In Muss We Trust, says Joe Santoro (column)

In Muss We Trust is not merely a catchy phrase to slap on the front of a tee shirt. The Nevada Wolf Pack basketball players swear by it.

“He’s been where we all want to go,” senior guard D.J. Fenner said of Pack coach Eric Musselman. “He’s been to the next level. Of course you are going to listen to him. But it’s more than that.”

Eric Musselman has proven to be much more than a fancy resume.

“The man eats, sleeps and breathes basketball,” senior guard Marcus Marshall said. “You have to love that from your coach.”

“You can see his passion all the time,” sophomore guard Lindsey Drew said.

Musselman Mania has completely transformed Nevada Wolf Pack basketball. The program, which won just nine games two years ago, now has legitimate Mountain West championship and NCAA Tournament dreams.

And the affection between the 51-year-old coach and his players is mutual.

“I love these guys,” said Musselman, whose Wolf Pack will open the season with an exhibition game Friday night at Lawlor Events Center against San Francisco State. “I want to be around them.”

Like everything else he has said since taking over the Wolf Pack on March 26, 2015, Musselman has stayed true to his word. The 5-foot-7 Pack Pied Piper always seems to be around his players. The Musselman home is like a second dorm room to the Pack players as they have gathered for numerous bonding sessions, holiday get-togethers or simply to watch the NBA Finals together. There’s the workout sessions where the 150-pound Musselman gets right in there with his players to the team conditioning runs up at Lake Tahoe where they end up playing catch with a football on the beach.

“It’s important to sweat with the guys,” Musselman said.

And eat, play, and laugh with them.

“We do try to make it fun for the players,” Musselman said. “Those are the things the public doesn’t see.”

It’s fun with a purpose.

“We came up with this character that we call Quincy B. Soft,” Musselman smiled. “Quincy B. Soft is the guy that is always sitting on your shoulder when practice becomes too long and hard. He’s talking in your ear telling you that it’s OK to take it easy or to take a play off and not give your best effort. We had our guys act out a little play where Quincy B. Soft is telling them it’s OK to not play hard and they are slapping him off their shoulder, saying. “Get away from me Quincy.”

Musselman came to the Wolf Pack with the reputation of being a demanding, no-nonsense, screaming and yelling, run-until-you-drop coach. He was, after all, the son of legendary coach Bill Musselman, whose intensity and passion for the game made Bobby Knight look like a pre-school teacher. But the part of Bill Musselman that always got overlooked and overshadowed by all of his intensity and passion was that he always had a love affair with the game and with his players. He taught that to his son.

“It’s not all basketball lessons,” Musselman said. “It’s life lessons as well.”

And it’s not all hard work and yelling and screaming. Yes, there is time for hard work and a little yelling and screaming when necessary. But there is also time for fun and little cartoon characters named Quincy B. Soft when you need to get a point across. Eric Musselman, Mr. Intensity and Passion, is not afraid to allow his players to have fun.

There’s the Harlem Globetrotters pre-game ritual before every Wolf Pack home game, when players put on a slam dunk party, ride a unicycle while juggling a basketball and put on a dribbling and passing exhibition reminiscent of Curly Neal, Meadowlark Lemon, Goose Tatum and Marcus Haynes to the tune of Sweet Georgia Brown. Would a no-nonsense, do-it-my-way-or-hit-the-highway coach allow that from his players just minutes before tip-off?

Well, a Musselman does. Musselman and the Wolf Pack also staged their first Arch Madness last month on an outdoor court in downtown Reno. It was complete with cheerleaders, a dunk contest and a 3-point shooting contest. It was basically a Pack party staged so that the players could put on a show for the community. It just might have been the best show in downtown Reno since Frank, Dean and Sammy were performing at the Sky Room at the Mapes.

Make no mistake, once the game starts, it’s all about playing for the team and not the individual. But Musselman’s demands usually only require four things: all-out hustle at all times, take good, smart shots and don’t turn the ball over on offense and on defense play as if your shorts are on fire. If you do all that, you can dunk the ball once in a while and show off for the crowd.

“He demands a lot out of us, but if you work hard you won’t have any problem with him,” Marshall said.

The thing you notice first about Musselman is his confidence. That Musselman confidence is evident from everyone in his family, from wife Danyelle and teen-aged sons Michael and Matthew to 6-year-old daughter Mariah, who takes over Lawlor Events Center on game nights with her light-up-a-room personality and stunning dance routines with the Pack cheerleaders. We saw Musselman’s emphasis on confidence at work last year on the court. When the Pack was clanging about 70 percent of its 3-point shots off the rim a year ago, Musselman never told them to stop shooting. He’d laugh and joke about how awful they were from beyond the arc but he never told them to stop shooting.

