ATLANTA — The head coach bent over at the waist and rested his forearms on the press table, seemingly pressing all of his weight into his elbows. His ears covered by headphones as he prepped for a postgame interview, he hung his head, peering up only with his eyes to answer questions. His body language screamed of a man who had been wrung dry of emotion, as if the incredulity of what just happened was simply too much to bear.
Behind him, students danced in delirium at midcourt. Damon Stoudamire, the first Georgia Tech coach to win his first game against Duke, is a mighty career 1-0 in the ACC. That’s it. But as far as debuts go, this is about as good as it gets.
Taken on its own, Tech’s 72-68 win over No. 7 Duke does not a renaissance make. Dig into the actual game, though, and the substance reveals itself. The Yellow Jackets led for all but 1:38, coughing up the edge at the most precarious point — with two minutes remaining. Yet down four, they rallied back, ultimately scoring the game-winner on a bold alley-oop, They secured it with not one but two successive defensive swarms. Back that stalwartness up to a win against No. 21 Mississippi State four days prior, and the seeds of what Stoudamire is sowing begin to show.
This season marks the 20th anniversary of Georgia Tech’s appearance in the national title game. Thirty years ago last season marked the end of a program-defining run of nine consecutive NCAA Tournament berths that included five Sweet 16s, two Elite Eights and one Final Four.
But since the 2004 national championship appearance, Tech has had two winning seasons in the ACC and earned four tournament bids. Each ended in the first weekend, the lack of protracted success eventually costing Paul Hewitt, Brian Gregory and Josh Pastner their jobs.
Stoudamire came into the job well aware of the excavation that needed to be done. He also arrived with different bona fides from everyone who sat in the Georgia Tech head basketball coach’s chair. He is not a coaching lifer who has spent his entire adulthood climbing the ladder. He’s a former lottery pick and NBA Rookie of the Year who, as a coach, has jumped back and forth from the pro game to college.
The shift is not unintentional. In the last two decades, Georgia Tech had been something worse than mediocre; it had become irrelevant. When new athletic director J Batt went searching for his next coach, he wanted someone who could help the Yellow Jackets get their groove back.
“Swagger, some coolness, juice, those are all good words,” says Daniel Parker, the vice president of Atlanta-based Parker Executive Search, a firm specializing in college hires. “That’s what he is. He exudes swagger. He’s a guy that can say, ‘I was on the Celtics bench last year.’ He can walk into the Four Seasons, where Charles Barkley is holding court, and they’re friends. That’s what he brings. That’s what Georgia Tech needed.”
It is just a little past 8 a.m. in early October and the Yellow Jackets are hugging — in the hands clamped/chest bump/slap on the back/bro hug sort of way — but hugging nonetheless. This is how they start each practice. What looks like a handshake line is, in fact, a hug line. “There’s not enough hugging in the world,” associate head coach Karl Hobbs says. “Besides, these days you gotta show these guys you care about them. We are in the business of building relationships.” Hobbs has been in the business of basketball for more than 30 years, cutting his teeth as an assistant in the 1990s as Jim Calhoun’s top recruiter at UConn. Suffice it to say, Calhoun did not open practice with hugs.
But basketball evolution is constant, and spinning on an especially quick axis these days. The transfer portal, combined with name, image and likeness opportunities, has shifted the power dynamic. There is always, if not a guaranteed greener plot of grass, at least the allure of one. Where once players fretted over their coach’s contentment, now the roles are reversed. Keeping players happy is not a goal; it’s a necessity. Stoudamire, 50, uses his relative youth, relatability as a former player, and NBA cache to keep in step with his roster, sharing his own experiences and offering advice he learned the hard way.
Were it only so easy to require a bro hug and a few heart-to-hearts. It is not. Showing them you love them helps, but it better be packaged with the “Jerry Maguire” show them, too. “They are behind (on NIL opportunities) and they know it,’’ Parker says of Tech.
