After 12 coaching jobs in 16 years,
Elwyn McRoy takes one last shot
June 3, 2013
On a crisp fall morning three years ago, the engines on Iowa State University’s eight-seat private plane spun to life.
A few minutes before takeoff, Fred Hoiberg, the head men’s basketball coach, and Elwyn McRoy, his new assistant, climbed aboard for a recruiting trip 400 miles away. For Mr. Hoiberg, a former Cyclones star and NBA executive, it was an ordinary call: out by 9, back by 6, home in time for dinner.
For Mr. McRoy, who had spent most of his 13-year coaching career behind the wheel of a rental car, it was his big break.
When he arrived at Ames Municipal Airport that morning, he snapped a picture of the red-and-gold-striped Beechcraft King Air 200, which he later posted on Facebook. “The private life of recruiting,” he wrote, announcing his arrival in the fraternity of elite coaches. On board the plane, a cooler of soft drinks rested on ice. He leaned back in his leather seat and stretched his legs, reflecting on his unlikely rise.
Just a decade before, he was coaching high-school basketball in Kansas, not far from the community college where he got his start as a player. As he moved up the Division I ranks—from Southern University, in Louisiana, to Georgia Southern University to Arkansas State University—he signed several high-profile prospects and was named one of the country’s best junior-college recruiters. A few months before arriving at Iowa State, he was selected as one of six Division I assistants to participate in a leadership program for black coaches.
On that early-October day in 2010, as the Iowa State plane lifted above the clouds, all signs were pointing up for Mr. McRoy. If only he could last three years at this level, he figured, he would never have to worry about a job in coaching again.
The good times didn’t last. Less than a year later, he tumbled from the top, a casualty of the game’s constant churn. This season he has all but disappeared, having landed at a tiny Division II college, in Alabama, where he is living out of an RV.
His slide may be extreme, but his profession is filled with people struggling to stay on their feet. Over the past five years, more than 230 head-coaching positions in Division I men’s basketball have turned over, affecting nearly two-thirds of big-time programs. Coaches who once had four or more years to prove themselves sometimes get cut loose in half that time, as administrators show less and less tolerance for losing. Assistant coaches, who almost always lose their jobs when their bosses go, often have the hardest time making it back in.
With hundreds of contacts in the profession, Mr. McRoy would seem immune to such uncertainty. He is well liked among many former colleagues and players, who describe him as outgoing, witty, and generous with his time. He’s the kind of guy who remembers the names and birthdays of colleagues’ kids, who supports fellow coaches by trying to take in a game or two of every team on campus.
Former players say he expected a lot of them but gave much in return. One time he paid for a plane ticket and a week of expenses for a former player who was preparing for a professional tryout.
The son of high-school teachers, Mr. McRoy sees the court as his classroom and can hardly imagine any other path for himself. Except for two weeks in college, when he sold shoes at Foot Locker, coaching basketball is the only job he has known.
“He does not have hobbies, he does not have interests—it’s basketball, that’s it,” says Carmen McRoy, his wife of eight years. “From the moment he picked up that ball, it was over. It’s the only thing he ever cared about, and it defines who he is.”
That passion for the game has kept him hanging on long after others might have let go. How many people love their profession so much that they would drain their life savings and max out their credit cards just to stay a part of it?
Until now, none of that has deterred Mr. McRoy. But even he has his limits. He says he is giving himself one last season to make it back to Division I. “If I don’t get there by the Final Four,” he said in February, “that’ll be all she wrote for me in the coaching business.”
He has made promises like that before. Maybe this time would be different.
* * *
In a game that sometimes values players more for their height than their heart, Mr. McRoy stands out as much as any 7-footer. Although he became a starting point guard for a Division I team, he could walk through almost any gym in America and easily be mistaken for the manager. He’s just 5’5”.
As a player, he compensated for his lack of size by outworking the competition, practicing several hours a day and teaching himself to shoot with either hand. The work paid off, as he helped his team win a national championship at Hutchinson Community College, in Kansas, and then transferred to Cleveland State University.
“Not too many people work harder than him,” says Rollie Massimino, his coach at Cleveland State. Mr. Massimino, a one-time national-champion coach, hired Mr. McRoy as an assistant at Northwood University, in Florida. “He’ll drive 10 or 15 hours, sleep in his car, and get up the next day and go.”
