In the car the recruit keeps his headphones on. They are a pair of large white Beats by Dre and they are made starker by his dark dreadlocks. I ask him what other schools he is considering, but his music is so loud he can't hear me. The driver, University of Louisiana at Lafayette assistant coach Gus Hauser, taps him on the arm.
"He wants to know where you're looking?" he says.
The recruit pulls the left earphone back and tinny, bass-heavy music fills the car. He lists a handful of schools other than Louisiana-Lafayette (ULL) and then returns the earphone. Because he does this, I ask him another question, and he repeats the move once more.
Gus Hauser (Courtesy of Louisiana-Lafayette)
I'm a university professor and I'm used to dealing with college students, but I've not dealt with Division 1 athletes since grad school. I'm bugged that Headphones doesn't seem to get it. He's in the car with an assistant coach from a school that has flown him in for an official visit. He isn't taking the time to ask any questions about the program. He isn't making any effort to impress the coach. Earlier, while the team practiced, he sat on the sidelines with the Beats cradled around his neck. I don't know anything about him other than what I can see, and from my vantage point he's blowing a huge opportunity to score points with the staff.
At first, I wonder if this is because he feels entitled, as if all the power is in his hands. Then I think he is like far too many players in the 351 D1 men's basketball programs: a young man from a tough situation with few authority figures. No one has told him recruiting visits are like job interviews. Or maybe he's just nervous and shy riding in the car with two guys in the early years of middle age and with whom he doesn't have much in common and his music is more comforting and easy. But whatever is going on with him, whether intentional or not, he seems rude and clueless to the situation.
This kills me. He can't see the big picture here — a free education to do something he would be doing anyway — and play the long game. So I keep asking him questions, a passive-aggressive way of getting him to think about taking off his headphones, which he finally does because I won't let him listen to his music.
Gus laughs at my questions and comments. He tells the recruit I'm a professor and that I attended Florida State. This makes the kid perk up. He's from Florida and we talk about Tallahassee some. I soften my attitude and offer some unsolicited advice about picking a college. "You need to find a place where you get the green light every trip. Someplace you can pump it up 20 times a game. Ask Coach Marlin about that tomorrow morning." This makes the kid laugh.
Gus and I are old friends, former high school teammates in football and basketball. He's thicker in the chest than he was in high school and more filled out, but he essentially looks the same except for his thinning, sandy brown hair that's putting up a good fight. He lets me talk to the kid as much as I do because he trusts I won't do anything to jeopardize his recruitment by reading the situation wrong. Also, I get the sense my presence breaks up the routine nature of these visits and soon the kid is talking to both of us rather than being shut off in his world.
As we near the hotel, Gus tells him one of the players on the team has his host money and all his food tonight will be covered. A ticket for the football game is waiting on him at will call and if he needs anything he should phone or text, but otherwise he and Head Coach Bob Marlin will see him for breakfast, where they can talk about the program and then they'll both take him to the airport and see him off.
This is not what I expected to see during an on-campus visit when I agreed to come down and observe Gus at work. I expected more deference, more respect. At the hotel, we both shake the kid's hand and watch him walk inside.
"I like that he kept the headphones on," I say, once he's out of earshot.
"No doubt," Gus says, smiling. He's amused by how much I peppered the kid because I was irked.
"How common is that?" I ask. "A guy just gets in the car and turns his music on and ignores you."
"It happens. Not a lot, but it can happen. I might tell his coach when he calls to ask how the visit went that (the recruit) might want to leave the headphones off next time."
The hours are long, tiring, and often filled with soul-numbing boredom as he travels from one town to another.
For the last five years I've been following Gus's coaching career closely. As his friend, what's hard to watch about his interaction with the kid is that Gus was and is the kind of guy who made the most of his chances. He loved the game, worked as hard as he could, and maxed out his talent. He was always aware of the opportunities before him and snatched them up. I don't know anything about Headphones, but in those few brief minutes we were in the car, he didn't seem to recognize what was at stake and what he could be.
Gus and I have had dozens of conversations over this time span about coaching and his hopes for the future, and though I know his dream is to be a head coach and that he loves the gym, it's still hard for me to square the kid I knew, and the man I know now, with the profession he's chosen. The hours are long, tiring, and often filled with soul-numbing boredom as he travels from one town to another in search of players he must befriend and recruit, who are half his age, and who will help determine his future.