“It’s all about confidence,” Musselman said.

That confidence finally paid off as the Pack turned into the Golden State Warriors in the College Basketball Invitational and started to make a ton of threes. They were 39-of-91 (43 percent) from beyond the arc in six CBI games after shooting just 29 percent during the regular season. “We would see some games when we were 1-of-14 on threes and people would tell us, ‘Man, you guys are terrible,’” Fenner said. “But we never looked at that way. We just looked at it like we were just missing the shots. We were taking good shots and we knew if we kept working at it, they would eventually fall.”

“We just told them, ‘If you are open, take the shot,’” Musselman said. “We don’t want guys looking over the shoulder when they miss a shot. You have to give guys freedom to shoot.”

“We never really focused on that,” said Drew of the tough 3-point shooting nights. “We just focused on playing defense and winning games in other ways.”

That’s also why the Pack players trust in Muss. He always gives them a way to win the game.

“It’s his attention to details,” Marshall said. “He prepares us so well. It’s amazing what he comes up with. We would watch film on a team and he’d tell us how to attack them. Then, when we’d get in a game, you’d see everything he told you right there taking place in front of you on the court.”

When Musselman took over the Wolf Pack in late March 2015, he took over a program that was broken. It was broken on the court as the Trent Johnson-Mark Fox-David Carter era finally came crashing down after nearly two decades with a nine-win season. It was also broken off the court as head coach David Carter ran out of answers and ways to motivate his team.

“We were just kind of fed up at the end,” said Fenner of Carter’s final season as head coach in 2014-15. “We just wanted the season to hurry up and end.”

The Wolf Pack now can’t wait for seasons to start.

But it wasn’t all happy Twitter photos, slam dunk parties and team dinners at the Muss House at the start. Musselman broke them down physically with a gruelling training camp to see if they could stand up mentally. The Pack’s best returning player, center A.J. West, quit the team a month into the season.

“There were definitely times when not everyone was buying in to what he was saying,” Fenner said. “But we quickly found out that when we weren’t buying in, it wasn’t working. It took time but once we saw more and more guys buying in, we all bought in. And we saw that it was working.”

By the end of the year it was working to perfection as the Pack cut down the nets after winning the CBI at Lawlor. And there was Musselman in the middle of all of his jubilant players, pictured with his tee shirt pulled up around his chest and showing off his abs like he was a college student once again at the University of San Diego strutting around on the beaches.

“He has our respect,” Fenner said.

Maybe it was his NBA background. Maybe it was his beauty pageant wife Danyelle. Maybe it was his overwhelming personality. Maybe it was his incredible knowledge about the game of basketball. Maybe it was his abs. Whatever it was, the Pack players are all buying in now.

And so is athletic director Doug Knuth.

“I start my day thinking how grateful I am for @EricPMusselman and @NevadaBasketball,” Knuth wrote on Twitter last spring.

This has been a match made in basketball heaven for the Wolf Pack and Musselman.

The benefit to the Wolf Pack has been obvious. Lawlor Events Center is about to become as giddy as it was from 2004-07 when the Pack went to four straight NCAA tournaments. “Look at the record,” said Fenner, when asked to compare Carter and Musselman. “The wins and losses. We went from nine wins to 24 in just one year. I can stand here and list all of the things that Coach Carter did that Coach Muss doesn’t do and I can stand here and list all of the things that Coach Muss does that Coach Carter didn’t do. Everybody has their own coaching style. But none of that matters now. We’re not going back in history. We’re moving forward.”

Northern Nevada has also been perfect for Musselman. After three years as a NBA head coach with Sacramento and Golden State a decade ago, Musselman had been bouncing around one minor league basketball league after another. He made the decision to finally go into college coaching four years ago (two years at Arizona State and one at LSU as an assistant) and it paid off in the Wolf Pack job. And it looks like - keep your fingers crossed, Pack fans - that he wants to stay for a while, too. Musselman is the Wolf Pack’s Little Big Man on Campus. He’s been seen everywhere, from football, volleyball, baseball and soccer games to welcoming freshmen and their parents to campus in August. He’s done more interviews on national television during football games than football coach Brian Polian. There’s pictures on Twitter of Musselman doing everything from wearing a Pack football helmet to posing with all his NBA friends that come to Pack practices as well as Governor Brian Sandoval.

“This was the right time for me to do this,” Musselman said. “It was the right time in my life.”

It was also the perfect time for Wolf Pack basketball.


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