Basketball Coach McMahon on Recruiting, Career Goals, and Joy

August 31, 2022

President Tate and Coach Matt McMahon

Is student-athlete recruitment an art or a science? How do you find the next Ja Morant? What are three things LSU Men’s Basketball Matt McMahon asks his players to control? McMahon answers these questions and more on this episode of “On Par.”

Matt McMahon is the head coach of the LSU men’s basketball team. He was the 2021-22 Ohio Valley Conference Coach of the Year, and a Naismith National Coach of the Year Semifinalist who led Murray State to the first 18-0 season in that conference’s history. His teams won four conference championships in the last five seasons, three conference tournaments, and two NCAA tournament games.

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[00:00:00] William F. Tate IV: Welcome to "On Par with the President." On today's episode, I am speaking with new head coach of LSU's men's basketball team, Matt McMahon. Coach McMahon was the 2021-2022 Ohio Valley Coach of the Year and a Naismith National Coach of the Year semifinalist who led Murray State to an 18 and 0 record in their conference, first in history. His teams won four conference championships in the last five years, three conference tournaments and made the NCAA tournament three times.

[00:00:35] Well, let's tee off, coach. Growing up, when did you first start playing sports? And what sports did you play?

[00:00:42] Matt McMahon: Uh, as far back as I can remember, uh, I was really lucky. I grew up in a small town, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but it was a, it's a great sports town. And, uh, my dad was a college athlete. So he got me started right away. But there have been some big time athletes come out of, of Oak Ridge. One of, uh, Joe Burrow's, uh, top receivers Tee Higgins right now with the Cincinnati Bengals. I grew up watching Jennifer Azzi, who was on the 1996 gold medal Olympic team, uh, for, for representing the USA and women's basketball. So it just, uh, my high school teammates, uh, point guard ended up being a starting defensive back at Florida. Another one of the guards with us was a starting tailback at Alabama.

[00:01:31] So it's just a great sports town where you, where you grow up playing a little bit of everything. For me, it was basketball and soccer. My senior year in high school I was 155 pounds, so football wasn't really in the equation for me. Uh, but really fortunate, had great coaches in our hometown, very passionate, uh, about sports.

[00:01:50] William F. Tate IV: So coach, when did you start with hoops? When did you get into the game? I mean, how did that start for you?

[00:01:55] Matt McMahon: Right away. Uh, growing up, going to all the camps. You know, I've told the story, it's, it's ironic ending up here at LSU. I grew up doing the Pistol Pete homework basketball videos, uh, in the driveway and just fell in love with the game. And, uh, was very fortunate to have coaches who pushed us, encouraged us, challenged us, to really follow our passion. And, and for me, that was, that was the game of basketball.

[00:02:25] William F. Tate IV: Well, coach, since you've been here, you had a really fast start and, um, I've been very impressed. What have you learned about the culture of Louisiana that you might apply in the program?

[00:02:34] Matt McMahon: Well, that was part of the draw for me to LSU is that there is a unique and different culture here in Louisiana. And I, I think as, uh, in your position as you're making hires you're looking for the right cultural fit for the university. The coaches are no different. I was looking for the right fit for me and my family. And LSU represents all of those things. I think you see the passion and the pride of the fan base across the state, uh, the love of family, which is, is number one for me. And, and of course the love of winning and competition. And so, I think there are a lot of similarities in the culture we want to build in our basketball program here in the great state of Louisiana.

[00:03:21] William F. Tate IV: Well, coach, you've had a lot of success in your professional career and a lot of that depends on the student athlete. How, how do you motivate the young men that you work with in your program?

[00:03:33] Matt McMahon: I, I think it just starts with time investment. Uh, you have to invest in people and build genuine relationships. And I think that, that comes through just energy and effort and care and time to establish those relationships to where then you can challenge young people to hopefully become the best they're capable of being. That's in the classroom, that's on the basketball court, that's in life. And so I think it has to start there with, with the ability to, to build those genuine relationships.

