Duggar Baucom Took The Hardest Job In College Basketball, On Purpose
Duggar Baucom—a late-blooming ex-cop with a pacemaker—was always an unlikely story. After somehow making VMI a winner, he's taking on the worst job in college hoops.
Photo by Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
For the first time in his life, Duggar Baucom saw palm trees when he looked out his window. The 55-year-old had just been named the men's basketball coach at The Citadel, and as he sat in his new office last March, he contemplated the strange scenario that had brought him to Charleston.
Most coaches leave a school because it is the natural next step in their careers; others depart after accepting offers too lucrative to turn down. This isn't how it went for Baucom, who had coached at VMI for a decade and had a pair of contract extensions that would have kept him at the Big South program through 2019. He was on a trajectory that seemed likely to end with his signature on the court of the Keydets' Cameron Hall. And then he decided he didn't want it anymore.
In one of the most seemingly bizarre decisions in recent Division I coaching memory, Baucom decided to go from one military academy to another to another. This is something stranger than a lateral move. Military academies are notoriously difficult win at—name a coach without the last name of Knight or Krzyzewski who has done so in the modern era—and Baucom didn't even leave VMI's conference. Both teams play in the Southern conference, and unsurprisingly share a fierce rivalry. "I don't know why only working at military schools is my niche," says Baucom. "But this change is refreshing."
It's also a challenge. The head coaching gig at The Citadel is arguably the worst job in college basketball. The legendarily/infamously draconian school has just two 20-win seasons in its history and a secure spot amongst the five DI programs—along with Army, Northwestern, Brooklyn's St. Francis, and William & Mary—that have never reached the NCAA tournament since it began in 1938.
Baucom's transition hasn't been as smooth as he likely expected: the Bulldogs have lost fifteen games so far in 2016, including a 73-point loss to Butler in the season opener. "My mother thinks I am too hard on these kids," Baucom says. "She thinks they can't do anything wrong, but my fiancée has gotten to the point where she says, 'Yeah Duggar, y'all are bad.'"
Citadel does have one big win, though. In their first matchup this season, at the end of January, Baucom's Bulldogs defeated VMI for the first time since 2013. In this small conference, it was a big deal. And for Baucom, it was something like a start.
Baucom overcame talent shortcomings at VMI by creating and installing a fast-paced, defensively frenetic brand of basketball that relied heavily on the three-point shot. It was weird enough to acquire several nicknames, including "loot and shoot" and "sprint and strike." Baucom's VMI teams routinely scored 100-plus points a game and consistently upset high-major squads, and he expects that this offensive bastardization will also work at the Citadel: through early February, the Bulldogs lead the nation in possessions per game, with 83. They attempt a shot roughly every 29 seconds.
"When I was at VMI, my whole goal was to not be just two wins on an opposing team's schedule," he says. "We would be competitive and ultimately, that's what happened. I want to do the same thing at the Citadel. All you need in March is to be good and catch a few breaks. I'm not sure this is the year we break the streak and make the NCAA tournament, but it can certainly come in time."
While this may sound like rose-tinted clichespeak from a coach intent on winning the public relations game, Baucom really does have the chops to deliver the Citadel from its embarrassing past. His path to Charleston was as unconventional as the brand of basketball he perfected. Always a late bloomer—he was born a month after his due date, after which his mother reportedly exclaimed, "I can't wait for this little Duggar to get here!"—Baucom was pushing age 40 when he came to the realization he wanted to coach college basketball.
Growing up in North Carolina, he wasn't a gym rat, and wasn't particular good at the sport. "I worked hard, and did whatever my [high school basketball] coach asked me to do," he says, "but I liked baseball more." He dropped out of college after his freshman year to help run his ailing father's business, and then became a resource officer at his former high school. The job, which sometimes called for Baucom to crawl into a McGruff the Crime Dog costume, was his first foray into the world of coaching. "I was the one who handled the school's criminal problems, or teaching classes on stranger danger," he says. "My hours were flexible—my shift was over by 2:30—and I was asked to coach the JV team."