Atlanta boasts 16 Fortune 500 companies and, thanks to a tax incentive, a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry. It’s a vibrant, albeit transient, city filled with young professionals, old money and new. People have plenty of disposable income; they also have plenty of options.
Back in the day, when head coach Bobby Cremins was regularly making the NCAA Tournament, many fans and players chose Georgia Tech. The native New Yorker started a pipeline of point guards from his stomping grounds (Mark Price beget Kenny Anderson, who beget Stephon Marbury), turning a moribund program (1-29 in two years before Cremins arrived) into the hot spot to be. Back when he was Prime Time, not Coach Prime, Deion Sanders was a regular. Spike Lee made a few cameos, too.
But things began to falter after Cremins toyed with an offer from South Carolina in 1993. The Yellow Jackets’ NCAA streak ended the following year, and in February 2000, Cremins announced his plan to retire. Hewitt, hired from Siena College, revived the program with another run to the Final Four in 2004, but in the one-and-done era, Hewitt couldn’t build any continuity, with players such as Chris Bosh and Derrick Favors bolting for the NBA after a season. Hewitt was fired in 2011.
Since, success has been sporadic at best, Pastner’s ACC tournament title in 2021 ranking as the best run in decades. As the wins dwindled, so did the cache. Last year, the 8,600-seat McCamish Pavilion averaged just 4,713 fans.
But this weekend, more than 7,000 arrived on a Saturday afternoon when a little college football game of significance — the Southeastern Conference championship game — also was being played in Atlanta. While no doubt some of the Tech faithful arrived more as rubberneckers, anxious to get an up-close look at Duke, they left with the gift of unexpected victory, and perhaps the curiosity to come back again. That is exactly what Stoudamire needs.
Today, home crowds are more than just advantages; passionate fan bases often lead to successful collectives. Before coming to Georgia Tech in October 2022, Batt worked previously as Alabama’s executive deputy director of athletics, chief operating officer and chief revenue officer. Raising money for Crimson Tide athletics is the proverbial target practice in a barrel, but he’s made capital improvements a priority for Georgia Tech, too. The school’s competitive drive initiative, launched not long after Batt arrived on campus, raised $4.8 million in two months. He agrees that the school’s NIL potential was “limited to start,’’ but eyes the newly launched Tech Way collective as a way to keep Yellow Jackets competitive.
Plenty of Georgia Tech grads have deep pockets. What is a challenge for recruiting — namely attracting players to a selective, high academic STEM-rich school — adds up to financially successful graduates. According to the school’s most recent career survey, graduates earn an average salary of $85,000 upon receiving their degrees; those with their master’s top out at plus-$100,000.
Rarely has that money flowed into the athletic department coffers with the same competitive urgency of other ACC schools. Per the two schools’ athletic foundation reports, for example, Virginia received $18.3 million in contributions in 2019; Georgia Tech just $3.5 million.
In the NIL era, that won’t compute. Stoudamire is neither shy nor passive when recognizing the need for NIL deals to attract players. As a former player, he views it as long overdue; as a current coach, he sees it as necessary.
The greater Atlanta-area has always been rich with basketball talent — three top-10 players in the last two classes (Ace Bailey, Isaiah Collier and Stephon Castle). It’s even more prosperous now, with Overtime Elite parked less than a mile from the Tech campus. Overtime players Robert Dillingham (last year), Kanon Catchings and John Bol (this year) all rank as 247Sports consensus top 50 players. None of them, though, chose Georgia Tech. Bailey is headed to Rutgers, Katchings to Purdue and Bol to Ole Miss. Collier is at USC, Castle at UConn and Dillingham at Kentucky. Parse through the current Top 25 rosters and you’ll find even more players who opted not to stay home — Coen Carr (Michigan State), Damian Dunn (Houston), Matthew Cleveland (Miami) and Eli Lawrence (Texas A&M). Even Tech senior Kyle Sturdivant, a Norcross native, started at USC before coming home after the death of his father.