In our high school of 600, Gus was one of the best athletes and he had the background to match — his father was drafted by the Dolphins in 1970 — but the hills of Eastern Kentucky are filled with standout high school athletes who don't have the goods for the next level. He was quick but not D1 quick, fast but not D1 fast. As an athlete his best asset was his motor and what made him different from most athletes was that he tried to max out his mind too. He was an honor roll student who attended Furman University in South Carolina and majored in religious studies. There he was a kicker on the football team and then decided to walk on the basketball team. A scrappy 6-foot point guard, his career basketball highlight was five minutes played against South Carolina (he scored two points).
In the locker rooms and hallways of Division 1 his pedigree often doesn't match up with this world he's allowed me to see up close, one too often filled with bullshit artists, disaffected student-athletes, and the people who exploit them for their own ends. Gus is not like this. He is conscientious and selfless and he's been that way since we were kids.
Up in my hotel room, I'm still thinking about the recruit and his behavior, and the other stories Gus has told me from other places he has coached. When he was at Coastal Carolina, a kid came in who just wanted to see the beach and get an ice cream cone, so he drove him there and they ate ice cream while the kid looked at the ocean. The recruit was a 6'11 center who was considering transferring. I imagine the pair of them standing on the Myrtle Beach Boardwalk with their ice cream while airbrush vendors spray tee shirts behind them.
To be an assistant coach as Gus has been, hopping from one mid-major school to the next, is a series of such juxtapositions. His whiteness against the athletes' predominate blackness. His solid upper-middle class childhood and liberal arts education against the homes he walks into where the young men he recruits have often been raised by mothers and grandmothers and where they will arrive at the school where he coaches with little preparation for the academic work expected of them. These aren't stereotypes, these are the facts, and no matter what kind of background a kid has, to pin your hopes and success — to run down your dream to be a D1 head coach — on the will of 18-to-22-year-olds seems a certain recipe for disappointment. And yet, here is my friend, at his sixth coaching stop in 11 years, convinced that the next player can lead to the next stop and that the next stop may be his last.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino in 2003, the year Gus Hauser began as a graduate assistant. (Getty Images)
He should have never been in coaching in the first place. At least not the way it played out. He was working in pharmaceutical sales and living in Lexington, Ky., about an hour north of where we were raised, while Amy, his wife, was attending law school at the University of Kentucky. Growing up in southeastern Kentucky, Lexington was the big city to us. A place that had malls and restaurants and life in a way home didn't. With his new job and, eventually, her law practice, an easy way of life of UK tailgates and Keeneland horse races, chased with Woodford Reserve, was easy to imagine. But Gus missed being around the game so he put the flexible hours of his sales job to use and served as a volunteer assistant at nearby Transylvania University, which he loved.
For eight to 10 months he had been trying to get a meeting with Rick Pitino, who had returned to college coaching at the University of Louisville in 2001, after his second stint in the NBA fizzled out. When we had been in high school, Pitino resurrected the University of Kentucky after it had been placed on probation for rules violations. His frenetic, full-court press and run-and-gun offense (he once pulled his center for not shooting a three-pointer) captivated a state whose basketball legend, Adolph Rupp, had built a dynasty on an up-and-down fast-break offense. The year after Kentucky won the National Championship in 1996, Pitino could have run for governor and won, provided he wouldn't stop coaching the Cats. UK fans viewed his return to rival Louisville as a betrayal, but for Gus that just meant one of the most dynamic coaches in the country was now only 80 miles west, inside his sales territory.
If he had enough time between office visits, he found a way to drive by the Louisville's basketball facility, hoping to catch Pitino and introduce himself. Then one morning he was in Hazard, deep in the hills, hunting the Lexington newspaper, the Herald Leader, but the convenience store he was in only had the Louisville Courier-Journal. At the bottom of the sports page he saw the headline that changed his life: "Pitino Looking to Add Assistant Coach and Graduate Assistant."
"No one ever mentions GA positions because no one cares about them, but there it was in the paper with the assistant coach announcement," says Gus. "I didn't make another sales call that day. I got in car and drove straight to Louisville, found a Kinko's, and printed off my résumé."