Mr. McRoy wakes up every day feeling like he has something to prove. His energy can leave competing coaches feeling a step behind, says Mark Patrick, a Kansas junior-college official who has known him for more than a decade. Some recruiters might feel good about visiting three prospects one week, Mr. Patrick says, only to find out that Mr. McRoy has seen the same three players—plus three more.
That work ethic was part of what attracted Iowa State, which Mr. McRoy saw as a good fit. The university plays in the powerful Big 12 Conference, not far from where he grew up, and he had contacts throughout the region.
But his wife had reservations. The two married in 2005 and already had lived in four cities. Between them they had four children, and she was ready to settle down.
Despite her hesitation, they accepted the position, which paid $85,000, more money than he’d ever made. In late August 2010, they pulled their daughters out of school in Arkansas, hung a for-sale sign in their yard, and headed north.
With just three weeks before the start of recruiting season, Mr. McRoy scrambled to line up players. He pinned his hopes on an unheralded junior-college prospect named Tyrus McGee. The first chance they got, he and Mr. Hoiberg flew to Kansas to watch the 6’2” guard work out.
During Mr. McGee’s official visit to campus, Mr. McRoy opened the team’s practice facility late one night, and the two spent hours putting up shots and swapping stories.
Mr. McRoy called on him before any other major-college coaches did, Mr. McGee says, and the recruiter’s “straight up” style helped persuade him to sign with the Cyclones. “He did a lot to help me,” says Mr. McGee, who was one of the leading scorers on this year’s Iowa State team, which made its second consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. “I thank him for getting me to where I’m at.”
Despite those efforts, Mr. McRoy’s time in Ames was cut short. One former Iowa State coach describes him as a likable spark plug, but others say the staff never warmed to the new assistant.
Former colleagues say he can be brusque and is not one to sugarcoat things. Mr. McRoy makes no apologies: “I might be too straightforward or too honest for people sometimes,” he says. “But I’m not just going to tell them what they want to hear.”
Over the past two years, he has applied for dozens of coaching jobs at all sorts of levels—from Texas Tech University to Jacksonville State University to Odessa Community College.
He’s gotten close a handful of times. At the 2012 Final Four, in New Orleans, he was one of two finalists for an opening at Youngstown State University. More than 150 people had applied for that job, says Jerry Slocum, the head coach. Mr. Slocum eventually settled on someone with more experience recruiting in the Rust Belt.
Last summer, with few prospects, Mr. McRoy put in a call to Michael Grant, a former colleague who had an opening on his staff at Stillman College.
The catch: Stillman could pay just $3,000 for the season, plus room and board. Mr. McRoy knew that wasn’t enough to live on, but he was willing to take anything to stay in the game.
His wife supported his decision but had no interest in living in Alabama. Together they decided that she would move with their daughters to Seattle, where she had family and a better chance of finding work.
Mr. McRoy figured he could stand six months on his own. He didn’t know what Stillman had in store.
A HUMBLING PLACE
Just down the road from the mighty University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, Stillman College is an afterthought in this football-mad town.
The historically black institution, which enrolls about 1,000 students, has made major improvements on its 105-acre campus in recent years. But some of its facilities have seen better days.
When Mr. McRoy arrived, in October, he had his choice of rooms in Frank H.M. Williams Hall, a worn three-story building that houses mostly athletes. He picked Room 307, the only one on the top floor with a working cable connection. The semester had already started, but he had the whole floor to himself.
One day in January, every light on his corridor was burned out except for the red exit signs. The toilets were coated with mold. And the showers were running hot or cold, nothing in between.
His room looked like he had just moved in—or might move out any day—with bare-white walls, a suitcase in the corner, and a white-plastic Wal-Mart bag hanging on the closet doorknob, where he put his dirty clothes. In the middle of the room, two single bed frames were pushed together, taking up most of the space.
For someone who has owned homes before, including one where each of his four daughters had her own room, this was a humbling place.
It was not the only place Mr. McRoy slept. A few times a week he drove several miles to a hotel where he parked a 19-year-old recreational vehicle. He’d bought it in better times, expecting to use it for family vacations. But over the past year, it had become something of a sanctuary.
