FOR THE FOURTH time in six years, Mike Young toted one set of championship nets off the floor Monday night at Kimmel Arena, prepared to wave it around for a few hours, then tuck it safely into a dresser drawer in his Spartanburg home.
Young’s Wofford Terriers claimed another Southern Conference tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA tournament with a 67-64 victory over Furman.
“It doesn’t get old. It doesn’t get old,” Young said. “It’s the ultimate. It’s the ultimate.”
Young’s tradition of keeping a set of nets at home began when Wofford won its first tournament title in 2010. Richard Johnson, Wofford’s athletics director, flipped a set of nets to Young following that title as the coach was walking off the floor. One set went to the head coach, Johnson said, and the other to a Wofford trophy case.
It is only fitting that Johnson started the ritual. For it was Johnson who stood behind Young over the first seven seasons of his head coaching career, a span that saw Wofford struggle to a 90-117 record, including 40-71 in the conference.
“Yes, there were some dark moments,” Young said of those early days. “I asked myself, ‘What would we need to do to break through?’”
At the same time, Johnson was getting asked by some alums and supporters of the program what it would take to oust Young as the head man. Young had served for 13 seasons as an assistant under Johnson, who jumped from head coaching into the athletics director’s chair.
But Johnson said it was not difficult to support a coach whose only winning season from 2003 through 2009 was a 16-14 mark in that last season.
“If you’re at Wofford, it’s not that hard,” Johnson said. “If it’s another place, it’s hard. I never had any doubt we had the right guy.”
For one, an athletics director at a mid-major program such as Wofford does not have the financial pressure to fire a coach. For the most part, support for the program is going to remain solid through difficult times. Big boosters are not likely to drop their financial pledges.
On top of that, Johnson said he knew Young could coach. Johnson also knew Young could recruit the kind of academic-first athletes who could succeed on and off the floor. But Johnson said many of Young’s teams those first seven seasons resembled a M*A*S*H unit.
“It was like a country song those first few years,” Johnson said. “If it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.”
Young said it helped to have an athletics director who had stood on the sideline.
Johnson was “somebody who has had their butt on that bus after getting beat by 20 (points),” according to Young.
“Some of these ADs think, even though they’ve never coached a day in their life, they can raise some money and think winning is a piece of cake,” Young said. “They don’t understand what goes into it, and he does.”
The breakthrough season for Young was 2010 when Wofford set a program record with 26 wins before losing a four-point decision to Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament. When the Terriers repeated as conference tournament champions in 2011 – losing by 18 to BYU in the NCAA tournament – they were on their way.
A season ago, Wofford played Michigan tight in the NCAA tournament before falling by 17 points. This season, Wofford carries a No. 90 national ranking by Kenpom.com, which is relatively high standing for a mid-major program. That means Wofford could get a better seeding – perhaps a No. 12 or No. 13 – and increase its chances of winning an NCAA tournament game.
For now, Young wants to savor having turned Wofford into the preeminent program in the Southern Conference. His club’s record over the past six seasons is 127-74, including 85-31 in the league.
“To be able to come in here with that net and represent our school in the NCAA tournament again is beyond comprehension,” Young said “I’m really excited about it.”
He also was excited to add those nets to his collection at home, where his wife, Margaret, has promised to someday do something special with them. It could be she is waiting for her husband to collect a few more.