“I want to make sure you have a clear picture of what he's getting into."
He'd been to the offices enough that when he got there the receptionist recognized him. He handed her his résumé and she took it from him and placed it on top of a stack thick as a ream of Xerox paper. Gus immediately saw what he was up against. For all he knew the other 300 guys applying had been stalking the offices too. Each trying to put himself in front of the coach so that when that piece of paper landed on Pitino's desk, he'd remember the name and place the face. Some might have even succeeded.
"Are those all for the graduate assistant spot?" Gus said, pointing to where the receptionist's had placed his résumé.
"He's never going to notice mine," Gus said.
She agreed. Gus asked for it back and told her he'd return. Consulting with a friend about how he might stand out, they came up with a plan. He went to a sporting goods store, bought a basketball, and then took it to an office printing shop. He had them laser imprint his résumé on the ball. When he came back in the next morning, before his sales calls, the receptionist smiled and said, "He's going to notice this one."
"Before I hire you I want to talk to your wife," Pitino told him weeks later. He and Amy showed up the next day and they sat down across from the iconic coach. "This isn't about you right now," he said to Gus and then he turned to Amy. "I want to talk to you about what he's going to be doing here and how much he's going to work. I want to make sure you have a clear picture of what he's getting into." So as Gus sat beside his wife, Pitino detailed for Amy the life of a GA. He told Amy that Gus was going to work harder than he ever had in his life. There would be nights he would sleep at the facility on a pull-out sofa and she might not see him for two or three days. He might get called in the middle of the night or day and if called, he had to come immediately.
"One of the guys on the staff had recently gone through a divorce and I think Coach felt responsible for it, or guilty might be a better way to put it. At least it seemed that way at the time," Gus said. "He works his guys hard and he wanted Amy to know that. Amy told him this was my dream and she supported me."
Two years later, his second and last as a GA, Gus was on the floor, clipboard in hand, when Louisville appeared in the Final Four. A month after that he was unexpectedly searching for real estate in Las Cruces, N.M., after former NBA All-Star Reggie Theus, an assistant on that Louisville staff, was hired by New Mexico State University and brought Gus with him as an assistant coach. Two years after that, they won the Western Athletic Conference and faced off against Kevin Durant and Texas in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Gus's career was off like a firework, burning hot and bright. He had helped NMSU recruit far above their level, convincing high-major talent to attend the mid-major school, and Theus was bound to be a hot prospect for any number of major program jobs. A valuable assistant can ride out this kind of program success by following the head coach to the next school and then if the staff succeeds there, the assistant might then get his own shot at a mid-major. That's what happened to another Kentucky boy, Darrin Horn, who after graduating from Western Kentucky, served as an assistant there for two years before going to Morehead State for two years. Then he went to Marquette and coached with Tom Crean. Horn parlayed Marquette's revitalization and success into a return to Western Kentucky as head coach for five years. After a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008, Horn left to coach South Carolina. He was fired two years ago.
As quickly as one rises, one falls in this business. There is no single path to follow, no timeworn method. Some guys, like Pitino, rise like comets. Others grind it out for years before getting a shot. Others just get worn down and give up. Each fledgling coach has to learn that.
Gus Hauser's Journey
1. Corbin High School (KY), point guard, 1992-96
2. Furman (SC), point guard, 1997-98
3. Transylvania (KY), volunteer assistant, 2002-03
4. Louisville, graduate assistant, 2003-05
5. New Mexico State, assistant coach, 2005-07
6. Louisiana-Monroe, assistant coach, 2007-09
7. Coastal Carolina (SC), assistant coach, 2009-11
8. Wofford (SC), assistant coach, 2011-13
9. Louisiana-Lafayette, assistant coach, 2013-current
As quickly as one rises, one falls in this business. There is no single path to follow, no timeworn method.
Far and above basketball acumen, the thing every head coach prizes is loyalty and if a coach doesn't know you, then he doesn't know what you will or won't do. Are you the kind of guy that identifies the line and walks up to it? Or do you cross that line and risk the program's neck over a petty, inconsequential NCAA infraction like mailing a recruit a T-shirt or something even worse?