[00:04:06] William F. Tate IV: I can tell you're a relationship person. I popped into one of your, uh, open scrimmages. And, um, you could just see the energy and the passion and the way everybody's talking to each other. It's very exciting. Let me ask you about this, cause everybody's gonna want to know, and I, I'm pretty sure you've been asked this before, but I don't know. What, what characteristics do you look for in a player to succeed on the court? And I know everyone's gonna say, you know, the best player you probably have is Ja Morant. So, if you're looking for that next person of that standing, what, what do you look for?

[00:04:40] Matt McMahon: It's a great question. One we're always studying and trying to improve upon our evaluation, uh, ability. Ja Morant, basketball genius. You know, he's a once in a lifetime type player. But I've learned a lot through the opportunity to coach him and recruit him. You know, so many times we get caught up in social media and recruiting rankings and how many stars does a player have next to their name. I think we can all walk into the gym and see who can play and who has talent and who has basketball skill. We're trying to look for some other separators, uh, competitive spirit, what kind of teammate are they, do they make a positive impact on the people around them?

[00:05:25] What kind of toughness do they have? How driven are they to become the best player they're capable of being? I think all of those things, uh, while hard to measure and evaluate, have a greater, uh, determination on outcomes of players in the long run. And so just trying to be as detailed and thorough as we can, uh, to get to the heart of who that player is as a person, uh, is, is critical for us.

[00:05:54] William F. Tate IV: Well, you mentioned measuring, which is a, you know, I'm a, I'm a scientist, so we love to measure things, but is this more art or science? How, how are you figuring this out about a young person? You know, cause you only have so many slots on the team. How do you make that call that, that's the guy? And I think people really are curious about that because, you know, we have rating systems and all kinds of things, and I'm, I'm sure you've thought about rating systems. But I know it's gotta be more than just some external rating system is determining who you want to go after.

[00:06:27] Matt McMahon: Some of it is certainly, you know it when you see it. A "that's our kind of guy, that's who we want in our program." Uh, but I think it's just a mix of the art and science. You know, you're having to try to establish a way, that we can have a detailed evaluation process that allows us to compare players and the traits that we think are most important. And so for us, we create our own system. We have our core values that I know you and I have talked about before. Well, we need to factor those core values in when we're recruiting and evaluating players. Uh, if they don't fit those core values; hard work, unselfishness, toughness, accountability. Uh, then we're, we're crazy if we think we're gonna get 'em here and just completely change a human. So, we have different factors that we would go through and evaluate and rate and, and try to establish who we think are the best fits for LSU.

[00:07:31] William F. Tate IV: Outstanding. Coach, you, you often talk about controlling what you can control. What does that mean for a basketball player or a student athlete on or off the court?

[00:07:41] Matt McMahon: I think my job as the head coach is, in our program, is to provide simplicity, uh, in what we do, clarity, that there's never any questions there, and then intentionality, how we go about doing what we do. And so for us, very simple, when you roll out of that bed every morning, uh, there are three things that you're gonna control that day, your mindset, your effort, and then your actions. And so we try to focus on those things. Uh, what I love about those? They require zero talent, zero ability, zero skill. Those are essentially choices, uh, that we get to make each day. But they also have the greatest return on our investment each day. And so we try to really establish a culture where we're gonna control the things that we can control.

[00:08:30] I also think in today's age, it's different from 25 years ago when I played. Uh, and there's certain distractions and, and noise out there that it's our job as coaches to try and help our players handle. I always tell the story. When I, when I played at Appalachian State, after the game, if my family wasn't there, I would go back to my room. I would, top desk drawer, pull out a calling card with about a 30 digit code on it and call home and tell them about the game. And now a player comes in after the game, and he has 500 notifications on his phone, all kinds of different noise. Some of it's great, some of it's not and helping young people manage that, I think, those distractions is really important for us to just focus on controlling what we can control each day.

[00:09:19] William F. Tate IV: Well, speaking of that, coach, last year you did something that is very special. When you run the table in your conference, they know you. You all know each other really well. You studied each other carefully. How did you keep the student athletes on the team focused game by game? How did you keep them mentally locked in to be able to focus on the next game?

