Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Skip navigation

Farewell, Dusty

On March 22, 2023, exactly one year to the day before he coached his final game at Florida Atlantic, Dusty May was interviewed live in a New York studio by an ESPN on-air personality. May and the Owls had flown to New York for their improbable appearance in the Sweet 16, on their way to their even more improbable appearance in the NCAA Final Four. I know this date because I wrote about it on Facebook and the post turned up Friday as a memory on my timeline.

At the close of the interview, the host slipped up. He conflated two notable Indiana University alums by thanking “FAU coach Scott May.” Innocent mistake. No harm, no foul. But I remember thinking: This guy still might not quite be a household name in the sports world outside of Boca Raton, but it won’t be long before he will.

Indeed, while Dusty May was respected by coaching peers before last March, Jim Rome might have been the only national media type who truly got what was going on inside our little gym. It felt like, with those two wins at Columbus, we were finally letting everyone else in on our little secret—which we knew to be the best-kept secret in college basketball.

And now everyone who follows the sport knows all about Johnell Davis—familiarly enough, apparently, to be on “Nelly” basis with him. They also know all about Alijah Martin. And Vlad Goldin. And Nick Boyd.

And mostly, they know all about Dusty May.

They know about last season, of course. They know he never had a losing season in six years at a school where simple mediocrity in basketball once was an annual aspirational goal. They know he loves riding his bike to work every day. They know he first apprenticed as a student manager at IU (where Bob Knight called him “Rusty-Dusty”).

But those who began paying closer attention—the people who hired him to coach the storied program at the University of Michigan—also saw things behind the scenes they knew would work well in Ann Arbor. (Maybe not the bicycling. Next February he might be snowmobiling to work.)

But they saw the organization, the attention to detail applied to every aspect of every practice.

They saw how May empowers players and his entire staff and listens to all voices.

They saw basketball offense as he sees it—a cutting-edge combination of principles borrowed from around the world, a system that grows and changes because of May's humility as a dedicated reader, film-watcher and lifelong learner. He's never afraid to add or subtract.

They saw a highly focused teacher with superior communication skills—which he learned from Knight—that enable him to break down complex concepts to simple points that players are able to absorb on the fly.

They noted May's demeanor in games. They saw how the crazier things get, the more determined he is to project calmness on the sidelines. That he masks his competitiveness with positive body language. That he gets points across to referees without upstaging them, usually with folded arms and often while swigging from his water bottle while listening when they speak. Similarly, they noted that he never embarrasses players for mistakes in public because, as he once told me, “as coaches, we want to give them advantages only.” That he reserves stronger corrections for the cocoon of timeout huddles—and even then delivers them with, if not a smile, at least positive spin. And that he reserves the strongest corrections, when necessary, for the privacy of the locker room. Optics like this matter.

They saw that in every TV interview, when the subject of FAU’s marquee pre-season schedule came up, May always—always—credited his players for playing an appealing brand of basketball that people want to watch. As if he had nothing to do with it.

They saw the micro—the eschewing of traditional individual skill drills, for example, in favor of combination drills set up to simulate game situations. They also saw the macro—the blueprint he adapted after intensely studying every foundational step Mark Few and Tommy Lloyd followed two decades ago at Gonzaga—with the intention to build something equally durable and sustainable in Boca Raton.

And they discovered that “Serve and Compete” is not a cool team slogan but the Simon Sinek-like “purpose” of FAU basketball, the “why” the Owls play basketball that must be answered before addressing the “how.” The Owls’ team culture is not accidental. May didn't hit a lottery jackpot of stumbling upon a group of players who arrived on campus dreaming of sacrificing for strangers. The players clearly bought everything May sold them.

Not insignificantly, those Michigan folks also noted how, after the magic dust that was part of the Owls’ story last season took up residence elsewhere this season—as it always does in college basketball—May did some of his best coaching.

The Owls ran back the players and staff from last year with a goal of finishing what they just missed. And some metrics indicate FAU was better or more efficient at this or that empirical category than they were last year, and against markedly better competition. But reproducing the breaks that went their way in 2022-23—an opponent's missed shot here, a referee whistle there—was beyond their control.

The biggest break that evened out from last season to this was injuries. A season ago, only Davis and Martin sat out for extended games—but against a non-conference schedule far weaker than last year. And when they came back, they agreed to come back as reserves, which only deepened the Owls’ bench and solidified the team chemistry that fueled their 20-game winning streak.

This season, injuries were multiple, inconveniently timed and mainly nothing but impediments to team growth. That’s sports.

Also in sports: Human nature can be an ally or an opponent, especially coming off a 35-4 season like 2022-23. The Owls weren’t always at their best this season, but May anticipated that possibility. He tried to anticipate every possibility. In the off-season, he sought advice from every coach he could think of who had succeeded or failed at “running it back,” and tried to apply what he learned. It’s to his credit as much as the team’s that they overcame their up-and-down play this year and in a 34-game season managed to avoid consecutive losses until the last two games.

And even then, both of those—like the San Diego State game in the national semifinals last March—essentially came down to a single possession that didn’t go their way.

It didn’t take long back in November 2018 for FAU fans to realize what kind of coach they were getting in the new hire. In only his second game, and first against a Division I opponent, he took the Owls to Orlando, rallied them from a 20-point deficit and engineered an 80-79 upset of a Central Florida club which later darned-near upset No. 1 Duke in the NCAA Tournament.

And now Dusty May is off to the Big Ten, hoping to make the same strong first impression. At age 47, he's off to rebuild a program that finished last in the conference for the first time since 10 years before he was born. He’ll be tasked with restoring the Wolverines to the national relevance they enjoyed while John Beilein was coach, and Steve Fisher and John Orr before him. To reconnect it to the greatness of Cazzie Russell, Glen Rice and the Fab Five.

His body of work at FAU is now complete, his six-season record of 126-69 absurdly inflating the overall 31-year program record to 389-545.

He didn’t win a national championship at Florida Atlantic, but he won and won and won like nobody before him.

Hail to the victor.

Jim Saturday, an FAU Owls Nest contributor all season, is a retired sportswriter and columnist who covered Big Ten basketball.

Related content