What they need from the guys who sit beside them often has less to do with Xs and Os than it does with each head coach's own psychological makeup. Some coaches need bulldogs and enforcers — disciplinarians. Other coaches need recruiters. Some coaches are all personality and they need assistants who are the strategy guys. The makeup of any given staff is infinite in its combinations, but the only common factor is trust. That's the reason so many coaches often have assistants from the same coaching tree.
According to Gus, "Coaches want guys from inside the family (or the program) not just for strategy or familiarity with a style of play, but because they have a shared sense of how to do their business and that builds the trust factor. Coach Pitino or Coach K, or any head coach, needs to trust their staff and know who will fall in line."
Gus Hauser (bottom left) during New Mexico State's 2007 NCAA Tournament game against Texas. Head coach Reggie Theus departed for the NBA after the season. (Getty Images)
Pitino underscored this when he took Theus and Gus out for dinner before they departed for Las Cruces. Toward the end of the night Pitino looked at Gus and said, "Your job is to be loyal and work your ass off because he's giving you your first shot." It was advice Gus may have taken to heart too much and it played out almost immediately upon their arrival.
"I was inexperienced and I wanted to do everything like Coach P so I was doing 5:30 a.m. workouts for missing class and putting guys through their paces, throwing my weight around. Reggie let me have that and run with it — he let me work — but in hindsight I should have laid back a little. The other two guys on the staff had been in the business a long time and it might have been better to see how they would have handled those situations."
Near the end of that first year, Gus found out another assistant coach — someone not from the family — was bad-mouthing Theus behind the coach's back to boosters. With Pitino's words still echoing in his head, Gus confronted the coach in the locker room and a heated exchange took place.
"Most coaches don't want to deal with anything other than coaching and even though I was right, and Reggie respected me for standing up for him, I feel like I gave him a problem to deal with that didn't necessarily involve basketball. I think that bothered him." But not so much that he didn't believe wherever Theus went next, he wouldn't get the nod to come with him. He'd proved his loyalty and commitment.
He thought that would be a major college program; he didn't count on Theus being offered the head job with the Sacramento Kings, or that the Kings' general manager would insist all of Theus's assistants be NBA guys. The best offer Theus could make was as assistant videographer, basically Gus's old spot as a GA at Louisville, and at half the salary he was currently making. Gus might not say it, but this is where the trajectory of his career began to flatten out — so early and just when it was getting started. He had spent tireless hours as a GA editing tape and rousing players from the dorm early in the morning. He had picked up dry cleaning and chauffeured coaches and the friends of those coaches around town. He worked 15-hours a day seven days a week, ate Subway sandwiches for every meal, and sometimes invited Amy to the basketball facility for dinner in the editing bay. They were young then, only 25, marriage and life still new and fun and adventurous.
He had done all this in order to get the chance he had gotten in New Mexico and they had turned around the program in two years, no less. His dogged work ethic — his old saw — had landed him on the staff of a tournament team in only his second year as an assistant, but suddenly he was without a staff or a place to be — in coaching terms, he had no family. He had put a promising job in corporate America as well as Amy's law career on hold to follow his heart only to be left stranded in the desert by someone else's ambition.
He turned down Theus. And though the Aggies' next head coach agreed to keep him on another year, Gus left for a position at Louisiana-Monroe. Two years later he heard Cliff Ellis at Coastal Carolina had an open spot and he drove all night to Conway, S.C., and planted himself in front of the coach. Two years there, then two at Wofford College — with the third-smallest enrollment in all of D1 and now he is in his second year at ULL. Gus hustled for each of these jobs, trying to build on each success, working his network and sometimes having to prove to his fellow assistants he didn't think he was big time because of his connections to Pitino and Theus.
Given the way his career started, none of these places seemed likely candidates for where he might end up, but in coaching you just have to keep getting jobs, make new contacts, and bide your time with the hope your work draws some attention. As his father told him when he decided to go into coaching, "You're going to have work really hard, and you're going to have to get lucky."
He started off lucky. He's still working hard.
Louisiana-Lafayette head coach Bob Marlin. (Getty Images)
Waiting. If there is one action that defines what it's like to shadow Gus, it's that. On recruiting trips to summer camps, I wait with him in the stands while he makes notes and scouts talent. After the games, I wait for him in the lobby as he talks to his fellow coaches and catches up with old friends. On campus I wait for him in his office while he goes down the hall to talk to recruits or his head coach, or the sports marketing guys to strategize on how to increase student attendance this season. At practice, beneath 13,500 empty seats in the dimly lit and cavernous Cajundome, I wait and watch practice as he and the other coaches put the team through its paces.
