Thursday, April 25

College Basketball Coach Turns Worst Coaching Job Into Slam Dunk at Salkehatchie

A little over a year ago, the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie posted a job opening for its men’s basketball coach. It might have been a single sentence: applications being accepted for the worst college coaching job in the country.

The school, a junior college at a rural outpost about an hour’s drive west of Charleston, had shut down its men’s basketball program before last season after going through four coaches in eight months. One quit before setting foot on campus.

There was not much to offer the candidates. The pay: $38,000 per year but no recruiting budget or staff. The facilities: a gym whose court is seven feet short of regulation, whose showers don’t have running water and whose men’s locker room doesn’t have a toilet.

And another thing: there were no players.

The job would test career ambitions, which made it perfect for Matt Lynch.

Lynch, 33, is like many hustling their way up the coaching ladder. He’s had the coaching bug since a church league dad handed him a clipboard and asked him to design his team’s final play. He embraces long hours. He schemes persistently. He charms relentlessly.

But what sets Lynch apart is that he is making the climb as an openly gay man.

In almost any field beside men’s sports, this might be met with a shrug. It’s been more than a decade since the military repealed its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the last presidential election cycle featured a gay candidate. Acceptance in the United States has extended emphatically to women’s sports. But men’s sports, despite a trickle of out athletes and assistant coaches, largely remains one of America’s last closets.

According to Outsports, the website that chronicles L.G.B.T.Q. athletes, there had never been a publicly gay men’s head coach in any of the North American major professional leagues, nor in college football or men’s basketball until Lynch.

There was no way for Lynch to know if being gay would affect his job prospects, but it remained a question in the back of his mind — even for a job that was within his reach.

“If I was going to get a head coaching job, I knew it was going to be at a place that needed to be built,” said Lynch, who came out publicly nearly four years ago in an essay for Outsports shortly after he was fired, along with the rest of the staff, at the University of North Carolina Wilmington after three losing seasons. “All I ever wanted was an opportunity. The way I looked at it was this may be a bad job, but it’s my bad job. You’ve got to make the big time where you are.”

In a series of interviews over the last year, starting shortly after he was hired in December 2022, Lynch has described putting together a program almost from scratch — enlisting two volunteer assistants, prodding sympathetic administrators for help and assembling an all-freshman roster with a global reach.

As Lynch closes out his first season with a winning record, his X-and-O acumen has been challenged, he has leaned on his master’s degree in sports psychology, dusted off his carpentry and painting skills and shaken hands and kissed babies as if he were running for mayor.

What he has rarely done is address his sexual orientation.

There have been no taunts from opponents. Nobody has made him feel unwelcome in Walterboro, home to the university’s East Campus. It’s a small town, pop. 5,544, where moss hangs from towering oaks, a church sits on nearly every corner and the poverty rate exceeds 20 percent. Within the team, there were instances early on when a player would quip that something uncool was “so gay” before catching himself, with the help of a teammate’s side-eyed glance, and apologizing to Lynch.

“The truth of it is there hasn’t been one incident with malicious intent,” Lynch said.

The only instance of discomfort came when he met an older, prospective donor who is gay for lunch. The man badgered Lynch to go swimming in the pool, with the suggestion that what happens in the backyard stays there. Lynch declined. “I told him if you’re interested in donating, great,” he said. “I haven’t talked to him since.”

Others in the gay community have lent support. Rick Welts, a former N.B.A. executive who is gay, connected Lynch with an executive from Nike, which supplied new uniforms.

In assembling a team, Lynch could only sell a vision. He was limited to partial scholarships and had no track record as a head coach. He scoured the state for under-recruited high school gems, sending by mail daily puzzle pieces that would lay out to recruits why Salk, as the school is called, would be a perfect fit.

He canvassed former players who were playing abroad for recommendations and watched games online at all hours. The result is a roster with five Australians, four South Carolinians, two Englishmen, one German, one Costa Rican and one Virginian.

On a 500-mile drive home from a recruiting showcase outside Washington, D.C., Lynch stopped for a video call with the family of Rhys Grocott, a beefy 6-foot-9 center from Portsmouth, England. Grocott’s mother asked about in-person classes: “I want him up and out of bed,” she said.

“There’s nothing sexy about Salk,” Lynch told the family. “But if you come here, you’re going to be a better man, a better student and a better athlete.”

The next day, Grocott called to say he would be the 12th commitment.

Since players arrived in late August, Lynch has addressed his sexual orientation with the team once — when he hosted a September retreat at his house in Wilmington, N.C. On their last night, the team sat around a bonfire in the backyard.

He wrestled with talking about his sexuality.

“My issue addressing it had nothing to do with any fear of coming out,” he said. “None of my guys said, ‘Hi, my name is … and I’m gay. Or straight.’ I don’t know why, internally, I feel like I have to tell people. I struggle with that.”

