Day with Driscoll

Photo Credit: Sean Patterson Head coach Matthew Driscoll surveys his team at practice.

Photo Credit: Sean Patterson
Head coach Matthew Driscoll surveys his team at practice.

He throws open the glass door of the Dollar General and heads to the driver’s side of his silver Toyota Camry. He walks with short, quick steps.

He hops in the car and places a grocery bag full of vitamin C lozenge packs in the center console.

“Only nine today,” he says.

“Did you clean them out?” I ask.

“Oh yeah, every time. Whatever they got on the shelf.”

UNF men’s basketball head coach Matthew Driscoll backs out of his parking spot and heads west on Beach Boulevard.

Paxton, one of his two sons, sits in the backseat drinking 2 percent milk.

Paxton is deciding which high school he wants to attend next year. Driscoll is taking a break from basketball so they can tour a local science academy together.

I tag along.

*****

This is Feb. 19 — a Tuesday — and a home game against East Tennessee State University is two days away.

It’s the tail end of Driscoll’s fourth regular season as the head coach of UNF men’s basketball. This is his first season he is coaching a team full of players he recruited — a key moment for any transitioning coach.

Athletic directors and sports writers judge a coach most closely at this point in their tenures. For Driscoll and the men’s basketball team, it has not been a good season.

Two seasons ago, Driscoll led the team to the finals of the A-Sun tournament. Last season, UNF finished with a 10-8 conference record.

But on this Tuesday, the team sits at 5-9 in conference play, is tied for seventh place, and has lost its last two games.

Coach Driscoll has plenty to think about on his morning run through the campus.

*****
8:30 am

With a high-profile, high-paying position like head coach, there is an expectation of visibility. Driscoll doesn’t shy away from the spotlight.

Driscoll is one of the most visible and well known figures on campus. You may see him pacing along the sidelines of UNF Arena during game nights or running, most mornings, through Osprey Fountains and down UNF Drive.

After leaving the Arena at 11:30 p.m. the previous night, Driscoll begins his morning run at 8:30 a.m.

Dressed in a Steelers beanie, windbreaker pants and Nike pullover jacket, he starts his jog at a slow pace — mostly, I suspect, for my benefit.

Photo Credit: Travis Gibson Driscoll runs in style, supporting his favorite football team: The Pittsburgh Steelers.

Photo Credit: Travis Gibson
Driscoll runs in style, supporting his favorite football team: The Pittsburgh Steelers.

As we jog past students walking to class, Driscoll never misses a “Good morning.”

“Half the kids wear ear buds. I try to say something to everyone when I run, but most can’t hear me,” he says.

Running is a kind of escape from the office and basketball, but he still uses this time to work. On this Tuesday’s run, Driscoll is thinking about how to deal with ETSU’s zone defense.

“I’m thinking about practice today — how much we want to hit, how much we have to work on their zone,” he says as we cross Kernan Boulevard. “We had 13 assists and 15 buckets in the first half, up there, when we took that lead.”

UNF held a 17-point lead the last time the two teams played, only to watch it slip away — resulting in an 89-75 loss in that Jan. 26 game.

The five-mile run ends where it began, in the parking lot behind UNF Arena. After a brief cooldown, Driscoll heads home for a shower and a smoothie.

*****
10:30 am

When Driscoll speaks, he speaks in run-on sentences — No periods, just commas.

Upon returning to the UNF Arena to pick me up, we make our way to Dunkin’ Donuts, an establishment the head coach knows well.

In the cupholder sit three empty, red Solo cups stacked together. Every day, Driscoll powers through 54 ounces of smoothie before making his way to DD.

When we pull up to the drive-thru, he tells the speaker box, “I’ll take my usual.”

No introductions are needed. Like an old friend, the Dunkin’ employee inside knows it’s Driscoll placing the order by his voice alone.

The usual for coach is one extra-large coffee — six Splendas, four creams.

“I went to five creams for a little bit, for some reason, but I’m cutting back,” Driscoll says.

“Hey, what’s up brother?” he says as he hands his frequent-coffee-drinker punch card to the cashier.

