Matt McCall’s winding path to bring unity to UMass By Amin Touri

Matt McCall could probably pass for one of his players.

He’s 35, but a quick shave and you’d believe him much younger. Clad in Adidas from head to toe—heather gray UMass long-sleeve, white compression shorts beneath black basketball shorts, and a pair of Adidas Dame 3s in a custom UMass colorway, gray, white and maroon—McCall looks as if he’s just finished participating in practice, the whistle around his neck the only giveaway of his true position.

He leans back in a black lounge chair on the ground floor of the Champions Center, just steps from the practice court—the sounds of bouncing balls and squeaking sneakers never ceases—as he recounts the story of the path he took to become the Massachusetts men’s basketball team’s 22nd head coach.

“It’s been a crazy journey,” he says with a laugh.

McCall doesn’t come from a basketball family.

A native of Ocala, Florida, he had to navigate pressures to follow in his father’s footsteps in donning pads instead of sneakers.

“My father played football at the University of Florida,” McCall said, “and everyone was always like, ‘why aren’t you playing football, why aren’t you playing football?’ Obviously there are a lot of things I respect about my dad, but one of the biggest things was that he never put pressure on me to do that. He wanted me to write my own path.”

His father wasn’t just on the football team—Wayne McCall captained the Gator defense, playing alongside Florida legends like Steve Spurrier, 1966 Heisman Trophy winner and eventual national champion as head coach in Gainesville in 1996.

“Football was in our blood,” McCall says, “I grew up going to games every Saturday, but there was just something that drew me to the game of basketball.”

“Football was in our blood,” McCall says, “I grew up going to games every Saturday, but there was just something that drew me to the game of basketball.”

It was in local parks and gyms in the Ocala area where McCall first discovered his love for the game, and where he met the first of many mentors, friends and confidants that helped guide his path.

“I remember playing in YMCA leagues when I was eight, nine years old, and ended up meeting a mentor named Leroy Simms at that time, and I’ll never forget this,” McCall said. “Leroy used to take me out to the park and I’d be playing against older people and guys would beat up on me and my dad could see that Leroy really knew the game. He even offered him money to come work with me at our house or take me to the park or the gym, and the guy wouldn’t take any cash. It ended up being just like a friendship between me and Leroy, he’d come to every game, still to this day I have a relationship with him and talk to him. That’s kind of how the journey got started, with just basketball.”

A standout basketball player at Belleview High School, McCall’s playing career eventually stalled out soon after graduating high school—after a ‘miserable’ stint as a preferred walk-on at Stetson, McCall transferred to his father’s alma mater, Florida.

It was a turning point for McCall, and during a short time away from the game, he was still playing at the rec center and intramurals—“I couldn’t get away from the itch,” he says”—and he knew he wanted to make basketball his career.

Through his father’s relationships at Florida, with Spurrier and then-athletic director Jeremy Foley, McCall managed to land a position with the basketball team as a student manager.

“I just said, ‘listen, I want to learn, I want to be a fly on the wall,” McCall says. He was hired as a student manager, handling any grunt work he could find, making himself as visible to the coaching staff as possible. His responsibilities grew, and he was hired as a graduate assistant in 2004.

After two years as a GA, McCall was offered an operations position at Virginia Commonwealth, but Billy Donovan, head coach at Florida at the time, had every intention of keeping his man on staff—as soon as Anthony Grant offered McCall the job at VCU, Donovan offered him the same position to stay in Gainesville.

“It continued to grow,” said McCall, “I was the director of operations for two years, and I ended up being like Billy’s guy—wherever he went, I went. If he spoke somewhere, I was there.”

McCall served as director of basketball operations at Florida from 2006-2008, learning from Donovan, the next friend and mentor on his journey. During his tenure as ops director, he studied Donovan as he built one of the best collegiate teams in recent memory—the Gators won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007—and saw them flourish on the strength of their unity, not just their talent.