The RV was cramped but covered his basic needs, with a refrigerator, sink, and full bath, and a large, soft mattress. In a closet he kept a few pairs of untouched Nikes—a remnant of the days when he got free shoes—and 13 neatly pressed suits. Even without a steady paycheck, he still dressed for games in his Sunday best.
In April 2012, Mr. McRoy had filled out papers to begin collecting unemployment. For six months the State of Kansas, where he and his family were living at the time, mailed him weekly checks for $444. In October he requested a three-month extension, requiring him to send in weekly forms specifying five jobs for which he had applied.
A look at those forms, which he shared with The Chronicle, reveals not only how persistently he has pursued a position in basketball, but how rudderless he is without one. Late last year he applied to be a team leader at Target, a pharmaceutical sales rep, and membership coordinator of the Tuscaloosa YMCA. He would take any job he could find: plant worker, stocker, cashier.
The Job Search
In December, while surfing Hoopdirt, a job site for coaches, he learned of a rare midseason opening, at the University of Detroit Mercy. It was a chance to work for a coach he knew, in a conference he had once played in.
He texted Ray McCallum, the Titans’ head coach, mentioning a top player who was available. “Ray,” he wrote, “I’m ready to work and I know I can land the players you want and need.”
Over the next two weeks, he sent Mr. McCallum at least 15 texts, in a subtle and not-so-subtle attempt to get the coach’s attention.
On December 11 he described his holiday travel schedule: He was flying to Kansas on December 16 to visit his mom for two days, then heading to Seattle until the 27th. “Really hoping I get to change my plans to come work for you!” he wrote.
A few days later, Mr. McRoy sent the coach his résumé. As he left town, he was confident he would get a call.
Over the next week he sent five more messages, none of which were answered. On December 20, Mr. McCallum responded, having just returned from a five-day trip. “Hope things are good with you,” he wrote.
“Just really waiting to hear what u gone do coach,” Mr. McRoy texted back. “If I got the opportunity that would make the holidays a lot better.”
Several days went by, with Mr. McRoy trying a few more times. On December 26, he made one last effort.
“Hey coach, just seeing if there is any decision on your end,” he said. “Hoping u help pull me up?”
With his chances in Detroit looking dim, he focused his attention on his family. He hadn’t seen his girls in weeks, and he took them out of school early on the day his plane touched down.
Life at Stillman
A few days before the holiday, he jumped online to search for gifts, e-mailing a local parent who had listed a dollhouse and kitchen set on Craigslist. “I have 3 girls that would luv to have this on Xmas day,” he wrote. “I could come get it ASAP.”
In past years, he had been far more generous with his daughters, giving each of them her own presents. Buying used Christmas gifts for everyone to share felt like a new low.
His girls—who are 2, 5, 6, and 12 (the oldest is his wife’s from a previous relationship)—didn’t know the difference, Ms. McRoy says. They were just happy to have their father home.
Late on Christmas Day, they got another gift, as Mr. McRoy’s stay was extended. “Meal money 4 players only,” Coach Grant texted that evening. “U may have 2 stay there longer.”
Mr. McRoy got his hopes up the next day, when he found out that his original flight on the 27th was oversold. Hoping to score a free travel voucher, he drove to the airport before dawn and was the first person at the gate. But the flight didn’t fill up after all, so he had to call the airline to rebook. He avoided the $150 change fee by claiming a “family emergency.” (If this situation didn’t qualify, he couldn’t imagine what would.)
While he was on Delta’s Web site, he clicked on a job opening for a flight attendant. What the hell, he figured, I’m willing to travel.
‘I CAN’T COME BACK’
A few weeks later, while scouting a game at Tuskegee College between two conference rivals, he took a call from his wife. She had a new job as a counselor at an abused-women’s shelter and was just getting home from her long commute. The money wasn’t great—she had earned $10,000 more a decade ago, when she left Seattle—but it was something.
Her job has also added new stress, as she juggles the schedules of five people going in different directions. Most mornings she wakes the girls up by 6 a.m., hurrying to drop them off at school and day care so she can make it to work by 8. Nights feel just as rushed. “By the time we’ve done homework and baths, and I’ve done four daughters’ hair and gotten lunches together,” she says, “I’m ready for bed.”
This season Mr. McRoy has commuted to see his family at least once a month, using frequent-flier miles built up from years of work. When he’s not with them, they touch base every night. But with young children, the conversations can feel stilted.