Frequent feels like an understatement. Driscoll says he visits Dunkin’ Donuts about two to three times per day and likes to stay loyal.

“I’m a truck stop coffee drinker,” Driscoll, a Pittsburgh native, said later. “That’s why I don’t like the other place, it’s a little too much for me.”

With Driscoll’s first fix of the day in hand, we head back to UNF Arena.

*****
10:40 am

Driscoll walks down the back hallway of the Arena and into the basketball offices as he talks on the phone. The small, dark lobby is quiet. A vintage arcade game sits next to an entertainment center housing a flat screen TV and Xbox to occupy the players during downtime.

The lobby leads directly to five cinderblock offices connected by a short hallway. Each office is occupied by Driscoll’s staff: Ian Gibson, Bobby Kennan, Lee Moon Jr. and Byron Taylor. They are quietly watching game film.

Driscoll’s windowless office is covered in a collage of photos and memorabilia from the past and present. A laptop and a bible sit on a small round table in the corner.

Photo Credit: Travis Gibson

Photo from video credit: Travis Gibson

He leans back into his leather swivel chair and laughs into his Blackberry.

This call — the first of many calls and texts — is from Russ Triaga, Parker Smith’s former high school basketball coach at Chestatee High School.

Triaga, who has coached against recent UNF commit Sean Brennan, offered up his scouting report.

As soon as he hangs up the phone, Driscoll gets a call from his former boss and mentor, Wyoming head basketball coach Larry Shyatt.

The talk centers around the problems on each others’ teams. Shyatt has a player who sprained his ankle, and even though he is likely healed, he refuses to play because he wants to prevent further injury.

Driscoll has other issues.

“It’s not like we haven’t been in games, we just haven’t been able to finish,” Driscoll says to Shyatt. “The one thing about the kid we lost [Jerron Granberry] is he was one of those guys. He was a toughness guy, and he has made some big shots for us over the years down the stretch.”

Driscoll tells Shyatt he loves him and wishes him good luck.

“It’s amazing how many people will reach out to you when it’s appropriate,” Driscoll says to me as he hangs up. “He knows I’m in a tough time mentally.”

The stresses of being a college basketball head coach can mount quickly. According to an article published in the New York Times in 2009, the average tenure for a college coach is just under five years.

“If you don’t win, you get fired. You’ve got 18-22 year old kids controlling your life,” Driscoll said later.

Most of the mental wrestling, Driscoll says, comes from figuring out how to mold, discipline and teach the young minds on the team.

Three days before Feb. 19 and one day after the loss to Jacksonville University, Driscoll was driving from Orlando to Jacksonville after watching the game of a possible recruit.

He was still reeling from the previous night’s loss when he ran into JU assistant coach Trevor Quinn. “I’m cordial — I say, ‘hello, good game last night’ — but it just makes it worse.”

Driscoll talks to me about what was going through his mind on the drive home. His thoughts come rapidly.

“How am I going to fix it? OK. What am I going to do here? What am I going to do in the locker room? What am I going to say? What am I going to text the guys? How about when I see the guys — what if I wait ‘til Monday morning? What’s their vibe, what’s their feel, how are they doing? — and all that stuff.”

“That’s a lot of factors,” I say.

“Ooah!,” he says. “Unbelievable.”

But he doesn’t make it any easier on himself.

On the wall of his office is a dry-erase board. Color-coded “L’s” and “W’s,” along with key points in every game when UNF either took control or let the lead slip away, fills the white space.

He licks his thumb and evens out the top of the “L’s” so they are uniform.

“I should probably erase that because it’s probably not healthy. But it’s also a reality,” he says.

Driscoll says he has considered talking to the team’s psychologist, but mostly he relies on the bible, inspirational articles and friends to get him through tough times.

*****

Photo from Video Credit: Travis Gibson

Photo from Video credit: Travis Gibson

11:30 am

The assistant coaches assemble in Driscoll’s office for their afternoon meeting.

The meeting is split between two topics. First, associate head coach Keenen, who is in charge of recruiting, goes through the pros and cons of players on UNF’s radar.

