ATLANTA — The top coach bent over on the waist and rested his forearms on the press desk, seemingly urgent all of his weight into his elbows. His ears coated by headphones as he prepped for a postgame interview, he hung his head, peering up solely together with his eyes to reply questions. His physique language screamed of a person who had been wrung dry of emotion, as if the incredulity of what simply occurred was merely an excessive amount of to bear.
Behind him, college students danced in delirium at midcourt. Damon Stoudamire, the primary Georgia Tech coach to win his first sport towards Duke, is a mighty profession 1-0 within the ACC. That’s it. However so far as debuts go, that is about pretty much as good because it will get.
Taken by itself, Tech’s 72-68 win over No. 7 Duke doesn’t a renaissance make. Dig into the precise sport, although, and the substance reveals itself. The Yellow Jackets led for all however 1:38, coughing up the sting on the most precarious level — with two minutes remaining. But down 4, they rallied again, finally scoring the game-winner on a daring alley-oop, They secured it with not one however two successive defensive swarms. Again that stalwartness up to a win towards No. 21 Mississippi State 4 days prior, and the seeds of what Stoudamire is sowing start to present.
This season marks the twentieth anniversary of Georgia Tech’s look within the nationwide title sport. Thirty years in the past final season marked the top of a program-defining run of 9 consecutive NCAA Match berths that included 5 Candy 16s, two Elite Eights and one Ultimate 4.
However because the 2004 nationwide championship look, Tech has had two successful seasons within the ACC and earned 4 match bids. Every ended within the first weekend, the dearth of protracted success finally costing Paul Hewitt, Brian Gregory and Josh Pastner their jobs.
Stoudamire got here into the job properly conscious of the excavation that wanted to be achieved. He additionally arrived with completely different bona fides from everybody who sat within the Georgia Tech head basketball coach’s chair. He isn’t a training lifer who has spent his whole maturity climbing the ladder. He’s a former lottery decide and NBA Rookie of the Yr who, as a coach, has jumped forwards and backwards from the professional sport to school.
The shift isn’t unintentional. Within the final 20 years, Georgia Tech had been one thing worse than mediocre; it had turn out to be irrelevant. When new athletic director J Batt went looking for his subsequent coach, he wished somebody who may assist the Yellow Jackets get their groove again.
“Swagger, some coolness, juice, those are all good words,” says Daniel Parker, the vice chairman of Atlanta-based Parker Government Search, a agency specializing in school hires. “That’s what he is. He exudes swagger. He’s a guy that can say, ‘I was on the Celtics bench last year.’ He can walk into the Four Seasons, where Charles Barkley is holding court, and they’re friends. That’s what he brings. That’s what Georgia Tech needed.”
It’s just a bit previous 8 a.m. in early October and the Yellow Jackets are hugging — within the arms clamped/chest bump/slap on the again/bro hug type of means — however hugging nonetheless. That is how they begin every apply. What appears to be like like a handshake line is, the truth is, a hug line. “There’s not enough hugging in the world,” affiliate head coach Karl Hobbs says. “Besides, these days you gotta show these guys you care about them. We are in the business of building relationships.” Hobbs has been within the enterprise of basketball for greater than 30 years, reducing his tooth as an assistant within the Nineteen Nineties as Jim Calhoun’s high recruiter at UConn. Suffice it to say, Calhoun didn’t open apply with hugs.
However basketball evolution is fixed, and spinning on an particularly fast axis nowadays. The switch portal, mixed with title, picture and likeness alternatives, has shifted the facility dynamic. There’s at all times, if not a assured greener plot of grass, a minimum of the attract of 1. The place as soon as gamers fretted over their coach’s contentment, now the roles are reversed. Preserving gamers blissful isn’t a objective; it’s a necessity. Stoudamire, 50, makes use of his relative youth, relatability as a former participant, and NBA cache to hold in line with his roster, sharing his personal experiences and providing recommendation he realized the exhausting means.
Have been it solely really easy to require a bro hug and some heart-to-hearts. It isn’t. Displaying them you like them helps, but it surely higher be packaged with the “Jerry Maguire” present them, too. “They are behind (on NIL opportunities) and they know it,’’ Parker says of Tech.