[00:09:43] Matt McMahon: Well, that's a great credit to the players, uh, being able to do that. I think some of that is just learning as a coach from experience. You know, my first year as an assistant coach at Murray State under Steve Prohm, we started the year 23 and 0 and number seven in the country. Dick Vitale was there broadcasting the games. Uh, it, it really was a wild atmosphere, and I learned watching how Coach Prohm kept everyone focused on just winning the next game. And so as, as I tried to develop my own coaching philosophy, if I was ever fortunate enough to get an opportunity to be a head coach, that was one of the things that was gonna be very important to me. And toughness, the way we define it in our program, is your ability to move on and focus on the next most important thing.

[00:10:33] And so one of the stats I'm most proud of, we had a stretch, we were a Thursday-Saturday league, uh, in the, in the Ohio Valley. And from 2018 to 2020, we won 29 straight games on Saturday nights. And, a big part of that was just, we play the game Thursday, win or lose we focus on making the corrections quickly, and then we move on to the next, most important thing, which is winning the next game. And so, you know, fortunately for us, we had great players who, who bought into that and just stayed focused on, on the task at hand, which is a lot easier said than done. Uh, especially when you're trying to do something historic like that. I mean, we ended up winning our conference tournament. And I think it was the ninth team in the last three decades of college basketball to go 20 and 0, in league play. So, that's all about the players.

[00:11:27] William F. Tate IV: Wow, coach, that, that's amazing. And I, I love that next game mentality, no matter what happens in the prior game. Now, speaking of the next game mentality, I'm gonna share this. I hope I hope you're not embarrassed. So when I first met you, I, I said, wow, you know, you're, you're stepping into a tough situation.

[00:11:44] Um, there's a roster management scenario where, you know, some guys are leaving, you're leaving a bunch of guys you really care about, and you're coming here to LSU and now you've got to um, manage the roster, um, with a lot of folks feeling like, you know, they want to take their talents elsewhere. Talk to us a little bit about how you thought about recruiting, um, new players to LSU, but also re-recruiting, if you will, those, some of those guys who are already on, in the program.

[00:12:18] Matt McMahon: I guess I would start by saying some of these things that we preach to our players, control what you can control, toughness, move on to the next most important thing, those aren't just us talking down to the players. Those are the things I'm trying to live by too. Those are the, the things I'm trying to model as a coach. So, overwhelming at first, uh, being very honest. You know, you're sitting there, you're at this great institution, LSU, uh it's about April 1st and you have zero players on the roster. You're entering the, the SEC, the Southeastern Conference. That's, that's an overwhelming thought.

[00:12:54] William F. Tate IV: Where nobody cares.

[00:12:55] Matt McMahon: That's exactly right. Uh, so right away, I think, it, we started to, I think most importantly for me was this was not a one person job. So it was about how quickly can I hire an elite coaching staff to come in here and start to build our program and was really fortunate to be able to do that. When we're hiring as, as a staff, I want people that are well-rounded coaches, not looking for specialty people. I want well-rounded coaches who are gonna invest in our players. And really help them become the best they can be. And so was fortunate to get that done very quickly. Uh, and then we had basically four different components to building our roster.

[00:13:40] Number one was the retention of student athletes here at LSU. And I have just been so impressed with Mwani Wilkinson, Justice Williams, and Adam Miller. Uh, so appreciative and, and thankful of their buy-in, uh, to our coaching staff and what we want to build here. Uh, that was phase one. Phase two was, uh, we were fortunate, uh, three of the players from Murray State that I had the privilege to coach there, who went into the portal, wanted to follow us here to LSU. Uh, and then the third component was the transfer portal. And when you're trying to build a roster from zero, you have to balance your classes. You're also trying to balance your positional needs. And we were able to use the portal to sign three players who have two years college experience and three years eligibility remaining.

[00:14:29] And then the final piece is, I, it's one of the many reasons I'm here. I think you can recruit the best players in America, uh, coming out of high school at LSU. And so we went to work immediately on trying to sign the best available high school talent in the country, and, uh, was really excited with where we were able to land there, and, uh, with the roster we were able to put together in, in about a 47 day window.

[00:14:51] William F. Tate IV: Well, coach, I'm gonna say, you know, I'm no expert in, you know, college basketball. I'm a consumer like a lot of folks, but I did get the chance to see some of those young people play and they, they are very talented and, uh, really seem to have a joy for the game. And it's exciting as the president to say job well done and look forward to seeing them out there. Now, that said, did you have any special places that you brought your recruits? You know, everybody's gotta see something at LSU. What, what did you, did you figure that sort of the geography of opportunity with respect to recruits and where you might want to bring them?

