Matt Figger has to be lying, or exaggerating, or self-aggrandizing. Plenty of coaches make sacrifices for their careers. But this? Horatio Alger, the king of the "rags to riches" tale, would've dreamed up something so laughable.
Living in an empty warehouse? Giving dance lessons to middle schoolers? Driving a bus? Not even the most hard-bitten hoops addict would put himself through this kind of existence to pursue his dream of coaching.
Yet there's Figger, matter-of-factly recalling his rise from junior-college assistant to a top lieutenant for Frank Martin at South Carolina. With each new story, it dawns on you: there's nothing fake about it. This story actually happened.
And if someone has that much fortitude and persistence - my gosh, what will he do for your school?
Not many kids reverently studied the bios of Bear Bryant and Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall. Matt Figger did.
Figger knew early on that he wanted to be a coach. He preferred a life in the gym to a life in the coal mines, where most of the folks in his dust-speck hometown of Jenkins, Ky. (population: 2,400) wound up.
He was a good shooter at Jenkins High School, but as he describes it, "if you couldn't play for Kentucky, nothing else mattered." Figger instead enrolled with a few of his childhood friends at Pikeville College in Pikeville, Ky.,1 where he spent three years as a reliever on the baseball team.
One of those friends, Pete Wyatt, dropped out of Pikeville after his sophomore year. Six-foot-10 centers rarely slip out of sight, though, and Pat Smith, the head coach of Wabash Valley Community College in Mount Carmel, Ill., convinced Wyatt to restart his career there.
Dutiful friend and aspiring coach that he was, Figger drove 250 miles every weekend to watch Wyatt's practices and games. Instead of coming home for semester break, he spent his vacation crashing with Wyatt and shadowing the team.
Gamecock assistant Matt Figger (left) never played college basketball.
Gamecock assistant Matt Figger (left) never played college basketball.
Toward the end of the season, Smith approached Figger.
"Have you ever thought about getting into coaching?" he asked him.
"Coach, that's been my dream since I was a child," Figger replied.
"Well, why don't you come up and help me?"
Smith created an assistant job for him. It paid $5,000 a year, and came with a catch. Figger - who had transferred to Eastern Kentucky to pursue a B.S. in Physical Education - had to leave school, 18 hours shy of his degree.
He didn't hesitate.
"This is the chance of a lifetime for me. This guy actually wants me to be a part of something," Figger thought.
He left school and accepted the job. So began a new journey, a three-year juggling act of coaching, studying, and working that tested the limits of Figger's resolve, to say nothing of his sanity.
At the lowest rungs of college basketball, coaches often work second jobs to make ends meet. Some teach. Others tend bar. Whatever the job, the goal is the same: to bankroll their dream just long enough to get a full-time position.
At Wabash Valley Community College, Matt Figger's first side job came with the town parks and recreation department. Every morning at 5 a.m., he mowed lawns, weeded fields, and lined baseball diamonds before reporting to the basketball offices.
"And every day [Coach Smith" would have a sheet of tasks he'd have me do. There could be 200 things on that sheet throughout the day," he said.
During basketball season, Figger switched to a job more compatible with his schedule: he drove a bus around the Mount Carmel school district, transporting international students who didn't have American driver's licenses. Figger literally was the bus driver, taking everyone to school. Between practice, study hall, and bus routes, Figger's days lasted from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"I didn't sleep much," he said, as if that needed clarification.
The days were exhausting, but Figger's first season was exhilarating. Wabash Valley finished 29-3, rising as high as #3 in the national junior-college rankings. Figger got the introduction to coaching he had craved. Plus, summer school had moved him within three credits of graduating from Eastern Kentucky.
Then Smith, his mentor, accepted a head coaching position at Barton Community College in Kansas. Figger wanted to follow him, and Smith was ready to take him along. But there was a hang-up.
"I still didn't have my degree," Figger said. "So I couldn't go out there with him."
Here's where Matt Figger's story veers towards the implausible.
Unable to join Smith, the man who gave him his first break, Figger landed an assistant coach's position at Vincennes University, a junior college in Vincennes, Indiana. Asked to recall his salary, Figger shrugged and said "Nothing."