Atlanta boasts 16 Fortune 500 companies and, thanks to a tax incentive, a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry. It’s a vibrant, albeit transient, city filled with young professionals, old money and new. People have plenty of disposable income; they also have plenty of options.
Back in the day, when head coach Bobby Cremins was regularly making the NCAA Tournament, many fans and players chose Georgia Tech. The native New Yorker started a pipeline of point guards from his stomping grounds (Mark Price beget Kenny Anderson, who beget Stephon Marbury), turning a moribund program (1-29 in two years before Cremins arrived) into the hot spot to be. Back when he was Prime Time, not Coach Prime, Deion Sanders was a regular. Spike Lee made a few cameos, too.
But things began to falter after Cremins toyed with an offer from South Carolina in 1993. The Yellow Jackets’ NCAA streak ended the following year, and in February 2000, Cremins announced his plan to retire. Hewitt, hired from Siena College, revived the program with another run to the Final Four in 2004, but in the one-and-done era, Hewitt couldn’t build any continuity, with players such as Chris Bosh and Derrick Favors bolting for the NBA after a season. Hewitt was fired in 2011.
Since, success has been sporadic at best, Pastner’s ACC tournament title in 2021 ranking as the best run in decades. As the wins dwindled, so did the cache. Last year, the 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion averaged just 4,713 fans.
But this weekend, more than 7,000 arrived on a Saturday afternoon when a little college football game of significance — the Southeastern Conference championship game — also was being played in Atlanta. While no doubt some of the Tech faithful arrived more as rubberneckers, anxious to get an up-close look at Duke, they left with the gift of unexpected victory, and perhaps the curiosity to come back again. That is exactly what Stoudamire needs.
Today, home crowds are more than just advantages; passionate fan bases often lead to successful collectives. Before coming to Georgia Tech in October 2022, Batt worked previously as Alabama’s executive deputy director of athletics, chief operating officer and chief revenue officer. Raising money for Crimson Tide athletics is the proverbial target practice in a barrel, but he’s made capital improvements a priority for Georgia Tech, too. The school’s competitive drive initiative, launched not long after Batt arrived on campus, raised $4.8 million in two months. He agrees that the school’s NIL potential was “limited to start,’’ but eyes the newly launched Tech Way collective as a way to keep Yellow Jackets competitive.
Plenty of Georgia Tech grads have deep pockets. What is a challenge for recruiting — namely attracting players to a selective, high academic STEM-rich school — adds up to financially successful graduates. According to the school’s most recent career survey, graduates earn an average salary of $85,000 upon receiving their degrees; those with their master’s top out at plus-$100,000.
Rarely has that money flowed into the athletic department coffers with the same competitive urgency of other ACC schools. Per the two schools’ athletic foundation reports, for example, Virginia received $18.3 million in contributions in 2019; Georgia Tech just $3.5 million.
In the NIL era, that won’t compute. Stoudamire is neither shy nor passive when recognizing the need for NIL deals to attract players. As a former player, he views it as long overdue; as a current coach, he sees it as necessary.
The greater Atlanta-area has always been rich with basketball talent — three top-10 players in the last two classes (Ace Bailey, Isaiah Collier and Stephon Castle). It’s even more prosperous now, with Overtime Elite parked less than a mile from the Tech campus. Overtime players Robert Dillingham (last year), Kanon Catchings and John Bol (this year) all rank as 247Sports consensus top 50 players. None of them, though, chose Georgia Tech. Bailey is headed to Rutgers, Katchings to Purdue and Bol to Ole Miss. Collier is at USC, Castle at UConn and Dillingham at Kentucky. Parse through the current Top 25 rosters and you’ll find even more players who opted not to stay home — Coen Carr (Michigan State), Damian Dunn (Houston), Matthew Cleveland (Miami) and Eli Lawrence (Texas A&M). Even Tech senior Kyle Sturdivant, a Norcross native, started at USC before coming home after the death of his father.
“What we have in this great city of Atlanta, it hasn’t been tapped into yet,’’ Stoudamire says. “I want our guys to have access to all of these things.”