“Who’s this? Kyliah?” said Mr. McRoy, picking up a call as the Tuskegee band banged in the background. “Daddy misses you. … Did you learn something new in school today?”
Kyliah passed the phone to Kenya, who handed it to Kamdyn, the 2-year-old, who accidentally hung up. A few minutes later, Kyndall was on the line.
“Hey, sugar baby, how you doing?” Mr. McRoy said. They made small talk for a minute, then he turned quiet.
“No, I can’t come back tomorrow,” he told his 5-year-old. “But I love you. You be a good girl.”
On his drive back to Tuscaloosa, he and his wife talked again. One of the girls was struggling in school, and Ms. McRoy worried that she wasn’t getting enough attention. Another recently brought home part of her sandwich from lunch, remembering that her parents didn’t want any food wasted.
He and Ms. McRoy didn’t discuss his job search. But that week, she e-mailed him a few openings she had come across, all in the Seattle area. The Redmond/Sammamish Boys & Girls Club was looking for youth referees; the local park service needed a peewee coach. And this: “City Letter Carrier, Kirkland Post Office … $21.66 an hour.”
* * *
Finding a job in basketball is all about your family tree. The more success your bosses and colleagues have had—and the more actively they endorse you—the better your chance of landing on the shortlist when positions come open.
Despite his years in the game, Mr. McRoy’s tree is more like a shrub. Some coaches he’s worked for, like Mr. Massimino, have lost their standing, while others never had much to begin with. His biggest advocates are a few assistants from power programs and a handful of head coaches at lesser-known institutions.
Elwyn McRoy’s Coaching Career
Since 1997, Mr. McRoy has coached in 12 different programs, from the Big 12 at Iowa State, to Division II at Stillman College. Continue scrolling to see where his coaching career has taken him.
The NCAA limits Division I programs to three assistant coaches, which means that there are roughly 1,000 positions at the top level. Few professions have such a scarcity of jobs, and with so little staying power.
The rest of higher education is hardly so volatile. The history department doesn’t turn over every two years, nor do librarians. Even presidents, whose positions are some of the most transient, usually get five or 10 years to prove themselves.
But in basketball, the movement of coaches has only speeded up. For many athletic directors, the turnover is a cost of pursuing their NCAA tournament dreams. The way they see it, they’re just a win or two away from becoming the next George Mason or Butler, basketball obscurities that landed on the game’s biggest stage. Instead of making the safe bet, investing in a coach who could become an anchor in the community, they’d rather roll the dice.
Mr. McRoy knows the numbers. He also knows that he has to stay on people’s radars. In late January, he drove to Daytona Beach, Fla., for a visit with Gravelle Craig, who was in his second year as head coach at Bethune-Cookman University. It was Mr. Craig’s first Division I head-coaching job, and his team was in a funk.
Mr. McRoy watched the Wildcats lose to Delaware State University, and afterward his friend treated him to a steak dinner. When the conversation turned to Mr. McRoy’s situation, Mr. Craig said he had no idea how bad off Mr. McRoy was.
He pulled out his wallet and handed over $100, promising to send more. Mr. McRoy said he wasn’t looking for a handout, but the Bethune-Cookman coach insisted. A few days later, he wired another $250.
“U don’t know how much this helps,” Mr. McRoy texted his friend. “When I get back on my feet I swear I am getting this money back to you.”
After a recruiting visit in Orlando, Fla., he stopped in to see Jeff Price, interim head coach at the University of South Alabama. Mr. Price hired him at Georgia Southern in 2006, where they worked together for two seasons.
Since taking over in late December, Mr. Price had won six of nine games and had high hopes of keeping the job. Mr. McRoy would have loved to win a place on his staff and did all he could to show him. Between January and March, he would visit Mr. Price three times.
In mid-February—after a quick Valentine’s Day trip to Seattle, where he used up the last of his free airline miles—Mr. McRoy learned that another ally, Rob Moxley, was in the mix for a head-coaching position. He sent a text to Mr. Moxley, an assistant at North Carolina State University, and they arranged to meet up at a game in Atlanta. Over several weeks, the two coaches would exchange dozens of messages.