The monotony of it all is surprising to me. Both casual and even avid fans only see the hoopla that surrounds game day and March Madness, that billion-dollar affair that breaks hearts and decides futures each year. A day in the offices at Louisiana-Lafayette revealed little such excitement. During a staff meeting Coach Marlin allowed me to sit in on, the most exciting thing I witnessed was the polite manner in which the assistants discussed two recruits. One coach pressed for a kid out of Texas he had watched play multiple times and Gus pushed for another guy. The way they danced around the matter, with neither fully asserting their preferences was interesting only in that what they both wanted to say was clear — I think we should take this guy — but didn't feel like they could. When I pointed out to Gus later that I had noticed some tension in the meeting, he declined to say much about it other than surprise at my noticing it, but Coach Marlin was more forthcoming. He acknowledged both coaches were pushing separate recruits to him, wanting him to make a decision on whom to pursue. "Which is fine," he said. "I'm the man sitting in the chair." But he told me this was the best staff he's had at Lafayette. "I mean, if we can't get it together up here (in the offices) how are we going to get it together down there (on the floor)?"
A few years back I went with Gus while he scouted the Adidas It Takes 5ive basketball tournament at the University of Cincinnati's Fifth Third Arena at Shoemaker Center. Some of the best high school players in America were there, and so were all the big-name coaches: John Calipari, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan. Everywhere I turned was another guy I'd only ever seen on television. On that trip we got to the gym at 8 in the morning and left at 10 each night. Many of the elite schools, the big boys, attend those events for only two or three hours then the whole staff usually knocks off to the golf course. The mid-majors make their living off what's left and their job is harder because they're evaluating the guys the media has passed over — who most folks in the business have passed over. Gus told me his basic strategy was to get there early and wear a shirt with a big logo to "advertise" and get a recruit's attention and make them remember the name of his school when contacted later. At the tourney, coaches are not allowed to make contact with recruits. No "Hellos" "Good games" or high-fives.
What I saw those three days was all about jockeying for position with the recruits. Coaches lined up and down the entire length of the arena's three courts like boys at a junior high dance trying to get the attention of girls. The games in front of them were deplorable. It was all one-on-one showing out, trying to catch a coach's eyes while their own AAU coaches/handlers roamed the sidelines and barked instructions with Bluetooth headsets blinking in their ears.
Gus's directive from his coach then had been to recruit “motherfuckers," but Gus told me motherfuckers didn't pick schools like his.
In an era where the NCAA is being sued over the use of player likenesses and amid a rising call for players to be paid, the rules demand that coaches stand no closer than 3 feet from the action and do not speak or make contact with the recruits. This adds to an already troubling disconnect; in many ways these athletes are little more than fodder for big-money interests. In a gym full of ball players and coaches there seemed to be little purity or love of the game, only an overarching sense of business and getting ahead, and figuring out the quickest route to the top.
Gus's directive from his coach then had been to recruit "motherfuckers," but Gus told me motherfuckers didn't pick schools like his or even schools in his conference. When Gus did find a kid for their level the first question his boss asked about the player was usually, "Is he a motherfucker or a bitch?" Gus would reply, "Well, he's a good player, Coach."
The motherfuckers play on TV and then have a shot at the League. Gus was recruiting undersized kids — the motherfucked, if you will — because those were the crumbs that fell to him: 6'6 post players and 5'10 guards. Kids with high motors and great athleticism — and sometimes not so great — that can play in a system and score junk baskets. He's thankful that at a school like ULL he's able to go after higher-caliber players and he has a better product to sell in terms of his league and his school's academics.
We patrolled the courts for three days straight and out of the hundreds of kids we saw, Gus came away with eight to 10 he thought were legitimate possibilities, kids that could both play at his level and that he'd have a shot at recruiting. During downtime, I met assistants from Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Purdue, North Carolina, Vanderbilt and dozens of others all through Gus. The number of guys he knew was nearly endless. They talked about hoops and they talked about jobs and they talked about the kids on the floor. Occasionally, a coach would sidle up to me and ask if I saw anything good out there just as a way to make conversation, but I wondered if I was a coach and I did see something good, why would I tell him? When a game was close and the players had to dig deep, all the coaches' internal instincts kicked in. I'd feel them get amped up for the end of the game situations by the way they leaned into the courts or stood on their toes. A kid with heart sometimes made an impression.
