No way can this be true.
Matt Figger has to be lying, or embellishing, or self-aggrandizing. Plenty of coaches make sacrifices during their careers, but this? Horatio Alger wouldn't have dreamed up something so laughable.
Living in an empty warehouse? Giving dance lessons to middle schoolers? Driving a bus? Eating sacks of potatoes? No reasonable person would put himself through such a miserable, Spartan existence to pursue his dream of coaching.
Yet here's Figger, recounting his rise from junior-college assistant to a top lieutenant for Frank Martin at South Carolina, and 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 alma mater?
The first book he recalls reading was about Vince Lombardi.
Matt Figger wanted to be a coach since he was five years old. He reverently studied the bios of Bear Bryant and Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall. He preferred a career in the gym to a career in the coal mines, where most of the folks in his dust-speck hometown of Jenkins, Ky. (population: 2,400) wound up.
He fancied himself a good shooter out of 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 right-handed reliever on the baseball team.
One of his 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 at Wabash Valley Community College in Mount Carmel, Ill., convinced Wyatt to resume 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 following Wabash Valley.
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.
"'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, and came with a catch. Figger - who by then 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," he thought.
And so began 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, coaching hopefuls have a raw deal: they carry full-time workloads for essentially part-time wages.
To make ends meet, assistants often work second jobs. Some teach. Others tend bar. Whatever the job, the goal is the same: to bankroll their dream for another season, not knowing whether their sacrifice will actually pay off.
At Wabash Valley Community College in 1993, Matt Figger's first side gig came with the Mount Carmel Parks and Recreation Department. Every morning beginning at 5 a.m., he mowed lawns, weeded, and lined baseball fields before reporting to Wabash Valley's 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.
"Coach Smith was one of the most disciplined, hardest-working guys I've ever worked with. It was a great learning experience for me."
During basketball season, Figger switched to a job more compliant with his schedule: he drove a bus around the Mount Carmel school district, transporting international students. In a twist on the old trash-talking line, Figger was literally 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 it needed clarification.
The days were exhausting, but the season was a success. Wabash Valley finished 29-3, rising to #3 in the national 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 was set to follow him.
"But I still didn't have my degree, so I couldn't go out there with him."
Here's where the story veers from implausible to absurd.
Now separated from Smith, the man who gave him his break in coaching, Matt Figger landed 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 downright preposterous.
Lodging? Vincennes' head coach had a buddy who offered Figger a place to stay rent-free. It was a room in an empty warehouse. Figger had a mattress, a shower, and little else. No heating or air conditioning, no dresser, not even a microwave (at first, anyway).
Away from the Vincennes University gym (right), Figger worked even harder.
Supplemental income? After practice, Figger worked as a janitor from 7 p.m.-2 a.m. at Vincennes' student union.
Sustenance? His daily diet consisted of 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. When hunger crept in, he ate from a sack of potatoes that he stored in his room.
There was also the issue of those remaining credit hours, which cost Figger his first climb up the coaching ranks. He needed that diploma, no matter how busy he had become. At the start of his second year, a three-credit Physical Education course opened up at Eastern Kentucky.
Only one problem: he had to attend it in person, 250 miles away in Richmond, Ky.
So during the fall of 1995, Figger followed a brutal routine. On Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, he clocked out of his janitor shift at 2 a.m. and went home to shower (mercifully, he had moved into a dorm room by then). He hopped in his car, a red, 1988 Ford Festiva that he purchased for $8002, and drove four hours through the night to EKU. He couldn't drive nonstop, either - his car leaked a quart of oil every 100 miles.
Once Figger arrived, he pinched a couple hours of sleep in his car before heading to his 10 a.m. class: "Instruction of Dance." As part of the coursework, Figger had to go to area middle schools to teach surely excited tweens the finer points of the two-step and Charleston (though on the bright side, when he teaches footwork drills in practice, he's amply qualified). After class, he raced back to Vincennes in time to make 3:30 practice.
Coaching must have felt like the easy part.
"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.
You 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, and the sacrifices too many to continue his coaching dream?
"I never really thought about that, to be honest with you," he replied. "I've always known that working hard 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."
It slowly started to happen for Figger. In his third season at Vincennes, he refused to take "no" 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 began to grow.
Grooming Division I players is coin of the realm in junior college, and after five seasons at Vincennes, Figger accepted an assistant coaching position at Odessa JC (Odessa, TX) in 1999. The job paid him the princely sum of $21,000.
12-year NBA veteran Shawn Marion was Figger's most prized recruit at Vincennes.
Four years later, a 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 tapped another friend from those camps, a fiery Miami high school coach who had sent six of his players to Odessa JC. In 2007, Figger joined Frank Martin's bench at Kansas State.
So here's Matt Figger today, five NCAA Tournaments and an Elite Eight appearance on his résumé, recounting a journey that has finally taken him to the University of South Carolina. A decade spent in junior colleges, living in an empty warehouse, hacking all manner of odd job, burning the candle at both ends to keep his own ambitions aflame - all that hustle has landed him a top assistant's spot in the SEC.
The journey will continue. But for now, Figger heads back to the Gamecock locker room, another practice day in the books.
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.