In one text, Mr. McRoy mentioned a few players he had a bead on. “Just need a job to recruit them to,” he wrote. “Good academic kids as well that can play.”
“U got it be ready I’m gonna go hard!!!!” Mr. Moxley wrote back. Then he talked about the opening he was pursuing. “[It’s] a nice job. Good court and we can definitely recruit there and win. No idea on $ yet but I want to talk to you first.”
A short while later, Mr. Moxley, himself a longtime assistant, hedged his comments: “Just hate to get all your hopes up til I’m sure will get but got to be ready.”
“Man just get any job,” Mr. McRoy wrote back. “I will help u win.”
* * *
Near the end of the season, on a bus ride to Tennessee, Mr. McRoy and his team watched a movie called Touchback. It’s the story of a high-school football star who is seriously injured but gets a chance to live his life over. With the benefit of hindsight, will he play the big game again, risking a debilitating injury? Or will he sit it out to protect his future?
Late in the movie, the player’s mother says something that forces him to take a hard look at himself: “What is so wrong with right now? What if this is all you get? It seems like nothing is ever enough with you. And if you can’t be satisfied with what you’ve got, you’re never going to be happy.”
Sitting on the bus that day, Mr. McRoy thought about his own career, about how he had bounced from one opportunity to the next, always putting his job ahead of his family. He pictured his daughters 2,000 miles away, and moments that he hadn’t been there for this year. His youngest had graduated from toddler class, and his 6-year-old had learned to read.
He thought about family activities he enjoyed—bouncing on the trampoline, walking through city streets, sitting down for Sunday movies. He was missing all of that, and for what?
“I’m almost 40 years old. I have to think about what I’m giving up—is it really worth it?” he said a couple of days later. “Right now, at this moment, it’s not.”
After Stillman’s season ended, in early March, Mr. McRoy cleaned out his dorm room, collected his last paycheck, and readied for a final push to keep his career alive. Over the next four weeks, he planned to visit 10 states, scout more than three dozen games, and make contact with nearly 100 coaches. If he was going down, he was going down swinging.
He tossed his airline blanket and pillow into the back seat of a rental car. During the next week, he would sleep there four nights.
Stillman had paid for the car and gave him $350 to cover his food and gas for the month while recruiting. He cut every corner he could but still went through the money in six days.
Making Ends Meet: A Week on the Road for $450
- $2.50 Burger King
- Stayed with Michael Curry, assistant coach at Troy State.
- $53 gas in Prattville, Ga.
- $4.11 Starbucks
- $8 popcorn and soda at game
- $47 gas in Macon, Ga.
- Slept in car.
- $25 Chili’s
- $47 gas in Ocala
- Slept in car.
- $51 gas in Marianna, Fla.
- $4.23 Wendy’s
- Stayed at Hampton Inn in Mobile (used mother’s points for free room).
- $13 Applebee’s
- $43 gas in Shreveport, La.
- Slept in car.
- $57 gas in Tyler
- $16 tournament admission and program (includes hospitality suite lunch and dinner)
- $31 Hampton Inn (regularly $129; used a friend’s employee coupon)
- $49 gas in Tulsa
- Admission and program at junior-college tournament would have cost $8, but he walked in 45 minutes early to avoid being charged.
- Program was $4, but he picked up a day-old program.
- Admissions and program at high-school tournament would have cost $8, but he walked in a side entrance to avoid being charged.
- Stayed in Wichita with his mother.
By mid-March, the coaching carousel was starting to spin, and Mr. McRoy was paying close attention. In one seven-day stretch, 14 Division I programs made changes, from the lowest level (Grand Canyon University, which had just joined) to the highest (Northwestern University). Surely he would get a nibble.
He was hoping for an offer in the first wave of openings, which would give him options heading into the Final Four, in early April. But in late March, more bad news arrived: Despite winning 17 games at South Alabama as interim coach, Mr. Price did not get the permanent job. (He later landed at Lynn University but didn’t have a spot for his friend.)
Then, as Mr. McRoy was visiting with his mother, in Wichita, Kan., a debt collector left him a message, asking about delinquent payments on his wife’s car back in Seattle. He was months behind on the loan and couldn’t work out a repayment plan. A few days later, the car was repossessed. Although his credit was shot, Mr. McRoy arranged to have his wife find a different vehicle, which she financed with help from his mother’s tax refund. That might have been piling one bad debt on another, but at least she had a car to get the kids around.