[00:15:28] Matt McMahon: Oh, there, there's several. I, I think, you know, for me as a, a diehard college sports fan, you know, taking, walking the player or student athlete and their families out on to the field at Tiger Stadium, is certainly a highlight of the visit. Uh, you have to go by and see Mike the Tiger. I mean, it's one of the, the greatest traditions in all of sports.

[00:15:52] I still can't believe we have a live tiger that lives right by the, the, the Pete Maravich Center. Uh, and then just the practice facility and just the players are gonna have the opportunity to work in there 24-7, uh, 365 days a year. Uh, and of course for me, I, I think it, it never gets old walking by those statues outside the arena. Bob Pettit, first NBA MVP in the history of basketball, uh, obviously Shaquille O'Neal, and now most recently, Pistol Pete Maravich, you know, three of the top 50 players in the NBA at the 50 year anniversary, three of the top 75 at 75. It just speaks to the great tradition here, and the history of the basketball program at LSU.

[00:16:40] William F. Tate IV: Well coach, over the years, you know, both at Murray State and then now here at LSU, you work with these student athletes, you know, what, what, what do you hope for once they leave your tutelage when they graduate?

[00:16:55] Matt McMahon: Well, I think you want them, obviously, to have great opportunities when they leave, whether that's the NBA, uh, professional, other professional basketball leagues, the business world. You want them to have those opportunities, but more importantly, you hope you've prepared them to be successful in those opportunities. And so I, I think if we can do anything as a coaching staff, it's invest more time, energy, effort, and care into helping our players max out the, the unbelievable opportunities that they're gonna have being a student athlete at LSU.

[00:17:30] And that's on the court, that's in the classroom, that's this new NIL world that we're in, that's in the, in the community on campus. And so you hope you're preparing young men, uh, to go out and be successful in their chosen line of work, but also to be great citizens in their community, great fathers, great husbands. That's the ultimate goal for us as coaches.

[00:17:55] William F. Tate IV: How do you view the graduate of your program or the alums? Do they play a role in any way in the program, um, after they've finished?

[00:18:03] Matt McMahon: Well, I think it's huge. I think it starts in the recruiting process. You know, recruits wanna see that there's a model, a blueprint, so to speak in place for them to get to where they aspire to go. And some of those players I've mentioned, uh, you know, all the NBA talent that's come through this LSU program, you know, having, uh, Tasmin Mitchell on our coaching staff, who was on the '06 final four team, the third all time leading score in the history of the school, they see that there's a pathway to get to where they want to go.

[00:18:35] Uh, but then I think what you're trying to create, what we're gonna invest a lot of time as a coaching staff is this brotherhood, this comradery, uh, that comes in a pride in the LSU program from all the former players. And I think where we've sometimes missed the boat in college athletics is everybody knows about Ja Morant. Everybody knows about Shaq. I think sometimes we fail to tell the stories of the people who made it outside of professional sports. You think of a Collis Temple and what he means to the LSU program and the success that he's had and the generational impact he's made.

[00:19:16] I just sent a picture to our players, uh, this morning. 7:00 AM, uh, in the practice facility is Garrett Temple. He's entering his 14th year in the NBA. He's the Vice President of the NBA Player's Association, all these career earnings. Uh, and 7:00 AM on a Tuesday in August, he's in the practice facility working on his game still striving to get better and prepare for, for season number 14 in the NBA. So, I think all those examples and stories that we can tell make a huge impact on our players that make a huge impact on recruiting.

[00:19:55] William F. Tate IV: Outstanding. That is a great example. He is a hardworking fellow on the, in business and in, in basketball. Very impressive young man. You mentioned in the press conference, the word joy. And you know, that sticks out. Often you don't hear coaches talk about joy. You know, we tend, you know, to hear about accountability, working hard. But you mentioned joy, and I'm curious. Um, what brings you joy and then how do you help other people or motivate others in your program to think about and find joy in what they do?