As Keenen speaks, Driscoll jumps in with serious questions and not-so-serious quips as he uses the foil lid of his applesauce pack as a spoon. He chases the applesauce with a cheese stick.

When talking about recruits, Driscoll — who never curses and has never received a technical foul — focuses more on character than skills.

Later, Keenen tries to put Driscoll in a nutshell: “The way I describe coach is that he makes coffee nervous. That’s the best description.”

Driscoll is a master multi-tasker. Rarely will you see the UNF coach doing just one thing at a time.

When Keenen is done, Driscoll takes over. He diagrams the X’s and O’s of the game plan for ETSU along with specifics about how they will address each issue in practice.

“This play will only work if this dude can hit a three,” Driscoll says. He pauses and looks at his watch.

“Let’s wrap this up, I have to go pick up my son from school.”

*****
Anecdote:

Later I asked coach Kennen to share a story that best describes coach Driscoll, and he told me about a recruiting visit to Orlando right after they started the job at UNF.

Driscoll, Kennan and another assistant coach were leaving Orlando and heading south on Interstate 95 when they saw someone with a flat tire. Driscoll pulled the car over and helped.

Kennan can’t help but laugh as he recounts the story.

“He’s got one shirt, he’s already worn it like three days, we got two days left and he’s on the side of the road changing a tire. Coach is just one of those guys who just gives and gives and gives, and it doesn’t stop.”

Photo from video credit: Travis Gibson Associate head coach Bobby Keenen

Photo from video credit: Travis Gibson
Associate head coach Bobby Keenen

*****
1 pm

We make our way to a local middle school to pick up Paxton.

“Smells like somebody got sick in here,” Driscoll says loudly was we walk into the school lobby.

Driscoll curls his tongue and lets out an ear-piercing whistle to grab Paxton’s attention. Thirty kids turn their heads. It’s the same whistle Driscoll uses to grab the attention of a referee or a player during a game.

Paxton is a short, smart kid. He says, “Yes sir,” when addressing both his dad and me. He is clearly more of a thinker than an athlete and has hopes of being a mechanical engineer.

“You know, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on the way,” Driscoll says to Paxton.

But first, we stop at the Dollar General to pick up the coach’s vitamin C.

“I am a Vitamin C drop freak. I go through a bag a day, minimum.” Driscoll says. “CVS has a 200 pack for $4.50 … I jump on that when I get a chance.”

He says it helps him stay healthy and soothes his hoarse throat after long days yelling during practice.

After the lozenge run, it’s time for another extra large coffee.

Hanging from the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru menu is a sign advertising a new breakfast sandwich, but the gusting wind has turned the sign, making it difficult to read.

Before placing his order, Driscoll puts the car in park and steps out of the vehicle. With the care of a store manager, he turns the sign so it can be more easily viewed by customers.

Photo from video credit: Travis Gibson Driscoll is no stranger to Dunkin' Donuts, and is even recognizable from his voice at the drive-thru.

Photo from video credit: Travis Gibson
Driscoll is no stranger to Dunkin’ Donuts, and is even recognizable from his voice at the drive-thru.

*****
2:40 pm

After touring the school, Driscoll and Paxton jump back into the Camry.

“What did you think?” Driscoll asks.

“I liked it,” Paxton says. “But I know what you are going to say.”

“[The woman giving the tour] was late, and she never introduced herself,” Driscoll says.

*****
4:00 pm

Back at the office, Driscoll watches ETSU’s last game on his laptop. Jarvis Jones is the focus.

“This joker can shoot,” Driscoll says.

Pause. Play. Pause. Reverse.

As he tinkers with the playback, he watches each play by Jones with a keen eye, taking mental notes along the way.

The phone rings. It’s his wife, Carrie.

Earlier that day, Driscoll told me, “You’ve got to marry right and find someone that understands you. It sounds simple, but it’s true.”

“When I got the phone call to leave Pittsburgh for my first time … Chase was just born, and told her we were moving to Laramie, Wyoming,” Driscoll recounted later.

Carrie always reassured him they were doing the right thing.