Still, by day three of that tournament I was ready to bail. My sensibilities hurt from watching so much fundamentally unsound basketball. Back home, the first thing we learned, even in elementary school, was how to set a pick, throw a pass and screen away. I couldn't take it, but Gus was on the go and out the door early. We went back to check in on a couple of recruits and make notes on the new prospects. At a court near us, the Plumlee brothers (who later starred at Duke) played under the watchful eye of the Blue Devils' assistants. There were some high risers in that game and it was hard for the coaches, as susceptible to the pull of big-name prospects as a fan, not to watch the better talent even when they had no shot at signing them.
This past summer, when I met up with Gus at the Mullen Top 100 Junior College event outside St. Louis, a juco showcase, he had toned down the advertising on his shirt. He was a little mellower as I watched him work the crowd of coaches, networking and making connections. He still shook hands and slapped backs, but when we took our seats, he settled in and watched the games. The last time I was with him he had moved around the room a little more and made himself seen.
"What about that kid?" I said, pointing to a 6'10 center from Texas with soft hands and nice jump-hook.
Elfrid Payton, who Gus Hauser coached at Louisiana-Lafayette, was drafted 10th overall by the Magic in 2014. (Getty Images)
"You like Cadillacs," he said. "I like Cadillacs too, but the big schools are already on him." He pointed down to the far end of the seating area. Three coaches from Baylor stood along the balcony. Gus made notes on the roster sheets we were given when we walked in. Around the room all the coaches wore performance polyester polos with the school logo embroidered over the heart. There was a lot of gelled hair and watches with dials the size of silver dollars. To a man, each one had on a pair of brand new running shoes. It wasn't exactly "Gorillas in the Mist," but college basketball coaching is a very specific subculture with its own protocols, its own kabuki.
None of the elite programs were at this event, but a few major schools were in attendance, coaches that like to "juke it up" as Gus put it, hoping the maturity of a juco kid can pay off in quick turnaround. As the games went on, I found myself paying more attention to the banter around us than I did to the games below.
First, everyone gets addressed as "Coach." It's a term of endearment and respect when spoken, but its repetitiveness is jarring and has the adverse effect of creating anonymity. "How's your family, Coach?" "Good to see you, Coach?" "How you been, Coach?" When one coach spots another from across the way a loud, "Coach!" can be heard and a dozen heads turn to see if it's directed toward them.
When Gus walked in he got a lot of these same rote questions and answers, but with one slight variation: "Congrats on your year. Congrats on Elfrid." The congratulations for Elfrid referred to departed point guard Elfrid Payton, who was selected 10th by the Orlando Magic in the 2014 NBA Draft. The undeniable thing about the coaching business, about the very players on the court we watched play, is that every man in the room needs the guy they ultimately sign and bring back to campus, not just to pan out, but to be a difference maker. Players like that are the kind that take you to a Sun Belt Championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament as opposed to sitting at home the second weekend in March. For the three days I was with Gus and Coach Marlin, hardly a moment passed in which they weren't congratulated on Elfrid's success along with the team's. The two accomplishments seemed to hold equal weight.
As an assistant, Gus's primary job is to sign good players, which some assistants view as collecting gold stars. It's one of the few tangible measures of success and accomplishment they can say is theirs and point to since wins and losses don't follow them around the same way they do a head coach. "But you've also got to win. You can't just sign good guys and think you'll get a job."
When I asked him what kind of role he had on the staff at Lafayette, he said Coach Marlin wanted him to sign players, "But he also wants me to be a well-rounded coach. That means I need to teach, scout, represent the program well out in public."
I sensed recruiting was a more important factor to future success than he was letting on and pushed him there again, asking, "In a general sense, how important is recruiting? And I don't mean in the obvious way that good players are needed to win."
"Every assistant coach, no matter where he is, needs to find guys that are better than the level of their school and convince them to sign," he said. "Then you have to hope that head coaches are out there and paying attention to your work."