[00:20:32] Matt McMahon: There's a lot of history behind that. I, I think when I first started out as a head coach, our first core value was character, and I was two years in and I, I just, I really wasn't enjoying it. I had worked my whole life. I'd been a 15 year assistant, uh, to, to get an opportunity, to be a head coach. And, and I wasn't finding the joy in it at all. It was, it was miserable quite frankly. And so we took character off. That's the price of admission. If you don't have character, you're not gonna be a part of the organization anyway and made joy one of the core values of the program. And, uh, it's really just a life reflection for me. Um, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sitting here visiting with the president of LSU, getting to coach at LSU.

[00:21:21] Uh, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to coach at Murray State. I want to take advantage of that. There should be a lot of fun in that, and I think it gets lost sometimes in, in the business of college athletics today. Uh, and, and the pursuit of the NBA dream and so forth. Doesn't mean you can't enjoy the journey along the way. And so, uh, what brings me great joy is, is seeing these moments of celebration for your players. You know, I think back to, we won a game at Memphis this year in the FedExForum. KJ Williams, who has joined us here at LSU, he had 75 members of his family and friends there from Cleveland, Mississippi. And they all take a group photo in the stands of, of the FedExForum. And just the, the joy that, that photo will bring that family for generations to come, uh, means a lot to me.

[00:22:20] Uh, there's a picture from Ja Morant's freshman year when he, uh, we won the championship, OVC Championship to go to the NCAA tournament. And his dad is picking him up off the court and lifting him into the stands to celebrate. Now, those moments are really why you coach. And, and then one, I think, you know, graduation day. You know, as a coach, that's, that's one of the best days of the year. Seeing that joy and the pride on the family's faces as they see their son walk across that stage and shake your hand, you know, oftentimes being a first generation college graduate, uh it's, it's what it's all about. And so I know you have to win. You know, we have to win to keep this platform, uh, but it's, it's an incredible platform to make an impact on people.

[00:23:15] William F. Tate IV: Wow, coach. That's, that's awesome. I, I do have a hard question for you, cause you're a humble man. You don't, you don't, you know, you don't toot your own horn, so this might be tough for you. So I'm getting you ready. I'm getting you ready. But if you had to explain to someone what sets you apart as a coach, how, how would you go about doing that? What, what would you say?

[00:23:42] Matt McMahon: A great question. One I've really never thought about. I, I would think, uh, the best way I could answer it is if, if I do have a strength, it's the ability to surround myself with great people from leadership, yourself, Scott Woodward. Uh, surround yourself with great people, the coaching staff that, that we hire, hired here, the coaching staff I had at Murray State. Surround myself with great people, the players that we recruit, uh, again, talented but great people. And so I think by, um, being able to find the ability to get the right people around me. You know, I have many weaknesses, many flaws. So when I'm hiring a staff, I'm trying to identify people who will solidify those weaknesses or flaws that I have, uh, so that we can build the best staff that we can have and build the best program.

[00:24:41] Uh, I know the head coach's name is the one that good and bad, win or lose gets, has their name in the paper. Uh, but I think trying to build and create alignment within the organization from the top of the leadership model all the way down to your managers and student assistants, uh, is, is what it's all about. And, what has enabled me to have some degree of success in college coaching.

[00:25:10] William F. Tate IV: Well, coach, I said it at the beginning of the question. You're a very humble man. And, um, and I'll just say this. I think that's what sets you apart. I mean, especially in the world of college athletics where it's a lot of bravado and the like. I, I greatly appreciate your humility and, um, that, that is gonna be a great example for our young people. I really appreciate that.

[00:25:30] Matt McMahon: Thank you.

[00:25:30] William F. Tate IV: Now, let's take you out, I don't know how many more years you wanna work. We're gonna go way out. You know, you're gonna be coming in here with a cane and gray hair. And you look back, what, what do you want your legacy to be as a coach?

[00:25:44] Matt McMahon: Oh, that's an easy one for me, the, the people. That hopefully you've made a, a huge impact in their lives. I say it all the time, outside of my mom and my dad, most influential people in my life, hands down, have been my coaches. And that's one of the things that led me into this field is the opportunity to give back and hopefully make an impact on young people. Um, you know, when I first started out, I, I wasn't very good at what I did. I think I worked very hard, um, but I didn't understand that it was about the people.