“When we won back-to-back national championships at Florida, people don’t realize that Corey Brewer was the only McDonald’s All-American,” McCall said. “Everyone talks about [Joakim] Noah, [Al] Horford, but those guys weren’t even top 100 recruits, and Taurean Green was our leading scorer. But that team was connected. They got joy out of seeing each other succeed. When you can get a group of guys that are connected, that share a vision, that get an enormous amount of joy seeing each other succeed, you’ve got a chance to do something special. I don’t care who has talent, all that, when you can get that connectedness, you can beat anybody.”

Eventually, the ops job wasn’t enough to satisfy the itch McCall had long felt, since those rec center pickup games as an undergrad pulled him back to basketball.

“I had basketball responsibilities, but I wasn’t a coach,” he says. “I wasn’t on the floor, I wasn’t teaching, that ops role is very reserved in what you can do and what you’re allowed to do. And after the second year of doing that I remember I walked into [Donovan’s] office and said ‘I’m so appreciative of everything you’ve done for me, but I want to be a coach.’ And Mike Jarvis got the Florida Atlantic job, and the one thing Billy always told me was ‘I’ll hire you as an assistant coach, but you need to go and get experience first.’ And that’s exactly what I did.”

Jarvis, who had been coaching in the collegiate ranks since 1985, was hired as head coach at FAU in 2008, and needed some assistants. One sparkling endorsement from Donovan and one lunch meeting later, he had one.

“He came highly recommended,” Jarvis says. “I received a call from Billy Donovan, who I respect tremendously, and when we talked about Matt, just the person, and his work ethic and his motivation as a coach, I decided I wanted to meet with him. I think we met within a day after that conversation with Billy, and we had a long, long afternoon together, lunch, conversation. By the time I got through, I knew I wanted to hire Matt.”

McCall stayed in communication with Donovan during his three years at FAU, as money troubles arose. Making very little and living in affluent Boca Raton, Florida, he was tempted with a six-figure salary to return to an ops position at another school after two years.

“I remember I couldn’t get a hold of coach Donovan," says McCall. "I wanted to pick his brain on it, and he finally called me back and said ‘sit back down, and get back to work. If you want to be an ops guy, you can come here. You need to be an assistant coach, and you need to keep getting experience so I can hire you.’”

"I wanted to pick his brain on it, and he finally called me back and said ‘sit back down, and get back to work. If you want to be an ops guy, you can come here. You need to be an assistant coach, and you need to keep getting experience so I can hire you.’” says McCall.

Donovan kept his word; after losing three assistants after the 2010-11 season, McCall was hired as a full-fledged assistant coach at Florida after three seasons learning under Jarvis at FAU, and it was during that second stint in Gainesville where he really cut his teeth under Donovan.

McCall “took everything” from Donovan, writing down everything he could, a pen and notepad in hand anytime Donovan spoke, notes he still refers back to.

“If you say, ‘hey, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from Billy?’ The guy won two national championships, went to four Final Fours, is going to the Hall of Fame at some point—and the program never became about him. It was about our players and the school, and the level of humility at which he did his job was the most impressive thing. For me, that’s the biggest thing I take. This place isn’t about me. It’s about our players, about this University, and staying humble and continuing to work.”

After four years as an assistant at Florida, he stepped into his first head coaching role at Chattanooga, where he guided the Mocs to a 29-6 record, a Southern Conference championship and an NCAA tournament berth in his first season, taking home the conference Coach of the Year award in the process.

McCall decided not to leave Chattanooga after his first year—it wasn’t fair to his returners, the timing wasn’t right. But after a less than successful second act, he began talking to other schools, with nothing solid ever materializing.

After Pat Kelsey backed out of the job at UMass in March, McCall’s name kept coming up.

McCall says he “didn’t pursue the job—one thing Coach Donovan always said was ‘let them come to you, don’t chase after jobs’—it was a Sunday, and I was supposed to fly out Sunday night to Florida from Chattanooga to do some recruiting, and Coach Donovan called me and he said ‘UMass called me. Are you interested?’ I said, ‘should I be?’ He said, ‘absolutely.’”

