Andy Enfield’s California Dream

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Photograph by Andrew Cutraro

It is an hour after dawn on a warm fall day, and the palm trees sway outside the sky windows of the University of Southern California’s Galen Center. It’s the kind of morning that will come in handy for Andy Enfield, USC’s new basketball coach, when a high school stud from Chicago or Coney Island comes to visit. He will tell them about 80-degree January days, being honored on the ESPYs last year, and hanging backstage with Charlie Sheen before going on Leno. In a phrase: L.A., baby.

But there are no championship banners, no Final Fours in 60 years, no regular season conference titles since Ronald Reagan. Instead, hanging from the rafters are giant photos of USC players having moments of severely limited glory – three tournament wins in 11 years, one more than Enfield won last year with Florida Gulf Coast University. One picture stands out: a Gollum-pale Brian Scalabrine bulling his way to the basket as a cheerleader stares into the void.

Enfield hopes that’s the old USC. The one where a recruit’s dad sees that picture of a jovial ham-and-egger and the reality that USC hasn’t done jack shit in basketball for a half-century settles in like a sketchy fish burrito and he drives his boy the 12 miles to Westwood and UCLA’s 11 NCAA titles.

Right now, Enfield, 44, doesn’t have the luxury to deal with such macro issues. He’s trying to teach his team basic defense. He whistles a stop to a drill.

“You’re not gonna play in the NBA or Europe with defense like that,” says Enfield in a voice more cutting than loud. Enfield’s rep as a self-deprecating, gap-toothed wizard is all physically and metaphorically true, but there’s also a flash of snark and shark. “There reaches a point where you’re wondering why you’re playing six minutes instead of 20. I did it last year. Players passed me on the way to the bench and I just smiled, and they’d know why they’d gotten pulled.”

Enfield’s inherited USC squad is a gamy stew of Egyptian seven-footers, Orange County gunners, and a backup center who once averaged a point a game for Virginia Commonwealth. Enfield would never say it, but there are not five players on his roster he’d have recruited himself.

Last March, Enfield was having his “One Shining Moment,” the cornball song played over NCAA tournament montages. He led Florida Gulf Coast University – established in 1991 and so unknown it was called Florida Golf Coast by CBS – to two of the most improbable upsets (over Georgetown and San Diego State) in tournament history. In two weeks, Enfield went from FGSU (no alumni over 37) to USC, with its 340,000 alumni, ginormous endowment, and rabid fan base. Now he’s having one big, fat careful-what-you-wish-for moment. Enfield knows better than most that last year’s prince can be mauled by sports radio trolls and soon be back coaching at Central Bumblefuck State.

So he works on the basics while trying to keep a smile on his face. I mention that his players seem upbeat after last year, a debacle that included a 14-18 record, two deposed head coaches, and a half-empty arena where the PA announcer mocked participants in free-throw contests. Enfield’s predecessor, Kevin O’Neill, was a yeller and not considered a guy who derived any pleasure from his job. That’s not Enfield. The fun of watching Florida Gulf Coast’s run last spring was the pure joy of his players swaggering, just barely in control in an up-and-down NBA style that became known as Dunk City.

“I’m looking for players who are long,” says Enfield, watching his guys run the court. “Players who can run and play defense. Players like who go to Duke.”

It’s an interesting analogy, since USC basketball is most comparable to Duke football – historically forgettable. He’s at USC, where football is king and basketball is the 17th diversion below legalized weed and In-N-Out Burger.

Enfield knows he has miles to go. He sees something he doesn’t like and jumps up. Nikola Jovanovic, a blade-thin Serbian freshman, has just launched an errant 15-footer. “Nikola, you settle for that fallaway jumper in the face of a 7-foot-2 guy one more time, you’re not gonna play for a week,” says Enfield. “Take a step and drive past him! Maybe we failed you as coaches this summer, and for that I’m sorry, but you’re too good a player to do that.” Jovanovic shoots Enfield a hangdog look but gets the message. Enfield sits back down.

“What were we talking about? Oh, yeah; you try to teach the kids that the game is most fun when you put together both offense and defense. I don’t think yelling works unless you have a presence like a Bobby Knight.” He flashes his Opie Cunningham smile. “And I definitely don’t. My vision in college basketball is it needs to be fun. It needs to be fun for the players and for the fans.”

But what about for him? Andy Enfield will have to wait and see if the fun ever starts.

I first meet Enfield in July, when he was still settling into his office. He wondered if the new leather chairs opposite his desk were too low.

“I’m not trying to dominate my players,” joked Enfield.

He still had that new-car smile. In many ways, life has been but a dream for Enfield over the past nine months. You’d be hard-pressed to find a basketball junkie who could have picked him out of a coaching clinic this time last year. (He didn’t even have a Wikipedia page.) And that’s one of the few things that rankle the perpetually sunny Enfield, skeptics saying he just hasn’t earned it yet, going from nowhere to a major conference job based on one good spring break. In truth, he’d been working toward it for a quarter-century, since he played at Johns Hopkins and set an NCAA record with a 92.5 career free-throw percentage. A coach’s son from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, Enfield had no dreams of playing in the NBA. He was a brainiac, a scholar-athlete turned entrepreneur, peddling shooting advice to NBAers while still in his early twenties. After getting form rejection letters from every NBA team, Enfield signed his first major client, an NBA guy named Walt Williams. Enfield knew what time Williams got to the Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, his alma mater. So one day he set about draining shots at the far end of the court. Williams eventually ambled over, and Enfield told him he was a shooting consultant, which wasn’t technically true until Williams hired him. He eventually worked with 100 NBA players and got hired by the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant at 25, then switched to Rick Pitino’s Boston Celtic staff. He made instructional videos and a contraption called the Shooting Strap that went over your hands and demanded perfect form on every shot.