Four days before the Final Four was set to begin, Mr. McRoy fired up his RV for the few-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta. He stopped at his favorite barbershop for one last visit, and to fish for leads on selling his treasured 1964 Bonneville. But when it came time to pay, he didn’t have enough cash to cover the $15 cut.
“I need one more favor from you,” he pleaded with the barber. “When I come back Wednesday, can I drop you off $20?”
“I see green, that’ll change a whole lot of things.”
Despite the setbacks, Mr. McRoy’s spirits were lifting. Heading into college basketball’s championship weekend, he was in the mix for three jobs, and he was looking forward to seeing old friends.
His most promising lead was at the University of Texas-Pan American, a Division I program where Mr. Moxley, the N.C. State assistant, was one of two finalists for the top job. If he got it, Mr. McRoy had a good shot of becoming associate head coach.
He was also vying for openings at Detroit Mercy, where he’d tried to land in December, and East Tennessee State University. Over the next few days, he would exchange messages with coaches in both programs, but they never met up.
* * *
It’s hard to imagine anyone who had more riding on the final weekend of play. But you could never tell from the ease with which Mr. McRoy mingled in downtown Atlanta bars and restaurants, where thousands of coaches had gathered.
On late Thursday afternoon, two days before the semifinal games, he sat down with Brian Burg, who had recently lost his job at Campbell University after the head coach there was fired. The two were in line to land at Pan American should Mr. Moxley get the position, and they were hunting for information about the search.
Mr. McRoy said he had been awake until 5 a.m. the night before, reviewing all the conversations he’d had with Mr. Moxley.
He saw the Broncs’ program, which will join the Western Athletic Conference in July, as an ideal fit. It has been traditionally open to junior-college transfers. And his wife was intrigued by the location, in southern Texas.
Soon after the two coaches sat down, in a quiet corner of a hotel restaurant, Mr. Burg took a call from a friend at Lamar University. The two assistants knew that the choice had come down to Mr. Moxley or Dan Hipsher, the top assistant at the University of Alabama. As Mr. Burg listened quietly, Mr. McRoy rested his elbows on his knees, studying his friend’s face for any clue. After a few minutes, Mr. Burg calmly set down the phone.
“What’d your boy say?” Mr. McRoy asked, straightening up.
“Said the AD told him Hipsher.”
The two coaches stared at each other for a moment, absorbing the news.
Not satisfied with what he had heard, Mr. McRoy texted Mr. Moxley, looking for an update. “I’d be shocked beyond shocked,” the N.C. State assistant fired back, saying he’d been in touch with the athletic director. “He has been texting me all day. … Hopefully will know tonight.”
Still operating in a fog of hearsay, the two men crossed the street to a sports bar, where they planned to compare notes on prospective players. Twenty minutes later, those plans evaporated.
“Sorry,” Mr. Moxley wrote his would-be assistants. “I hate to send out this text but … they’re going to hire Hipsher.” His note was followed by a flurry of other messages to Mr. McRoy. “Ur dam good,” Mr. Moxley wrote. “This biz is bs.” Mr. McRoy deleted them immediately.
He dashed off a quick thanks to Mr. Moxley for considering him, texted eight words to update his wife, and turned to Mr. Burg.
“Well, B., it would’ve been good to work with you,” he said, raising his knuckles.
“’Nother time, man,” Mr. Burg replied, bumping fists.
Without wasting another moment, and without telling Mr. Burg, Mr. McRoy flipped open his phone again and texted three people who knew the new coach—a former colleague who worked in compliance at Alabama, a junior-college recruiting expert, and his boss at Stillman. Then he tapped out a note to Mr. Hipsher himself. By dinner, Mr. McRoy had turned himself into a candidate for the guy who did get the job.
Two days later, even as he still hoped that something might work out in Texas, he booked a one-way flight home. He had a $300 travel voucher—the last dollars to his name—and he needed every penny of it to get him back with his family.
On April 14, Mr. McRoy arrived in Seattle. The next day, he got a call from Mr. Hipsher. Elwyn McRoy had a new job: assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Texas-Pan American. It’s a one-year deal.
Created by Erica Lusk, Brian O'Leary, and Brad Wolverton.