“I got a call Monday morning at like 7 a.m. saying ‘can you get to Boston today for an interview?’ I had two home visits set up with kids and I said I can’t do that. If I cancel these visits on these kids that’s going to put us in a bad spot recruiting-wise. They said ‘so can you get here tonight, and we can meet in the morning?’”

McCall flew from Orlando to Atlanta—kept his layover there, so his wife could pack him a suit: “I wasn’t going to show up to an interview without a suit on,” he says—then got on a plane to Boston, arriving well after midnight, before taking a 9 a.m. meeting with UMass representatives.

“After the interview was over, coach Donovan called me and said ‘you’re getting the job.’ I said ‘okay, what do you think?’ He said, ‘you know what I think.’ I knew I had his stamp of approval,” McCall said.

On March 30, he was introduced as the next head coach of UMass men’s basketball. He was facing an uphill climb—seven players had left the program after Derek Kellogg was fired, including three of the team’s top five scorers from 2016-17—but he relished the chance to take what he’d learned on his journey so far, from Florida to FAU and back, from Gainesville to Chattanooga, to instill a new culture in Amherst. One of unity, of team and of “connectedness,” McCall’s preferred description for the main ingredient in his recipe for success.

At the end of practice the day after Halloween, on a dreary Wednesday in November, the Minutemen are shooting free throws, as they often do. McCall calls out names one-by-one—“Kieran! C.J.! Chris!” —and they each take two shots from the charity stripe. Makes are met with claps and daps, misses are met with words of encouragement.

The team is holding practice on the floor of the Mullins Center—unusual, but not unheard of—and McCall implores his men to maintain concentration through their fatigue. “Focus, now!” he barks.

Too many misses, and the call to the baseline comes down. Sprints, down and back. Ten burpees, on the whistle of one of McCall’s assistant coaches.

The last name called is Rashaan Holloway, the team’s most imposing figure is tasked with making one of two free throws to end the exertion. He steps up, sinks the first one, and his teammates hoot and holler and slap him on the back as they group up at mid-court.

They fan out, forming a circle around the UMass logo at the center of the floor, hands interlocked, a chain of humanity. Today, it’s walk-on Michael Gillespie’s turn to tell his brothers in arms what he’s grateful for.

“I’m grateful to be here,” he tells the group. “I’m grateful for this opportunity.”

“I’m grateful to be here,” he tells the group. “I’m grateful for this opportunity.”

They applaud, and meet in the middle. It’s not “UMass” on the count of three, nor “Minutemen.”

“Family” is the final rallying cry to close out practice.

The words echo through the empty arena.

(Jessica Picard/ Collegian Staff)

That post-practice ritual isn’t uncommon, and McCall makes sure that his guys aren’t taking anything for granted.

“Every day,” he says, “every day. We should all be grateful for something. We’re grateful to be here, grateful for this opportunity. Someone different takes it every day. It can be anything, what are you grateful for right now, in this moment? Everyone wants to talk about things going wrong, but what are you grateful for? Are you grateful for this right here, this opportunity, are you taking advantage of that? Or are you just letting it fly by? It’s not a right to be here, it’s a privilege.”

“Every day,” he says, “every day. We should all be grateful for something. We’re grateful to be here, grateful for this opportunity. Someone different takes it every day. It can be anything, what are you grateful for right now, in this moment?"

It’s a practice he credits to Mark Daigneault, another Florida product and current head coach of the G-League’s Oklahoma City Blue, the minor league affiliate of the Billy Donovan-coached Oklahoma City Thunder. McCall knows first-hand what unity, what gratitude, what connectedness, even in the absence of top talent, can accomplish.

“I had a front-row seat for a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country, went to the Final Four, that won 10 games in a row, went 18-0 in the SEC and won the SEC tournament with not one guy getting drafted. Not one guy from that team plays in the NBA. But that team was connected,” he said.

It’s been more than a decade since McCall watched the 2006-07 Gators repeat as national champions, seeing a team well-known for its camaraderie, and three years since he watched that “connected” 2013-2014 squad rip through the SEC without a single future NBA draftee. Now, he has every intention of instilling that culture of unity at UMass.