This is why a coach's network and all the glad-handing that takes places at recruiting events matters. If, for instance, Gus misses on a kid but knows a coach at another school he likes and respects, he might be able to put the kid on that program's radar, a courtesy that might be repaid down the road in numerous ways. "It helps not just with other recruits, but if you know a guy is a good dude that can help with scheduling, which is always difficult, and scouting other teams during the season."
every single coach is always working for his next job, and that next job will be dependent upon who he can sign.
All of this makes sense and yet during the event in St. Louis a buzz came over the room when 74- year-old Hall of Famer Larry Brown entered the building. He is in his third season at SMU and was one of the big stories in college basketball last season when he resurrected the Mustangs' program. The scuttlebutt among the coaches is that he will bolt the minute someone from the NBA comes calling, but until then he is kicking a lot of asses on the recruiting trail (especially in Texas, which is fertile ground for Louisiana-Lafayette).
When a coach like that comes in the room, the speculation turns to whom he is eyeing. Does he already have a kid on the hook or is he hoping, like so many others, to spot someone new today?
The coaches looked up from their legal pads and smartphones when the celebrity coach came ambling by on his two aging hips. He shook hands with a few guys and shot nods at others and there was the sense that each of them relished being recognized by the legend. A boyish feeling of reverence pervaded the gym. Brown has been a kingmaker his whole career and though the men assembled — both assistant and head coaches — represented mostly directional schools (the Northerns, Southerns, Easterns, Westerns) and agricultural schools, they were a slick-looking lot, which is perhaps a testament to the vast sums of money in college basketball and how much each coach must play the part because the truth is they aren't world-beaters in terms of salary. Most assistants make the equivalent or just above that of an assistant professor at the schools where they coach, anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000. Like their colleagues in academia, they give up nearly all control of their life in order to move where the jobs are and more often than not, like Gus, uproot their families every two or three years. The sight of Brown, the success he's had and the stir his presence caused, leads me to believe every single coach, except for a handful, is always working for his next job, and that next job will be dependent upon who he can sign, how many of those signees he steals from the other men in the gym that day, and then if they can turn those guys into players within their system.
Gus Hauser (Courtesy of Louisiana-Lafayette)
Bob Marlin has one of the neatest offices I've ever seen. On the day I visited him, a 60-inch Sony television showed a screenshot of Louisiana-Lafayette winning the 2014 Sun Belt Tournament, the players awash in confetti after upsetting Georgia State in overtime. The bureau below held a collection of game balls and everything was carefully arranged in cases and dusted. His desk was clear. Marlin has more than 400 wins in his head coaching career of 21 years, a feat Gus says is all the more remarkable when one considers Marlin has spent most of his time at the mid-major level where many of his nonconference games were scheduled to be a high-major's layup game. Twice he led Sam Houston State to the NCAA tournament and in 2010 he was named Southland Conference Coach of the Decade. Shortly after that, he was named the new head coach for the Ragin' Cajuns, a program with a strong basketball heritage from the ‘70s, but that had fallen on hard times and was looking for someone who could build the program.
The coach has a quiet demeanor and a laid-back approach with his staff and team. I appreciated the way he didn't yell but talked to his team in a voice that didn't rise above conversational, forcing the team to huddle close to hear him. During one stint in practice he went to correct a player, but another coach was already talking and he stopped short and said, "You got it, Coach?" And then he listened to what the coach said, nodding his head in the affirmative.
He doesn't micromanage his assistants and there is an incredible amount of assuredness in the way Marlin treats his players and his staff. A lot of that comes from his obvious confidence in his own abilities. He is direct and to the point. There is nothing cocksure about him and Gus says the players feed off that. "I think teams take on the head coach's identity and if we're up 20 or down 20, Coach Marlin is the same. That helps the guys to not lose it in either direction."
What I wanted to know from Marlin was an answer to an impossible question: How long can someone stay in the coaching business without getting his shot. How long can you chase the rabbit?
"Well, Gus is a high-major guy," he said. "He's going to be an assistant on a BCS staff or he's going to get a head coaching job and I want him, and every other guy on my staff, to get their shot. Just like I want the best for my players, I want those guys to succeed, too. I feel like part of my job is to help everyone get to their goals." I try to press him on a coach's trajectory, wanting to know what's the normal arc, but the more we talk the more I realize there is no standard. I ask what impressed him about Gus.