He told the players he did not need their acceptance — that it had taken nearly 30 years to accept himself.

“He’s not afraid to open himself up to us, which is a big positive,” said Darcy Pares, a guard from Port Macquarie, Australia. “We might not like him some days at practice, we might not like him when he wakes us up early to go to the weight room, but we know he’s doing it because he really cares about us.”

He gut renovated the men’s basketball locker room over the summer, ripping out dilapidated carpet with a box cutter and taking a sledgehammer to a broken pool table. His mother, sister and brother arrived to slap fresh paint on the lockers and cinder block walls; he scavenged leather sofas to replace the ratty one he inherited; and he scrounged new carpet, blinds, a full-length mirror, a dry-erase board and a television on the cheap.

A built-in bookcase is filled with framed family photos of every player and coach, and the flag of each player’s home country hangs over his locker.

There are no dormitories at Salk, so the players are housed in a seven-bedroom apartment a mile from campus, developing the sort of chemistry that comes from the communal realization that someone has to wash the dishes piled in the sink.

“This is good for him,” Traci Kirk said of her son, Grayson, who in high school underwent emergency surgery after being struck by a stray bullet while playing pickup basketball in Lancaster, S.C. “He’s my only child and he’s never shared a room, never shared a bathroom with anybody. Now he’s in an environment where everybody is from a different background.”

Lynch made no assurances to parents about playing time or winning. But he made two promises: that they would know how to change a flat tire and properly knot a tie. Before the season-opening game, Jaiden Cancela, a guard from Virginia Beach, stood in front of a mirror fiddling with a Windsor knot.

After the umpteenth attempt, with his mother smiling nearby, Cancela sighed after securing a passable knot.

Lynch, who did not play basketball in college, has counted on a trait he calls “a little shake and wiggle.”

A former classmate, who had been the men’s team manager for the University of North Carolina, put Lynch in touch with C.B. McGrath, an assistant coach, who agreed to show Lynch the facilities.

When Lynch arrived in a suit, McGrath quipped that it was a tour, not a job interview. But a year later, when McGrath became the head coach at U.N.C.W., he hired Lynch as the video coordinator.

The big break came at a time of personal torment.

Lynch had long equated being gay with being soft, so he vowed not to be soft. He wasn’t nice to girls in high school. He ignored the janitor who cleaned the basketball office. He’d walk around campus after midnight for hours to tire himself out so he could sleep.

“Sexuality is a very powerful thing if you’re going to suppress it,” he said. “Lying becomes very heavy.”

Though his family knew the truth, few others did. He dated occasionally and warily. Certain that coming out would be a career killer, he began to think about doing something else — or coaching women’s basketball.

As he began his third season in Wilmington, Lynch summoned the courage to ask Rob Burke, the assistant with whom he had spent many long nights breaking down film, to meet for drinks. Sufficiently lubricated, Lynch handed Burke his phone and asked him to read a long note.

“About the ninth or 10th graph, it says ‘I’m gay,” Burke said.

Burke got up and gave his friend a hug and slapped him on the behind, wisecracking that Lynch probably liked that — a sign in their shared language that he had Burke’s unwavering support.

Minutes before his essay in Outsports was published, he started the drive home to Erie, Pa., tossing his phone into the back seat.

When he stopped hours later near Washington, D.C., he had more than 300 supportive text messages. He described the day as the best of his life.

Six months later came the worst, when his father, Bill Lynch, died. Matt had grown up always trying to please his father, a former college basketball player with an opinion on everything.

At Salk’s season opener, an empty chair was left next to Lynch’s seat for his father. His mother, Irma, sat at the other end of the bench, serving as an honorary assistant.

“Bill accepted Matt and loved him, but it was hard for him — he thought it was a phase,” said Irma Lynch, who cooks team meals when she visits. “The last week of his life, Matt would visit in the hospital and Bill would say, ‘Are you sure you’re gay? There’s a really pretty nurse here,’ and Matt would shoot it down.”

The Indians are 17-13 overall, 6-10 in conference. But the young team has won three in a row — including ending Caldwell Tech’s 21-game winning streak — entering next week’s conference tournament. Six of the conference losses have been by 5 points or less, and Lynch frets that a more experienced coach might have won.

“Matt wants the end game, the championship,” said Burke, now the head coach at Division II Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C. “He forgets how far his guys have come and how much of an impact he’s making. He’s got no scholarships and he’s getting kids to chase the American dream. I don’t think he’s grasped how important he is to the gay community. But he doesn’t want to be recognized as an openly gay coach; he wants to be recognized as a really good coach.”

In time, perhaps, he will be.

Until then, he will remain busy with his restoration projects — the one at Salk, and the one at home.