“My door will always be open,” McCall said. “Something I’m not very proud of, but I spend three times as much time with our players as I do with my own two daughters. I want to create that family atmosphere, that there’s a comfort level to come in our office, to talk. At the end of the day this is about trust and about buying in, and in order to have that trust there has to be a connectedness there that the players feel with you as a coach.”

It’s not all talk, either; he’s getting his players to buy in.

“It’s just a team-based culture.” - Luwane Pipkins

“It’s just a team-based culture,” sophomore guard Luwane Pipkins said. “He always stresses about team, family. We do everything as a team now. We eat as a team, look like a team, act like a team, play like a team. That’s what he brings to the table; family, chemistry and just staying together.

“We joke around a lot about it, mock him sometimes about the things he says, but we believe it. It’s instilled in our brains right now that we always got to be a family, act as a family on and off the court, and he came in and instilled that right now, and we’re following him.”

“I have nothing but great things to say about him, I appreciate that he came here and helped me stay." - C.J. Anderson

“He’s been great, man,” said senior forward C.J. Anderson. “I have nothing but great things to say about him, I appreciate that he came here and helped me stay. For him, it’s a ‘one-team’ thing. Everything we do, everybody gets success, because it’s team success. No matter what I do, no matter what the next man does, it’s all in for the team, and if we all buy into that, that it’s about the team and not ourselves, we’ll be good.”

McCall has drawn lessons and wisdom from every stop: Ocala, Gainesville, Boca Raton, Chattanooga, even DeLand, home of Stetson University, and from every mentor, teacher and friend: Simms, Jarvis, Donovan and plenty more, and he’s arrived in Amherst with the hopes of applying those lessons.

How to persevere, how to establish a work ethic, how to remain grateful, how to stay connected, and how that connectedness can breed success, in basketball and in life.

“I think that he’s a good teacher,” Jarvis said of McCall. “I always wanted to surround myself with people that had the ability to teach, and he does. A lot of people think that coaching is just all about recruiting, and it’s really more than that, it’s got more to do with teaching young people how to not only play and win on the court, but teaching young players how to win off the court as well, and Matt can do that.

“He’s stepping into a program that has a winning tradition. He’s going into a place that’s used to winning, that has a winning tradition; I think that’s important. I think the most important thing that Matt can do is just be Matt. Stay true to who he is, what he believes in, and I think that if he recruits not good players but players with really high character, which is something that both Billy and myself try to do, I know that he’ll be successful.”

(Katherine Mayo/ Collegian Staff)

McCall won’t use the term, but 2017-2018 is a transition year for UMass. There’s plenty of turnover, from the coaching staff to the players, from one end of the bench to the other. With change comes challenges, something McCall is extremely aware of.

“I think the biggest challenge is can we stay together and stay connected when things aren’t going well,” he said. “Can we continue to focus on getting better every single day? If we lose a game do we get derailed from our goal of getting better, this is a process.

“We’re building a mansion right now, and there may be times when we’re laying this foundation when it doesn’t look great, and it’s not pretty. But the end result will be magnificent. How long that takes, I don’t know. But we can’t get caught up and consumed with wins and losses, we’ve got to stay focused on getting better every single day.”

“We’re building a mansion right now, and there may be times when we’re laying this foundation when it doesn’t look great, and it’s not pretty. But the end result will be magnificent."

The Minutemen are 1-1 in this young season, and their loss to Harvard on Nov. 12 won’t be their last. There will be plenty of adversity, plenty of challenges, plenty of growing pains. It won’t always be smooth sailing, and it won’t always be fun, for McCall or his players or their fans.

But when those challenges inevitably come, the Minutemen will deal with it the only way they know how, the only way McCall has learned in the 16 years since he first became a student manager for the Florida Gators basketball team.


Amin Touri can be reached at atouri@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @Amin_Touri.

Photos taken by Katherine Mayo, Jessica Picard, and Judith Gibson-Okunieff.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.