Stoudamire pauses and smirks. “Of course, I do understand all of this is easier when you win.”
“Will somebody please yell, ‘I got f—-ing ball?’”
For 40 minutes, Stoudamire’s voice, which normally hovers someplace between a rasp and a croak, doesn’t rise above dialog degree. The morning hug routine spills over into apply, as Stoudamire preaches positivity. Excessive vitality, exhausting claps, boundless encouragement. Till, on a routine three-on-three drill, the Jackets transition on protection in close to silence. One group does it, and Stoudamire kindly suggests that somebody say they’ve bought the lead dribbler. The subsequent group repeats the error, and Stoudamire lastly yells in exasperation.
It’s a trivial error. It’s not like nobody picked up the man with the ball; they simply didn’t talk the choice to their teammates. “Oh, man, that is him. Attention to detail, that’s what he’s all about,” says junior guard Miles Kelly. “He’s purposefully nitpicking so we get everything down to a T, so in the game it becomes second nature.”
Such foundational constructing takes time, however when it clicks? Take into account the Jackets’ consideration to scouting report element. They, a staff that’s holding opponents to 28 p.c from 3-point vary this season, uncovered a Duke staff that has struggled recently from the arc (11 of 40 of their two prior video games). The Devils have been simply 4 of 16.
Stoudamire hasn’t but coined a buzzword for his staff, but when there’s a front-runner, it’s accountability. In an hour-long interview, he says it seven occasions. He admits it’s one thing of a throwback in a social media age the place info has each a brief shelf life and lives eternally. But as gamers embark on NIL offers and company partnerships, he argues it’s extra essential than ever.
However to Stoudamire, accountability means success on the courtroom, too. Proudly owning your errors. Attacking your weaknesses. Which additionally is difficult, thanks to a switch portal that makes it simpler to run from errors than personal them. If the gamers discover it silly, they aren’t letting on. They arrive early, pay attention intently and haven’t any drawback calling out, “My bad,” after they err. “We call it juice,” Sturdivant says. “You gotta bring your own juice, and share if your teammates are lacking.”
Stoudamire hardly ever wants a sip. The brand new morning apply schedule has been an adjustment for the gamers. Not for the top coach. As his gamers shuffle in towards the locker room, Stoudamire is exterior on his every day jog.
He’s right here as a result of he needs to be, not as a result of he has to be. Stoudamire earned $100 million in his NBA profession and had gig in Boston. Final season, when head coach Joe Mazzulla missed two video games due to a watch harm, Stoudamire took the reins. The transient run as boss reignited his need to be a head coach, however Stoudamire figured he’d bide his time for an NBA gig. He voluntarily left the faculty sport for the professionals, in any case. Stoudamire spent 5 years at Pacific, leaving after his good pal and then-Celtics head coach Ime Udoka referred to as about a gap. He was neither disgruntled nor disenfranchised with school basketball; he simply figured he’d maxed out that job.
Since 2000, solely three West Coast Convention coaches have left on their very own accord — Dan Monson, who went from Gonzaga to Minnesota; Kyle Smith, who jumped from San Francisco to Washington State, and his successor, Todd Golden, who left the Dons for Florida. Everybody else, blockaded by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, bought fired. Stoudamire took Pacific to 23-10 in 2020, and nonetheless completed third.
So when Batt referred to as, he was intrigued. Stoudamire’s personal school profession at Arizona coincided with Cremins’ run, and he noticed what Georgia Tech might be. In addition to, he’s accustomed to doing what folks thought can’t be achieved. At 5-10, he didn’t essentially cross the attention take a look at as both a would-be school celebrity or NBA participant. However his mom, Liz Washington, taught him to use the identical phrase that creeps into his vocabulary now — accountability.
Rising up in Portland, he idolized Terrell Brandon and Gary Payton, and knew that, at his dimension, he’d have to work twice as exhausting to get there. So slightly than benefiting from the liberty his mom’s work schedule afforded him, he toed the road. On the uncommon event he stepped exterior it, Washington was there to re-enforce. Stoudamire remembers his mom marching in to go to together with his highschool coach, threatening to yank him off the staff if he didn’t get his grades proper. “They weren’t right by her standards, not the school’s,” Stoudamire says.
