Mercer Bears coach Bob Hoffman took the long, winding road to NCAA stage

calexander@newsobserver.comMarch 22, 2014 

  • No. 11 Tennessee (23-12) vs No. 14 Mercer (27-8)

    When: 6:10 p.m.

    Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh.

    TV/Radio: TNT.

    PROJECTED LINEUPS

    Tennessee (23-12)

    G Jordan McRae 18.7 ppg, 5.6 apg

    G Josh Richardson 9.6, 2.9 rpg

    G Antonio Barton 7.4, 2.2 rpg

    F Jarnell Stokes 15.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg

    F Jeronne Maymon 10.1 ppg, 8.3 rpg

    Mercer (27-8)

    G Anthony White Jr. 8.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg

    G Langston Hall 14.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg

    F Bud Thomas 8.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg

    F Jakob Gollon 8.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg

    C Daniel Coursey 10.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg

    Tennessee will advance to the Sweet 16 if …

    Jarnell Stokes follows up his 26-point, 14-rebound effort against UMass on Friday with another big game and the Vols are able to score in transition.

    Mercer will advance to the Sweet 16 if …

    The Bears have quickly put the Duke upset behind them, can reasonably contain the Vols' Stokes and match their offensive efficiency against the Blue Devils.

— The Mercer players, to a man, used the word “passionate” Saturday in describing Bears coach Bob Hoffman.

So did assistant coach Spencer Wright, who once played for Hoffman and has been on his staff in different locales and under different circumstances, and now is in the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament.

“He loves to coach,” Wright said. “He’s passionate about his family and passionate about his faith, and he’s passionate about basketball.”

Hoffman, in turn, appreciates such kind words but prefers another description.

“I’m a psycho,” he said. “Whatever I do, I’m all in. Whether it’s at church worshipping, if it’s on the floor coaching, if it’s eating fried chicken, if it’s getting my iced tea, I’m all in.”

There is no pregame meal for Hoffman. On Sunday, as his 14th-seeded Bears (27-8) prepare to face No. 11 Tennessee (23-12) in the third round of the Midwest Region, Hoffman will follow his routine of sipping on tea – “Unsweet, no limit,” he said – up until game time.

“All he does is drink gallon-sized ice teas,” senior center Daniel Coursey said, smiling.

“He’s too nervous and anxious,” added senior Jakob Gollon. “He’s constantly excited about playing.”

But after games? Hoffman gorges. After the Bears knocked off Duke 78-71 on Friday, Hoffman said he grabbed a hotdog, popcorn and a Coke and sat in the PNC Arena stands watching the NCAA action.

“I don’t watch game tape after a game,” Hoffman said. “We just move on to the next game.”

For Hoffman, 56, that’s the way it has been since his first head coaching job at Piedmont High near Oklahoma City. Seems he quickly fell into the disturbing habit of throwing up every morning.

“My wife basically called it morning sickness,” he said. “She said, ‘This is not going to last, that either you quit doing that or we’re going to get another job.’

“It was sad. But it was how pumped up and excited I was to do what I was getting ready to do.”

To coach, to try to find a way for his team to win. And it has been some path Hoffman and his wife, Kelli, have traveled together the past 30-plus years.

Consider the matchup Friday, when many fans likely turned on the Duke-Mercer game to see Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski going up against “that other guy on the Mercer bench.”

“A lot of people know who he is, because they wouldn’t play us,” said Wright, meaning other coaches. “But, yes, the average sport fan was probably sitting back and saying, ‘Who is this coaching against Duke and hanging in there?’ I imagine many got on their Google machine and found out.”

When Krzyzewski led Duke to the Final Four in 1989 and 1990, Hoffman was coaching the women’s team at Southern Nazarene in Bethany, Okla. When the Blue Devils won back-to-back NCAA titles in 1991 and 1992, Hoffman was going through back-to-back losing seasons at Oklahoma Baptist, his alma mater, where Wright was one of his players.

Krzyzewski and Duke won a third national championship in 2001, when Hoffman was 12-17 at Texas-Pan American. Krzyzewski’s fourth NCAA title came in 2010, when Hoffman was in his second year at Mercer and the Bears 16-17.

But on Friday, their paths crossed. Mercer, with five senior starters, won. Many quickly learned about the small private university in Macon, Ga.

“It’s a special thing we have,” senior forward Bud Thomas said.

Hoffman also was an assistant on Kelvin Sampson’s staff at Oklahoma when the NCAA said violations were committed when hundreds of impermissible calls were made to recruits. When Jeff Capel was named the Sooners’ head coach in 2006, Hoffman was not retained.

He spent time coaching in the NBA Development League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in McAllen, Texas. He coached the Arkansas Aeros in the American Basketball Association, taking on the Vermont Frost Heaves and Minnesota Ripknees.

Hoffman also devised his own way of doing things. Long bus rides, for example. He likes taking his players out for hours.

“Let ‘em talk, get to know each other,” he said. “Take their head phones off and just talk, which is a lost art. It’s learning how to communicate.”

There are no scouting reports, no printouts. The players instead keep hand-written notebooks.

“It makes you remember what’s going on and gives them more ownership of how you go about your business,” Hoffman said.

It’s safe to say Hoffman will continue to go about his business the same way. The Bears, champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, will move in July to the Southern Conference, bringing on a new challenge.

But the Bears may continue to win and may continue to celebrate with the “Nae Nae” dance. Led by senior guard Kevin Canevari – a Lake Norman High grad – the Bears even had Hoffman joining in Friday.

The coach’s dance skills?

“Below average,” Gollon said, laughing.

“I’m awful,” Hoffman said. “It wasn’t really dancing, just power sliding. But I’m a Southern Baptist. We couldn’t dance growing up. Dancing wasn’t in our repertoire.”

That’s OK, though. Hoffman has the Bears dancin’.

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