“What we have in this great city of Atlanta, it hasn’t been tapped into yet,’’ Stoudamire says. “I want our guys to have access to all of these things.”
Stoudamire pauses and smirks. “Of course, I do understand all of this is easier when you win.”
“Will somebody please yell, ‘I got f—-ing ball?’”
For a good 40 minutes, Stoudamire’s voice, which usually hovers somewhere between a rasp and a croak, doesn’t rise above conversation level. The morning hug routine spills over into practice, as Stoudamire preaches positivity. High energy, hard claps, boundless encouragement. Until, on a routine three-on-three drill, the Jackets transition on defense in near silence. One group does it, and Stoudamire kindly suggests that someone say they’ve got the lead dribbler. The next group repeats the mistake, and Stoudamire finally yells in exasperation.
It’s a trivial error. It’s not like no one picked up the guy with the ball; they just didn’t communicate the decision to their teammates. “Oh, man, that is him. Attention to detail, that’s what he’s all about,” says junior guard Miles Kelly. “He’s purposefully nitpicking so we get everything down to a T, so in the game it becomes second nature.”
Such foundational building takes time, but when it clicks? Consider the Jackets’ attention to scouting report detail. They, a team that is holding opponents to 28 percent from 3-point range this season, exposed a Duke team that has struggled lately from the arc (11 of 40 in their two prior games). The Devils were just 4 of 16.
Stoudamire hasn’t yet coined a buzzword for his team, but if there’s a front-runner, it’s accountability. In an hour-long interview, he says it seven times. He admits it’s something of a throwback in a social media age where information has both a short shelf life and lives forever. Yet as players embark on NIL deals and corporate partnerships, he argues it’s more important than ever.
But to Stoudamire, accountability means success on the court, too. Owning your mistakes. Attacking your weaknesses. Which also is tricky, thanks to a transfer portal that makes it easier to run from mistakes than own them. If the players find it foolish, they aren’t letting on. They arrive early, listen intently and have no problem calling out, “My bad,” when they err. “We call it juice,” Sturdivant says. “You gotta bring your own juice, and share if your teammates are lacking.”
Stoudamire rarely needs a sip. The new morning practice schedule has been an adjustment for the players. Not for the head coach. As his players shuffle in toward the locker room, Stoudamire is outside on his daily jog.
He is here because he wants to be, not because he has to be. Stoudamire earned $100 million in his NBA career and had a good gig in Boston. Last season, when head coach Joe Mazzulla missed two games because of an eye injury, Stoudamire took the reins. The brief run as boss reignited his desire to be a head coach, but Stoudamire figured he’d bide his time for an NBA gig. He voluntarily left the college game for the pros, after all. Stoudamire spent five years at Pacific, leaving after his good friend and then-Celtics head coach Ime Udoka called about an opening. He was neither disgruntled nor disenfranchised with college basketball; he just figured he’d maxed out that job.
Since 2000, only three West Coast Conference coaches have left on their own accord — Dan Monson, who went from Gonzaga to Minnesota; Kyle Smith, who jumped from San Francisco to Washington State, and his successor, Todd Golden, who left the Dons for Florida. Everyone else, blockaded by Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, got fired. Stoudamire took Pacific to 23-10 in 2020, and still finished third.
So when Batt called, he was intrigued. Stoudamire’s own college career at Arizona coincided with Cremins’ run, and he saw what Georgia Tech could be. Besides, he’s accustomed to doing what people thought can’t be done. At 5-10, he did not necessarily pass the eye test as either a would-be college superstar or NBA player. But his mother, Liz Washington, taught him to use the same word that creeps into his vocabulary now — accountability.
Growing up in Portland, he idolized Terrell Brandon and Gary Payton, and knew that, at his size, he’d have to work twice as hard to get there. So rather than taking advantage of the freedom his mother’s work schedule afforded him, he toed the line. On the rare occasion he stepped outside it, Washington was there to re-enforce. Stoudamire remembers his mother marching in to visit with his high school coach, threatening to yank him off the team if he didn’t get his grades right. “They weren’t right by her standards, not the school’s,” Stoudamire says.