Then, at 31, Enfield walked away from pro ball to make a fortune on a medical start-up and have kids with a former Maxim cover girl he took to Taco Bell on their first date.

That is all factual.

Enfield met Amanda Marcum through mutual friends while living in New York and gave her a ride to Boston for an NCAA tournament game in 2003. They hit it off and set up a first date before a St. Johns basketball game in Queens. They got burritos and ate them behind the St. Johns bench. Enfield eventually proposed by squeezing a ring between two Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

“What can I say; I married above my station,” says Enfield with a laugh.

Enfield and Marcum decided to have kids, and he didn’t see that working within the NBA road grind, so . . . Here comes the magic trick: Enfield went to work with friends as a vice president of a medical-records start-up called TractManager for six years. He made sales calls, slapped backs, showed old dudes how to save money for their hospitals. “I did a variety of different jobs,” says Enfield, who kept consulting with shooters on the side. “Whatever the CEO needed me to do, I did.” He was one of only half a dozen employees, so the vice president title wasn’t that impressive, but it was nice when the company became worth more than $100 million.

And it was after becoming a dot-com paper millionaire that Enfield decided to return to basketball full-time. Old friend Leonard Hamilton was on the rocks at Florida State and hired Enfield as an assistant. It was the first pay cut Enfield would take.

“Leonard pulled out a piece of paper with the ACC on it and pointed at the standings,” recalls Enfield. “‘This is North Carolina, Duke, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and here’s Florida State. Go find me some players who can compete.’ That was the end of the conversation.” Enfield hit the road, delivering recruits and honing their jumpers. Florida State turned it around, winning the ACC in 2011, the year he left for Florida Gulf Coast.

Florida Gulf Coast was a hoops TractManager, a start-up. The school had wallowed in Division II for a decade before moving up to the not-so-big time in the Atlantic Sun Conference, featuring powerhouses like Lipscomb and Stetson University. Neither Enfield nor the school had a reputation, so he had to make do with the dregs of recruits – his wife busted him for making a recruiting call from the delivery room when she was giving birth to their third child – and then remaking them as up-tempo guys who could pass and hit the three. He used the Strap liberally.

Still, the old-school types thought USC should have gone with a basketball lifer with decades of experience as an assistant. And that makes Enfield grimace. “The Florida Gulf Coast job was out there,” says Enfield quietly. “I took a risk and went out and got it. There’s something to be said for that.”

To this point, Enfield’s media profile has been heavy on the fairy tale and light on the grease and grime that is college recruiting.

He brought me along to a luncheon with a cadre of boosters, the kind of meet-and-greet intended to fire up the base, which for USC basketball may be about 11 people. The lunch showed that while Enfield’s coaching résumé is slim, his sales game is already Woodenesque. He sat at the end of a table at McKay’s, a restaurant named after the legendary USC football coach known for Rose Bowl victories and razor quips, and channeled the master. He was asked about a recent dust-up with Texas El Paso head coach Tim Floyd. A sign of how desperate USC basketball had become is the fact that Floyd was a serious contender for the USC job last spring, despite leaving the school four years ago in an acrid puff of scandal. (The Trojans vacated all 21 wins from the 2007-2008 season.) Recently, Floyd claimed that Enfield tampered with Isaac Hamilton, a prized recruit who committed to UTEP before backing out. Hamilton is an L.A. kid, and there were rumors that he’d end up at USC. Enfield dismissed Floyd’s claim with a smirk.

“Tim Floyd shows up every day at work and realizes he lives in El Paso, Texas,” said Enfield. “And he’s pissed off that he didn’t get the USC job two months ago. I told him, ‘Tim, if I could have all this power to somehow convince a family to do this, why the heck didn’t the kid come last spring, when I first got the job?'”

The boosters laughed and shot each other approving glances. (Enfield had a point: Hamilton ended up signing with UCLA.) But he was just getting started. He then told the men he’d have no problem recruiting one-and-done players. He was asked about competing with UCLA, particularly now that their crosstown rival had hired Steve Alford, the former Indiana star. “I don’t worry about them,” said Enfield with a smile. “I’ve made it to one Sweet Sixteen in two years, and he’s made it to one Sweet Sixteen in 18 years.” The boosters hooted. By the end of the meal, they would have rubbed out Alford and Floyd with just an Enfield whisper and some piano wire.

We walked back to his office, and Enfield had a little swagger in his step.

“I think this is going to be fun.”

But now it’s October, and Enfield is confronted with a death-march season. Because he was hired after the end of recruiting, he enters the year with not a single player of his own design. The future already looks brighter with the signing of Jordan McLaughlin, a top 40 guard who will arrive in 2014. But right now Enfield sits at the PAC-12 poker table holding a foot more than a hand. His predecessor was a profane screamer whom few kids wanted to play for, so those who committed to USC were just desperate to play PAC-12 ball. Some are way out of their league.

On a Saturday morning, Enfield watches a simulated game. His guys play hard, but they’re building a house out of bricks. Enfield shakes his head when Katin Reinhardt, a rooster-haired transfer from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, launches what seems like his 37th shot in a row. Enfield stares at his Nikes.

“Jeez, you get the ball seven times in a row, you’d think he’d pass it once, but no.”

After a few minutes of desultory play, Enfield turns to me with a doleful smile.

“So what do you think of my guys?” he says. “Be honest.”

I hem and haw, trying to say in a nice way that his gaggle of misfit toys seem to love their new coach. This is true. But before I can get the words out, Enfield is down the bench glad-handing with a couple of coaches and kids watching the scrimmage. I could catch only a few stray words: “fun,” “up-tempo,” “NBA style.”

Andy Enfield believes it all. Outside, the palm trees are swaying and there isn’t a cloud in the sky.

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