's approach helped establish Nevada as one of the go-to transfer destinations nationally. The Wolf Pack welcomed multiple transfers in each of the past four offseasons and just added midseason transfer Shamiel Stevenson (Pittsburgh) and Mike Lewis II (Duquesne), both of whom committed to Musselman and his staff without a visit to Reno.

"He brings in the right type of transfers," Caleb Martin said. "He brings in guys who have a chip on their shoulder. And he's got a chip on his shoulder too. He's been through his own type of adversity in his coaching career. He wants to prove people wrong, and he brings in kids who want to prove people wrong too."

Caroline offered his take.

"It's kind of like an all-star team in a sense," Caroline said.

Musselman isn't just concerned with the makeup of his team. He is obsessed with every aspect of his program. During practice, he can be seen taking notes on social media strategies. He constantly asks for details on ticket sales. His wife helped organize a "Pink Out Game" to raise money to fight cancer, bringing in $22,800 in one minute during the Colorado State game. Musselman and his staff wear polo shirts instead of suits, not just because it's more comfortable but also because he thinks Adidas might get more bang for its buck if it sees its logo every game.

Every season, Musselman changes the passcode on the locker room door, so the players are reminded every day of their goal. The first year they arrived, it was "2020" for winning 20 games. The second year, it was the date of Selection Sunday. Last season, it was "1616" for reaching the Sweet 16. Earlier this campaign, it was the score of an early-season game.

"If you talk about something every day, it comes true," Musselman said. "So, we've always tried to pick something."

There isn't a detail that goes overlooked.

That mindset was supposed to culminate this season, the one Musselman and his staff had circled since they arrived in Reno. It was all supposed to come together in 2018-19. The three stars -- Caroline and the Martins -- were seniors. The team added much-needed size in the offseason with Old Dominion transfer Trey Porter and beat Pac-12 programs for McDonald's All-American Jordan Brown.

For a stretch last spring, it looked like it might fall apart. Caleb and Cody Martin were seriously looking at the NBA draft, and they took it down to the final day before calling Musselman and announcing via speakerphone to a room full of Nevada supporters.

"I was really close. Me and Cody went up to the last hour," Caleb Martin said. "It was tough, man. It was hard to leave this. We were coming back to a top-10 team. ... Seeing all the people, everything's gonna be sold out, how much love and appreciation from Reno and the city. ... Try to do something special one more time. Leave my mark on this place. At the end of the day, I do want to leave my footprint here before I leave."

The Martins have left more than their footprints. Nevada is 19-1 so far this season, with the lone loss coming at New Mexico in early January. Every home game for the rest of the season already is sold out, and the Wolf Pack are up to No. 8 in the AP poll. They have legitimate Final Four hopes.

"Everybody's behind us," Cody Martin said. "It's allowed me to be in a position I never thought I'd be in, not only with my basketball skills but things out in the community. Everything that Coach said he was going to do, he's done since day one, and that's why everything I try to do is right by him because I know he does the same for me."

It's about an hour before Nevada is set to take the floor against Colorado State for the Pink Out Game -- and Musselman's 100th Wolf Pack win -- and there's no sign of angst among the Nevada coaching staff. There's no last-minute planning. A game between the Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs is on TV, so they discuss Gregg Popovich's resistance to Brett Brown's "GOAT" endorsement. That turns into a greatest-of-all-time debate.

A few old friends, from coaching and outside coaching, stop by to wish Musselman luck. His athletic director pops in. Musselman notices an inbounds play from the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game and tells one of his staff members to diagram it.

Musselman will give a pregame speech to his team using a bowl of popcorn, a paint can and nails as props ... and then bring the popcorn back into the coaches' room to eat it while watching a Missouri Valley Conference game between Missouri State and Loyola Chicago. Reminiscing and what-might-have-been notions ensue, since Nevada lost to Loyola Chicago in last year's Sweet 16.

Lest one thinks he is unfocused, Musselman is constantly asking for updates on a number of things: What are the sit-out transfers doing in pregame? How's the student section? Is everyone wearing pink? Do the guys have enough bounce in warm-ups?

It is Musselman's obsession with the details of the program that has endeared him to the fan base and has Nevada making program history every week.

"He came here to win," Cody Martin said. "He came here to give the fans what they want to see. He came here to have a winning program. He came here to compete, and that's what he does, day in and day out."

Caleb Martin agreed:

"Everybody knows Nevada now."