In high school, he dropped 58 in a game and took his team to an undefeated state championship, but size and geography — he was from Oregon, not New York City, after all — caused many to question how good he could be, and he arrived to Lute Olson’s Arizona team with plenty of skeptics in the desert.
He left Arizona as an All-American and finalist for national player of the year. And still the questions lingered. On the night of the NBA Draft, fans booed when the Toronto Raptors selected Stoudamire over Ed O’Bannon with the seventh pick. O’Bannon lasted two years in the league; Stoudamire stuck around for 13.
All of that teaches a man not to worry about what everyone else thinks; worry about what you believe. “Why take the job?” Stoudamire says, raising his eyebrows. “Why not? Great institution, city of Atlanta, great place to live, the ACC. I built a program up from nothing. This isn’t that. This is not insurmountable.”
While Stoudamire runs through his practice, on the sideline a man sits folded into a chair that looks three sizes too small for him, quietly watching. When the Yellow Jackets are finished, they all walk over to say hello.
Dennis Scott is, in essence, the very thing Stoudamire needs. Not the 55-year-old version. It is the 18-year-old Scott, the one who played for the best high school team in the country and was named the best player in the country, that Stoudamire seeks. “J had a very set profile in his mind,’’ Parker says. “Every kid wants to make it to the NBA. He knows the route.”
Batt’s hedge already appears to have paid off. Stoudamire made the one-mile trek to Overtime Elite and snagged four-star Jaeden Mustaf out from under Indiana, Georgetown and other suitors. Ranked 48th in 247Sports Composite, Mustaf is the highest rated player to choose Georgia Tech since Iman Shumpert in 2008.
Hobbs understands just how important one commitment can be. He came to Georgia Tech from Rutgers, a program that didn’t even have the foundational history of Tech. Yet like Atlanta, New Jersey had plenty of recruits — just none who wanted to head to Piscataway. Then in 2018, Ron Harper Jr. out of Don Bosco Prep committed to the Scarlet Knights. Two years later, Paterson Catholic’s Cliff Omoruyi decided to stay home. All of a sudden, Rutgers went from nowhere to NCAA Tournament regular. “Anytime a recruit can identify your school, it gives you a chance to get in the door,” Hobbs says. “And all you want to do is get in that door.”
It helps that Stoudamire comes to the ACC at a time when there’s a little more space to squeeze by. Not to discount the win against Duke, but beating Jon Scheyer reads differently than upending Mike Krzyzewski. Pastner laughs when he thinks back to his first three ACC games as head coach at Georgia Tech. “Home against North Carolina and Roy Williams. At Duke with Mike Krzyzewski. Home against Louisville and Rick Pitino,” he says. “That was my introduction to the ACC. What is that, like 2,000 wins and how many national championships?” Closer to 2,400 and nine titles.
Even if Pastner got in the door, odds are one of those Hall of Famers — or Jim Boeheim — came in right before or after him. Now Stoudamire is one of seven coaches who have been in the conference three years or less, joining Boston College’s Earl Grant and North Carolina’s Hubert Davis (entering their third years), Scheyer and Louisville’s Kenny Payne (in Year 2), and Notre Dame’s Micah Shrewsberry and Syracuse’s Adrian Autry, who, like Stoudamire, are making their debuts.
But only one of those three newbies won his first ACC game this year. Yet Stoudamire did not allow himself to linger in the moment too long. Once he gathered himself to talk to the TV crew following the win against Duke, he was asked about the magnitude of what his team had accomplished.
“I’m trying to create a foundation here,’’ he said. “A culture. I want them to feel, as we move forward, like we’ve been here before, and we’ve done this. That’s what I’m trying to create.’’
One win does not a turnaround make; but it’s sure a nice place to start.
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: John W. McDonough, Rich von Bilberstein, Bob Rosato / Getty Images)