Friday Column: Making Sense Of Why San Jose State Never Called Eric Musselman
How Nevada’s hero could have ended up in San Jose instead of Reno
The infamous story of San Jose State spurning Musselman in 2013
San Jose State passed on Eric Musselman.
Now, that comes with some context, of course, but that’s an actual fact.
First, let’s take a few steps backward in time. It’s March of 2013. The Spartans are just months away from competing in the Mountain West after moving over from the Western Athletic Conference. Then-athletic director Gene Bleymaier opted to fire eight-year head coach George Nessman shortly after the WAC Tournament, wrapping Nessman’s SJSU tenure with a win-loss record of 86-161. The team’s leading scorer at 20.6 points per game, James Kinney, was kicked off the team midway through the year, causing the Spartans to drop their final 14 games.
Things weren’t going well in San Jose. Obviously, it was important that SJSU hit a home run with this hire or things were going to spiral out of control for a program that was soon to battle Mountain West heavyweights in both raucous arenas as well as the recruiting trails.
Enter Eric Musselman, son of former NBA coach Bill Musselman. Eric was an assistant coach on Herb Sendek’s staff at Arizona State at the time of San Jose State’s vacancy. Musselman appeared hungry to move up the college basketball coaching ladder after a lackluster three years as an NBA head coach of the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings. The 2012 NBA D-League Coach of the Year had taken his bruises both on and off the floor, but Musselman knew the West Coast well and had quality coaching experience, good genes, and simply made a lot of sense for what San Jose State was offering at the time.
Simply put, San Jose State needed Eric Musselman more than Eric Musselman needed San Jose State.
Musselman was among the initial rumored candidates for the SJSU head coaching job, according to Mercury News. Other names included then-Saint Mary’s assistant Rick Croy (now head coach of first-year D-I competitor Cal Baptist), then-Colorado assistant Jean Prioleau (the current San Jose State head coach), and then-Boise State assistant Dave Wojcik, who would wind up landing the job later that month.
Musselman reached out but never heard back.
Talk about the one that got away.
This isn’t to take anything away from Dave Wojcik, though. Wojcik was thrown into an incredibly challenging job and by the completion of his fourth and final year in San Jose, he had made the Spartans competitive and even relatively interesting. Wojcik quickly developed Brandon Clarke and Ryan Welage into high-major caliber players by the end of their sophomore seasons in 2017. Clarke is now a legitimate WCC Player of the Year contender at Gonzaga, averaging 16.8 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks per game, while Welage is averaging 8.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per game with Xavier this season.
That says a lot about what Wojcik was able to accomplish, especially with what is widely regarded as one of the toughest jobs in America. By the time of his sudden resignation that summer, Wojcik had compiled a 32-90 win-loss record.
With that being said, Gene Bleymaier didn’t do a terrible job by selecting Dave Wocjik for the position in 2013. Wojcik was qualified, experienced, and had spent the previous three seasons under Boise State head coach Leon Rice. The hire of Wojcik made sense, but not even giving Musselman a call didn’t.
It’s not like hiring Musselman would have been a no-brainer. In hindsight we can poke fun at San Jose State for not selecting Musselman, but I’m not sure I would have selected Muss either if I were in Bleymaier’s shoes in 2013. Musselman had zero college coaching experience and his recent head coaching tenures had been disasters. He was fired just two years after taking the Golden State Warriors job in 2002 and when Muss did receive another chance in 2006 with the Sacramento Kings, he was popped for a DUI 10 days before the season debut and fired the following spring after a single season. There were also reports of Musselman “clashing with management,” according to Sports Illustrated.
What’s happened since is well-documented. Musselman was promoted within Arizona State soon after missing out on the SJSU job, then bolted to LSU to be under Johnny Jones’ wing as an associate head coach with the Tigers. Musselman spent a year in Baton Rouge prior to signing his first collegiate head coaching contract with Nevada in 2015.
In three seasons and change with Musselman running the show, Nevada has gone 98-30, won a CBI Championship, appeared in the NCAA Tournament twice (advancing to the Sweet 16 last season), locked down the program’s highest-rated recruit in five-star Jordan Brown, and has reached as high as No. 5 in the AP Poll, among other milestones.
Eric Musselman has faced the Spartans six times since arriving in Reno. His Wolf Pack teams are 6-0 against SJSU with an average score of 77.7 to 58.5:
Nevada 61, San Jose State 55
Nevada 80, San Jose State 55
Nevada 82, San Jose State 67
Nevada 71, San Jose State 54
Nevada 80, San Jose State 67
Nevada 92, San Jose State 53
One of these programs is as healthy as it’s ever been, has been thoroughly dominating the Mountain West in recent years, and is on track to compete for a Final Four appearance in April.
The other is 13-81 (0.138 winning percentage) in league play since joining the Mountain West and has one NCAA Tournament appearance since the 1980’s.
San Jose State isn’t the only California institution that has failed to reap the benefits of Eric Musselman and his army. In March of 2017, shortly after Nevada was eliminated in the NCAA Tournament’s first round by Iowa State, the second-year Wolf Pack head coach interviewed with California. Musselman was reportedly the only candidate to interview multiple times for the position and was considered the front-runner for the majority of the search.
This time, though, it was Musselman who terminated the negotiations. Cal would eventually end up hiring Wyking Jones to fill the position. The Golden Bears are 13-25 since, including 2-21 in Pac-12 play over the last season and change. Lowly Washington State defeated Cal 82-59 on Thursday night.
Not many people could have anticipated that Eric Musselman would be in the position he’s at right now. From being shunned in 2013 by one of the nation’s weakest programs to being rumored to succeed Steve Alford at UCLA in 2019, Muss’ career has been filled with all sorts of ups and downs, twists and turns.
I’m not going to even attempt to predict the future of Musselman’s coaching career. One thing I do know, though, is a number of athletic directors like Gene Bleymaier are going to look back at the time they could have given Musselman a call and revitalized their college basketball team.
That opportunity has come and gone for almost every program now.
Eli Boettger is the lead basketball writer at Mountain West Wire. He’s covered Mountain West basketball since 2015 and his work has been featured on Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports, MSN, and other platforms. Boettger is a current USBWA member.