The date was January 10th, 2004. Louisville entered the Sun Dome ranked #10, and on an 10-game winning streak with guys like Francisco Garcia, Larry O'Bannon, and Luke Whitehead one year ahead of their eventual Final Four appearance. But on this day the green and gold had a great equalizer in their back pocket; I was the Honorary Coach on the bench for the Bulls.
Every year at the annual Bulls Club auction, USF Athletics offers the opportunity for bidders to be a part of everything the team does while preparing for a home game, and then actually sit on the bench for the game itself. You attend the final film session and walkthrough with the team, eat the pre-game meal (usually Carrabba's), and then sit on the bench itself during the game. Your first thought is "God, please don't let me get in the way." And your second thought is "well, I thought I knew a lot about basketball."
I know how to blue or fade a pick and roll. I can diagram "America's Play," the Carolina break, Carril's 4-out Princeton, and the flex options out of Bo Ryan's blocker-mover because I am an inveterate hoops junkie that actually reads this stuff for fun. Reading X and O basketball is my secret love like reruns of My So Called Life and The Greatest Hits of Pat Benatar (don't judge me). But I am in over my head when I go to one of these film sessions since it's like trying to pick up a language on the spot. I could glean certain things, but even after a play call in the huddle sometimes I'd be lost as to what was going to be run until I saw it.
I have yet to be on the bench with Coach Heath (though at the Georgetown game in D.C. last year I sat right behind the bench and was close enough where I might as well have been... that was me going crazy on the SportsCenter highlight), but did it once with Seth Greenberg, and twice under Coach Robert McCullum. Because of space issues, Greenie had the honorary coaches sit at the first seat at the press table right next to the bench. He kept drinking my Diet Coke, and damn near hit me in the head while fist pumping to celebrate his 200th career win. I had a blast, did everything I could to alert the bench that Reggie Kohn was just one assist short of a triple-double without being a distraction, and couldn't wait to do it again.
My second go-around was the following year, which was Coach Mac's first season. He had much roster attrition to deal with, as well as a short bench on this day. My favorite Bull of all time, Marlyn Bryant, had just blown out his ACL in practice that week, leaving a under-talented team even shorter heading into the Conference USA opener and what would be their toughest challenge of the season.
I was walking to the locker room when UL was finishing their shoot around before the doors opened for a 1 p.m. tip. I was about 5 feet away when Taquan Dean did a 360 dunk with his right hand while spinning clockwise. Yup, he did it "fakie," and did it hard enough that a rim attached to a wooden backboard would have come down in his hand. If he was wearing a USF uniform, it might have been the most athletic thing ever done by anyone ever wearing a USF uniform. But he was just screwing around at the end of practice. And Taquan wasn't even the best player on the floor.
Before the game Coach Mac was kind enough to introduce me to the team before his final instructions, a few of whom I already knew as fellow students and through working in development for Athletics. They were nice enough to applaud for me when he was done. It would be the last reason to applaud anything that day.
I remember a few bits from Coach Mac's pre-game talk. "Play at your pace." "Attack rebounds." "Find the point guard." It's a lot easier said than done when your best players are Jimmy Baxter and Terrence Leather (who was 1-9 on the day with seven turnovers). Louisville gave a virtuoso performance of the Pitino system; pressing 94 feet relentlessly, forcing turnovers, nailing open threes, and coming at their victim in waves. We went into halftime down 40-15, with most of the 7000 in the arena cheering for the Cards. And honestly, it could have been worse.
Coach Mac had so much to say at halftime he was almost overwhelmed. He talked about BLOB's (Base Line Out of Bounds plays) where players failed to be anywhere near the right position. He talked about horizontal passes against the press that were sent exactly where players were coached not to throw the ball. But he also knew this wasn't a matter of X's and O's. His team just wasn't fighting with the energy that was needed. There was a leadership vacuum at this point, and no one was stepping up to the challenge.