In highschool, he dropped 58 in a sport and took his staff to an undefeated state championship, however dimension and geography — he was from Oregon, not New York Metropolis, in any case — prompted many to query how good he might be, and he arrived to Lute Olson’s Arizona staff with loads of skeptics within the desert.
He left Arizona as an All-American and finalist for nationwide participant of the 12 months. And nonetheless the questions lingered. On the night time of the NBA Draft, followers booed when the Toronto Raptors chosen Stoudamire over Ed O’Bannon with the seventh decide. O’Bannon lasted two years within the league; Stoudamire caught round for 13.
All of that teaches a person not to fear about what everybody else thinks; fear about what you consider. “Why take the job?” Stoudamire says, elevating his eyebrows. “Why not? Great institution, city of Atlanta, great place to live, the ACC. I built a program up from nothing. This isn’t that. This is not insurmountable.”
Whereas Stoudamire runs by way of his apply, on the sideline a person sits folded right into a chair that appears three sizes too small for him, quietly watching. When the Yellow Jackets are completed, all of them stroll over to say hey.
Dennis Scott is, in essence, the very factor Stoudamire wants. Not the 55-year-old model. It’s the 18-year-old Scott, the one who performed for the very best highschool staff within the nation and was named the very best participant within the nation, that Stoudamire seeks. “J had a very set profile in his mind,’’ Parker says. “Every kid wants to make it to the NBA. He knows the route.”
Batt’s hedge already seems to have paid off. Stoudamire made the one-mile trek to Extra time Elite and snagged four-star Jaeden Mustaf out from below Indiana, Georgetown and different suitors. Ranked forty eighth in 247Sports Composite, Mustaf is the best rated participant to select Georgia Tech since Iman Shumpert in 2008.
Hobbs understands simply how essential one dedication could be. He got here to Georgia Tech from Rutgers, a program that didn’t even have the foundational historical past of Tech. But like Atlanta, New Jersey had loads of recruits — simply none who wished to head to Piscataway. Then in 2018, Ron Harper Jr. out of Don Bosco Prep dedicated to the Scarlet Knights. Two years later, Paterson Catholic’s Cliff Omoruyi determined to keep dwelling. Swiftly, Rutgers went from nowhere to NCAA Match common. “Anytime a recruit can identify your school, it gives you a chance to get in the door,” Hobbs says. “And all you want to do is get in that door.”
It helps that Stoudamire comes to the ACC at a time when there’s a bit of extra space to squeeze by. Not to low cost the win towards Duke, however beating Jon Scheyer reads otherwise than upending Mike Krzyzewski. Pastner laughs when he thinks again to his first three ACC video games as head coach at Georgia Tech. “Home against North Carolina and Roy Williams. At Duke with Mike Krzyzewski. Home against Louisville and Rick Pitino,” he says. “That was my introduction to the ACC. What is that, like 2,000 wins and how many national championships?” Nearer to 2,400 and 9 titles.
Even when Pastner bought within the door, odds are a type of Corridor of Famers — or Jim Boeheim — got here in proper earlier than or after him. Now Stoudamire is one in every of seven coaches who’ve been within the convention three years or much less, becoming a member of Boston Faculty’s Earl Grant and North Carolina’s Hubert Davis (getting into their third years), Scheyer and Louisville’s Kenny Payne (in Yr 2), and Notre Dame’s Micah Shrewsberry and Syracuse’s Adrian Autry, who, like Stoudamire, are making their debuts.
However solely a type of three newbies gained his first ACC sport this 12 months. But Stoudamire didn’t enable himself to linger within the second too lengthy. As soon as he gathered himself to speak to the TV crew following the win towards Duke, he was requested concerning the magnitude of what his staff had achieved.
“I’m attempting to create a basis right here,’’ he stated. “A tradition. I would like them to really feel, as we transfer ahead, like we’ve been right here earlier than, and we’ve achieved this. That’s what I’m attempting to create.’’
One win doesn’t a turnaround make; but it surely’s positive a pleasant place to begin.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; pictures: John W. McDonough, Wealthy von Bilberstein, Bob Rosato / Getty Pictures)