"Well, he reached out to me when we were at Sam Houston and I had no idea who he was other than he was an assistant with New Mexico State — when we beat them at their place," he quickly added. "But I got a call one day and asked if he could come down and watch how we do things and look at film with us and talk basketball and I said sure. That made an immediate impression on me because he was so young and willing to take the time.
"I think the best thing a young coach can do is move and Gus has done that," he continued. "He has seen a lot of different ways to do this — because there is no one way — and that helps him. Plus, he has a great network. The guy knows everybody. When I was younger I didn't move when I had the chance and I probably should have and all that is going to pay off for him at some point."
“I love the game. I love being in the gym. And I like watching these guys graduate."
On my last day in Lafayette, Gus and I went to Johnson's Boucaniere, a popular barbeque and boudin sausage joint a few miles from campus. The last bit of summer of heat was still in the live oaks and we sat outside with our meals. I told Gus my favorite quote about coaching came from Kirk Varnedoe, former curator at the Museum of Modern Art, who after graduating from Williams College served as an assistant on the football team. Varnedoe considered going into coaching, but told Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, "If you're going to spend your life coaching football, you have to be smart enough to do it well and dumb enough to think it matters."
Gus laughed at the line. "There may be some truth in that, but I love the game. I love being in the gym. And, I know you'll think this is corny, but it's true, I like watching these guys graduate. Coach Marlin says we get into this to make a difference in young people's lives and I believe in that aspect of it. Some of these kids will be the first person in their family to graduate from college. They'll leave Lafayette with a degree and get a job that has benefits and that's important to me."
When I tell him he seems calmer these days, he brings up his daughters. "I'm a little more measured now than I used to be, but don't get me wrong, I still want the chance to run my own program. I want the chance to have a little more control over my hours and schedule and to run my program the way I want. I don't dream of being at a Kentucky or a Duke. I just want a job where I can compete in whatever league I'm in every year and make a living doing what I want to do."
"Do you ever wonder if you had stayed in the pharmaceuticals where you'd be?" I asked.
"Not really," he said. "Coaching basketball is the only thing that makes me happy."
"How do you feel about where you are in your career? Do you think you're where you're supposed to be?"
"I set some goals when I was 25 and one of those was to be a head coach at 35. I'm 37 now. When Coach P was my age he was head coach of Kentucky. At 35 he was the head coach of the Knicks. I know he's on a different level, but I set goals for myself and I'm behind on them and that messes with me sometimes."
"But it's not up to you, right? At least, not always. And we're at that age where we're not young and we're not old, either. But we're getting there," I said.
"No question," he said, "but I'm going to show up to work tomorrow and try to be better than I was today. You never know when your chance may come."
He pushed back from the table and we both took in the Spanish moss tangled in trees and then he told me a story that proved the point he just made. "I remember I was in the locker room with Coach Pitino before we were getting ready to play West Virginia in Albuquerque during the tournament. He was always talking before games because he had this nervous energy. He was pacing and he said, ‘You're going with Reggie to New Mexico State. I talked to him about it and you're going to go with him to be an assistant.' Pitino kept pacing back and forth, trying to burn off the adrenaline."
Surprised and nervous himself, Gus said to Pitino, "Coach, do you think that's the right move? Do you think I'm ready?"
Pitino stopped. The coach was incredulous. "Gus, you're coaching basketball. Of course you're ready for it."
"Meaning, don't make it complicated?" I asked.
"Right," he said.
The wooden table where we sat had been carved into and smoothed over by a thousand pairs of hands over the years. We both ran our hands over its surface and I thought about a younger version of Gus sitting in some locker room in the depths of some arena and staring up at his boss — the man who had given him his first break, and got him his second one too — wanting to hear the right answer and something profound he might carry with him. What Pitino had given him was only plain truth. We graduated from high school 18 years ago, exactly half my lifetime, and I admired him for taking the knocks and the turns, for reaching for his chances in a business that snatches them away as quickly as they are offered. I was due at the airport, so we stood to leave.
"What's left for this week? Practice today and then what?"
"Coach gave them fall break off so we're hitting the road to recruit."
"You're always recruiting?"
"Always." He took a final drink of sweet tea then gave me a smile and said, "Can't stop."