[00:26:15] You know, my only concern was winning the next game, signing the next recruit. And now as I'm getting old, you see all my hairs turning gray, it's about seeing your players walk across that stage and graduate. It's seeing Ja Morant walk across and shake Adam Silver's hand and, you know, sign that beautiful contract extension he just signed this summer. It's about, uh, going to see, uh, your players getting married, uh, when they FaceTime you at, at the birth of their, their first child, all of those things, you know, the people we're fortunate to coach.

[00:26:50] And then I hope, you know, as I continue on this journey, I, I hope and cause they're certainly on our staff, uh, those assistant coaches getting their head coaching opportunities, uh, and going on and having great success. And, and then even I hope to one day, if I can make it long enough in this business, you know, be the old guy on one of my former player's coaching staffs, who's just the hangout guy there to enjoy the journey, uh, there at the end of the coaching career.

[00:27:20] William F. Tate IV: Well, that's pretty awesome. I was gonna ask you what motivated you to succeed and, and to be a coach, but you answered that question really well. Um, let's go to a couple fun questions. How about that? All right. So I understand that your wife was a basketball player. So real talk, coach, if you're out on the court, how many points does she spot you?

[00:27:44] Matt McMahon: Well, I need 'em. She, she was a big time player, certainly the best shooter in the family still to this day. And, uh, she had a great career at Furman University. She's in her Hall of Fame back home. Uh, so I, I try, try to avoid those competitions, cause Mason, who is now gonna be a sixth grader here, uh, he likes to talk a lot of trash and, and I like to avoid hearing all that. So, I try to avoid the games.

[00:28:12] William F. Tate IV: Gotcha. Gotcha. So Mason's playing basketball? He's hooping?

[00:28:17] Matt McMahon: Diehard. Diehard. He loves, all three are. That's the one thing, you know, in this deal, you can't have family and college athletics separate. It's uh, you gotta partner them together. So they're, they're all in, diehard LSU Tiger fans.

[00:28:32] William F. Tate IV: You gotta tell me, coach, are they critiquing your coaching?

[00:28:36] Matt McMahon: Not yet, but I'm sure that's coming. I'm sure that's coming.

[00:28:40] William F. Tate IV: All right. All right. Well, tell me, coach, what, what's your, one of your favorite places or spots here on the LSU campus or in Baton Rouge?

[00:28:47] Matt McMahon: Uh, I've enjoyed just getting to go on these morning runs and check everything out. I'm still learning. Uh, that's exciting to me. Um, but I mentioned the Mike the Tiger, that's, that never gets old, uh, just all the tradition and history. Uh, got to go to a couple baseball games this spring. That, that, that was awesome. That's one of the many things that, that brought me here was just, you know, I got a long way to go. I'm still learning. I want to get better. And, and you're surrounded by the best of the best here. You know, getting to study, uh, Coach Kelly in the football program, Coach Mulkey in women's basketball, Coach Johnson in the baseball program. And I can go on down the line. Uh, I, I just enjoy that part of it.

[00:29:31] And just trying to, to pick up, uh, just a little nugget here and there that we can apply to our program and help improve what we're trying to do for our student athletes. So, uh, hard to name, name, 'em all, but just, you know, really enjoying and embracing this once in a lifetime opportunity to be here.

[00:29:52] William F. Tate IV: Well, coach, I wanna say, um, I could not be more excited that you're here. I think you are the right person for this job, and I know you're gonna do great things with the young people who you've been entrusted with. And, uh, I look forward to supporting you and the team, um, this, this year and in, in out years, just an exciting, uh, time. And, I'm thankful for your presence. And thank you for being on the podcast. Um, you represent the very best of college basketball. And so as a, a true LSU Tiger here, I'm just pumped to see, uh, see our young people grow and develop under your leadership.

[00:30:30] Matt McMahon: Well, thank you so much, President Tate. Thanks for having me on the podcast. But more importantly, thank you for the opportunity, you know, to be here at LSU, to work with you and, and have the opportunity to build something special, uh, with this great basketball program that, that we've been entrusted, uh, to take care of, uh, for many years to come.