Our effort that day just wasn't where it needed to be. Basic instructions weren't being followed. Defenders continually failed to close out on shooters, who are getting wide open looks from 3 at the free throw line extended. When Dean knocked in yet another one (he was 4-5 from 3 that day), Coach Mac called another timeout to repeat the same things he had said before. But his bench was so shallow, he had nowhere else to turn.
The only Bull that gave a great effort was freshman point guard Bradley Mosley. B-Mo played 37 minutes, and had three assists against only one turnover against all that pressure. I got to talk to Bradley while he was going through chemotherapy a couple years later, and I asked him what he said to his teammates after his diagnosis. He told me all he said to them was "play hard for me." This game was one of the first things I thought of when he said that. If everyone else had B-Mo's heart and coolness under pressure, this particular game never would have gotten out of hand the way it did.
While watching a sea of red uniforms filled with long arms and legs continue to blitz us in the second half, I spent a lot of time sitting next to an injured Brian Graham talking X's and O's. We both sat there helpless to do anything, but at least he could say something encouraging or useful. I was of course as useless as the chair upon which I sat. Mercifully, it was over at 85-40. But my fun was just getting started.
After the game, I lined up with our coaches and players to shake hands with Louisville, hoping someone would get a pic of me shaking hands with Rick Pitino. After making my way down the line, I lingered at mid-court to give everyone a chance to get to the locker room ahead of me, and to talk to some friends at the press table. And that's when Cardinals assistant coach, and Mr. Hang Time himself, Reggie Theus came up beside me.
Seeing me dressed in a suit and tie, Reggie obviously thought I was an actual coach or member of the staff. He was very kind and conciliatory, saying something akin to "hey man, keep your head up... it's going to get better for you guys."
And I thought nothing good could come from this game. Coach Fuller thinks I'm a real coach? At least let me get a story out of this. Let's go.
"God we sucked, Reggie!!" "That effort was crap. We don't have anyone that can score on the wing!! Our posts are garbage. How many times can we yell at them to close out on shooters!! Jesus. You guys just beat the hell out of us. That's one helluva team you've got there."
We end this exchange with a handshake. I thought acting like a real coach in front of a guy that was a real coach and also used to play a coach on a sitcom was going to be the highlight of my day. Au contraire, mon ami.
I head to the locker room for the post game talk. After about a minute of dead silence, McCullum puts into words what everyone in the room was thinking. "What happened?"
Jimmy Baxter was the only senior dressed to play that day. He was also the reigning Conference USA high jump champion, and with a personal record of 7 feet 5 inches, was a legitimate contender to make the U.S. Olympic team that summer. After a few beats, Jimmy felt the need to break up the quiet in the room. "We played bad, man."
Robert McCullum is one of my favorite USF coaches ever in any sport. He exudes dignity and class at all times, and is a true gentlemen. You will never meet a kinder, more humble person on or away from a basketball court. He is often soft-spoken, and sarcastic is something you'd never use to describe him. Which is why his over-the-top response of "ya think??" still rates as one of the great comedy moments of my lifetime. I literally had to bite my cheeks to keep from smiling or laughing.
Jimmy Baxter quit basketball and became a full-time high jumper two days later.
Out of these ashes eventually came a pretty good team. Leather, Mosley, Bryant, and Brian Swift all were starters the following year at the '05 C-USA Tournament in Memphis. They were the core of the team that upset Cincinnati to get to the semifinals, a game which I was at that rates as one of my favorite nights to be a USF fan ever. To see that team grow from the nadir of a 45 point blowout against the Cardinals all the way to playing a near-perfect game against the Bearcats 14 months later is why I love college sports. A team really came together, and they represented themselves and their university very well. It's a shame the refs never gave them a chance the following night against the home team.
But to relish in the good, sometimes you have to have a bit of gallows humor while laughing at the bad. And on that day seven years ago against the Louisville Cardinals, I was privileged to have a front row seat.