Not surprisingly, his living situation fell somewhere between austere and absurd. He lived, rent-free, in a room in an empty warehouse, courtesy of a friend of the head coach. He had a mattress, a shower, and little else. After practice, he clocked a second job as a janitor in the Vincennes student union, working the 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. He can still recall, with crystal clarity, his daily diet: a Hardee's biscuit for breakfast, a McDonald's #2 Value Meal for lunch, and a Long John Silver's $1.99 meal deal for dinner. If he played his cards right, he could survive on five dollars a day. When hunger crept in, he ate from a sack of potatoes that he stored in his room.
There was also the matter of finishing his degree, which cost him his first climb up the coaching ladder. At the start of his second year at Vincennes, a three-credit Physical Education course - the final hours he'd need for his degree - opened up at Eastern Kentucky.
There was only one problem: he had to attend it in person, three days a week, 250 miles away in Richmond, Ky.
So in the fall of 1995, Figger developed a brutal regimen. On Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, he clocked out of his janitor's shift at 2 a.m., went home to shower (mercifully, he had moved into a dorm room by then), and hopped in his car, a red, 1988 Ford Festiva that he purchased for $8002. He then drove four hours to EKU, stopping every 100 miles to replace his oil because his car would leak it all out.
Once Figger arrived, he pinched a couple hours of sleep in his Festiva before heading to his 10 a.m. "Instruction of Dance" class. As part of the coursework, Figger had to drive to area middle schools, where he taught tweens the finer points of the two-step and Charleston. After class, he raced back to Vincennes in time to make the team's 3:30 practice.
"I never missed a class," Figger said. "I talked to the teacher one day, and told her what I did. She looked at me like I had six heads. She said, 'What are you doing?'
"I said, 'I'm trying to get my degree.'"
Four months, and 50,000 miles later, he had earned it.
That diligence quickly paid dividends for Matt Figger on the recruiting trail. In his third season at Vincennes, he refused to take "no" for an answer from a scarecrow-thin forward out of Clarksville, Tenn. That player, Shawn Marion is now in his 12th year in the NBA. Eddie Fogler plucked another player, William Unseld, to play for him at South Carolina.3 Figger's reputation for teaching, winning, and recruiting had begun to grow.
Grooming Division I players is coin of the realm for junior-college coaches, and after five seasons at Vincennes, Figger accepted an assistant position at Odessa (TX) JC in 1999. The job paid him $21,000.
"I thought I had made it," Figger said.
12-year NBA veteran Shawn Marion was Figger's most prized recruit at Vincennes.
Four years later, his own Division I offer arrived. John Pelphrey, himself an eastern Kentucky native, got to know Figger when they worked University of Florida camps together. He offered him a spot on his new staff at South Alabama.
Years later, Figger reached out to another counselor at those camps, a fiery Miami high school coach who had sent six of his players to Figger at Odessa JC. In 2007, Figger joined Frank Martin's bench at Kansas State.
We know what you're thinking.
Was there ever a point when Matt Figger wanted to give up? When the workload became too crushing, the pay too abject, the sacrifices too many to continue his coaching dream?
Figger barely permits himself the introspection.
"I never really thought about that, to be honest with you," he replied. "I've always known that hard work doesn't guarantee a victory, but at least people see how hard you work. And people who work hard normally get rewarded in the end."
On that, Figger heads back to the Gamecock locker room, another practice day in the books.
His coaching journey will pick up again the next day. But finally, Matt Figger has a job that's too good to be true.
1 Pikeville is more famously known to Gamecock fans as the school that Grady Wallace attended before transferring to South Carolina. His coach at Pikeville, Frank Johnson, followed him to USC, and spent 14 full seasons as the Gamecocks' head coach.
2 Figger had to park his Festiva on top of a hill. As he tells it, "The battery was dead, so it wouldn't start unless I rolled it downhill and popped the clutch."
3 One year at Vincennes, four of Figger's five starters signed to play Division I basketball (two at Tennessee, one at Memphis, one at N.C. State). The 10th man on that team became the leading scorer at Tennessee Tech.