After transitioning to Clemson, Driscoll and Shyatt were fired. He then took a job at Valparaiso University in Indiana. His family couldn’t come with him, so Driscoll was sleeping under his desk for seven weeks.

Beginning in 1998, the family lived in Wyoming, South Carolina, Indiana and Texas. Then Driscoll landed his first Division I coaching job at UNF in 2009.

Later, Carrie told me, “When we moved to Florida, I told the kids, ‘We never thought we’d live this close to Disney World!’”

Carrie says she tries to highlight the benefits of each place they move to make it easier for the kids.

Carrie says people ask “Where did you like living most?” more than anything.

Her answer is always the same.

“I live in the moment,” Carrie said. “I love where we are at that moment. If you always wish for something else, then you will always live a life of regret.”

She has made herself right at home in Jacksonville. Carrie is the cheerleading coach at UNF, a substitute teacher in Duval county, does side work for a marketing firm and volunteers.

If anyone can keep up with coach Driscoll, it’s Carrie.

“She has always been down with the cause,” Driscoll says.

*****
4:30 p.m.

Practice begins. Driscoll leads the team through a series of drills — two on two, rebounding and full-court scrimmages.

The team runs some new offensive sets that will be utilized against the ETSU zone, and keys in on a strategy of waiting until less than 15 seconds on the shot clock.

Photo Credit: Sean Patterson Driscoll directs senior Andy Diaz at practice.

Photo Credit: Sean Patterson
Driscoll directs senior Andy Diaz at practice.

*****
7 p.m.

Driscoll makes his way to a local restaurant to appear on his weekly radio show.

During the show, his oldest son Chase, 17, will be suiting up for Bishop Kenny high school’s basketball team. Tonight, he’ll play Nease High School in the playoff. Driscoll has only been to two of Chase’s games all season.

“It’s just the way this life is,” Driscoll says solemnly.

A week later, Carrie tells me that the stress of this season in particular has affected the Driscoll boys a lot.

She understands that for four months in the year her husband won’t be at home as much — no family dinners and less quality time. She said the key is making their home a safe haven, where the subject of Driscoll’s work is off limits.

“Sometimes he comes home full of fire, rushing in the door talking about basketball. It’s not uncommon for me to say, ‘Ok, go back out and try coming back in again.’ He doesn’t physically do it, but he gets the picture,” Carrie said.

Balance has always been a struggle for Driscoll. In a 2009 article written by Andy Katz for ESPN, both Shyatt and Baylor head coach Scott Drew — Driscoll’s last boss — cautioned Driscoll against working too much at the expense of family.

“When I lost the job at Clemson, I think I gained proper perspective,” Driscoll said. “I don’t think I work less, but I work smarter.”

“I wish I was better in a lot of ways,” he told me later.

*****

Thursday

Game night, Feb 21. The culmination of the long hours watching film, the sacrifices made, the mental and physical energy expended, comes down to tonight’s game.

A third loss in a row would drop UNF to the bottom of the A-Sun standings and deflate a team just two weeks away from the A-Sun Conference tournament.

UNF jumps out to a 12 point halftime lead, the exact same score they led by when they lost to ETSU earlier in the year, but this time, they finish the job.

UNF cracked the ETSU zone defense and beat the Bucs 77-64.

In the post game press conference, Driscoll who has been known to quote the Bible in his opening statement, spoke to the media about toughness.

“Toughness isn’t, I’m gonna’ beat you up or I’m gonna’ fight you, or I’m going to run my head through a wall, that’s not intelligent,” Driscoll said.

“Toughness is the ability to withstand, to have great resolve, to understand that there are going to be times in the game when things don’t go the way you want them to go and you’ve got to be able to overcome that.”

Driscoll looks happy and relieved.

A reporter starts to ask what the team will do now that it has locked up a tournament spot, but before he can finish his question, Driscoll lets out a loud, “Whoooo!” Later he cracked up the room by showing off his Spanish, French and German accents.

Driscoll and the team don’t have much time to feel good about the win. UNF plays USC Upstate on Saturday.

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