Matthew Driscoll is intense. His energy seems to enter the room almost before he does, and most would agree that it lingers long after he’s gone.
The head basketball coach at the University of North Florida talks fast and moves even faster, but he remains deeply focused. He’s passionate about basketball, faith and family, and anyone who meets him can instantly feel something unique — something very real.
“He is a very loving guy,” said junior guard Beau Beech.
There is no doubt that Driscoll would qualify as a people person. He gives his cell phone number to the entire incoming UNF student body during new student orientation. He hugs more than he shakes hands. And when you talk to him, you know that he’s listening.
Driscoll’s coaching philosophy is based on a compilation of wisdom he has gained from fellow coaches and athletes over the years, as well as key events in his life that have shaped his perspective.
Certainly his time at Baylor University had an impact.
Driscoll was part of the replacement coaching staff following a major basketball scandal in 2003. He joined as an assistant coach when the previous staff exited following months of team turbulence which included allegations of NCAA violations and the murder of a player by a teammate.
Driscoll and the coaching staff, led by head coach Scott Drew, rebuilt the program while keeping the team positive and motivated. Within five years, they guided Baylor to the NCAA tournament.
At Baylor, being positive — one of Driscoll’s strong suits — was key, and even now, it’s never lost on his players.
“No matter what time it is, he is always inspiring and a happy guy,” said sophomore guard Dallas Moore. “I love him for that.”
Driscoll acknowledges that certain traits are critical and present in most winning programs — passion, vision, courage and trust. But, he says, other intangibles are key. While athletic talent certainly has to be there, Driscoll believes that success, particularly the success of a team, lies deep in the character of the athletes. He’ll tell you again and again, it’s about love and selflessness.
Driscoll often points to a key moment during UNF’s game against Alabama
in January that he believes changed the momentum of the season. At a critical juncture in the game, center Romelo Banks, who was having a particularly good run that day, had an open shot but instead passed the ball to Aaron Bodager, a redshirt sophomore. Bodager had a chance to hit a three-pointer — and did.
Recognizing why Banks passed the ball, Driscoll called an immediate timeout with a simple message for his team. “I told the team that play was big,” Driscoll said. “I said, ‘Because of your selflessness, we’re going to win the Atlantic Sun Championship.’”
On and off the court, Driscoll encourages his players to do “the next right thing.” The message is posted prominently in the team’s locker room.
He and his coaching staff stress the importance of service to others, and they volunteer together. Just days before the NCAA Tournament game, the team served dinner at the Sulzbacher Center for the Homeless.
“We teach the kids to care about people,” he said. “I think it translated into everything we did and achieved.”
Throughout the season, players talk daily to their coach about life, obstacles and challenges.
“He really is somebody you can go and talk to about anything,” Moore said.
“Any time we call or text him, coach always replies or answers as quickly as he can,” he said. “His focus is always on what he can do to help us in some way.”
During this year’s season, Driscoll began a weekly activity he calls the “Family Series” where one player or staff member shares highlights and heartaches from their life. Players
learn about each other and often gain a newfound respect for their teammates. Some tough exteriors are broken down, and the exercise provides further depth to their relationships. The players say it is activities like these and the overall environment that Driscoll has created that makes them feel like a family.
“After I signed with UNF, the first time I ever met the rest of the team was a meal at his house,” Beech said. “That is really where the family bond started and the reason I believe that we are such a close-knit team.”
Even small things have an impact. Moore appreciates the fact that he gets a different roommate every road trip.
“That helps us get to know each other a lot better,” he said.
As for cell phones — they are always put away during team meals.
“The first time we did this, I couldn’t figure out why they were being so loud at dinner,” Driscoll said. “We always want our guys to mind their manners and be respectful, and
it seemed like they were being a little loud. It was because there were no phones out. They were just talking and having a good time.”
For Driscoll, it’s all about being together, loving each other and celebrating together as a team — even when it comes to individual successes. The half- court shot he has every player and staff member take on their birthday is a good example. One shot, once a year. If you make it, the entire team goes out to eat.
“It’s a win for everyone,” said Driscoll, who pointed out that Beech and Moore have never missed.
Driscoll realizes that there are some special nuances to being the head basketball coach at a mid-major school like UNF that doesn’t have a football team. After all, Homecoming festivities are scheduled during basketball season. The sport is extremely important to the student body, Driscoll said. He acknowledged that for a mid-major to get into the NCAA tournament, winning the conference championship is key.
“That’s just life at this level,” he said.
Along with his coaching staff, Driscoll was named the Atlantic Sun Conference Coach of the Year, as well as the District 3 Co-Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
In the eyes of his players, Driscoll definitely has their vote. Moore sums it up pretty simply. “He’s just a great guy.”