A promotion to state trooper ended his JV tenure, and for several years, Baucom's focus was less Xs and Os and more hostage negotiations and 120 mph car chases. That ended when Baucom suffered a heart attack on Christmas Day in 1990. He was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the same condition that killed his father a few years earlier, and was abruptly unemployable in the eyes of the North Carolina highway patrol.
"I was a 30-year-old divorcee with a pacemaker and no education," he says. "I was unmarketable."
Tired of watching an endless loop of soap operas while recovering, he began to read self-help books. From Psycho Cybernetics to Think and Grow Rich and (of course) the Tony Robbins canon, Baucom was a sponge. "This was revolutionary for me," he says. "I didn't like to read before, and I was never taught any of this in school."
To Baucom, the next steps were simple: go back to college, get a degree, and become a college basketball coach. He didn't know any coaches, but as he learned from all those self-help books, a single little inconvenience shouldn't derail a goal. He enrolled at UNC-Charlotte in 1992, and spent the next few summers working every single basketball camp he could. "I figured if I had a bit of coaching experience, and if I worked these camps, I could meet coaches," he says.
After stints running drills at Bob McKillop's Davidson College summer camp, and babysitting Steph and Seth Curry while their father Dell put on a shooting display at Muggsy Bogues' camp, he was hired by McKillop as an unpaid administrative assistant. "I was living at home with my momma," he says, "and I went home to tell her. She said, 'Duggar, that's not a job, that's a hobby.'"
A year later, in 1996, it became a job. Baucom landed his first paid gig, as an assistant at Mars Hill, a DII college, for $17,000 a year. He worked on various staffs throughout the South for nearly a decade until he was offered his first head coaching position at Tusculum, a small DII in eastern Tennessee. Baucom won 37 games in two seasons, and was quickly snapped up in the spring of 2005 by VMI, a team that had finished above .500 three times in the past two decades.
It takes a specific type of athlete to play for a military academy. "You need a kid that has a little discipline in their life, and is willing to work hard and do some extra things," says Dan Earl, who replaced Baucom on the VMI sidelines. This also means recruiting players who might better fit at a lower level of competition.
But all kids, regardless of their recruiting ranking, can run, and when Baucom started to gameplan for his head-coaching debut, he realized conventionality wasn't an option. The first season, recalls Chavis Holmes—an early Baucom recruit who would go on to set NCAA's career scoring record for twins along with his brother Travis—was full of pick-and-rolls and kickouts. "It was regular basketball," he says.
VMI likely would have continued to play at a normal pace, and Baucom likely would have been out a job after a few seasons, if his starting center didn't violate the school's code of conduct right before the start of the 2006-07 season. Suddenly, VMI didn't have a player taller than 6-foot-7. Baucom didn't want to become a "joystick coach"—someone who didn't let his kids play—and he had always admired the breakneck pace of Paul Westhead's famously uptempo late-1980s Loyola Marymount squads. He also was fascinated by the high-scoring run-and-gun perfected by Division III Grinnell and the constant full and half-court pressure devised by Vance Walberg, who would later become a guru to John Calipari when he first arrived at Kentucky.
Over dinner at Outback Steakhouse with his assistants a few weeks before VMI's first game, Baucom used Sweet n' Low packets to outline his new dogma: attempt 90 shots a game, shoot 50 threes, and force opponents to commit a turnover on 25 percent of their possessions.
Baucom's strategy was a leading salvo in college basketball's then-burgeoning analytical revolution; this was back when Ken Pomeroy was still a meteorologist and not your mother's favorite tempo free analyst. It wasn't yet clear that it would work, but it was obvious that it was a blast. "It was every basketball player's dream," says Holmes. "There wasn't such a thing as a bad shot. All we had to do was sprint down the floor and shoot threes."
"I am not scared to try stuff," Baucom says. "I got here later than most, and what I have been through health wise, having several heart operations, basketball is low stress."
After two losing seasons, VMI shocked the Big South conference and the nation by winning 24 games, including an upset of Kentucky at Rupp Arena in 2008. The Keydets would lead the nation in scoring six of Baucom's ten seasons; VMI also finished atop Division I in possessions per game four times, and his full-court trapping press continually caused headaches for opposing teams.
"My assistants and I used to joke," he says, "that because of the way we play, we turned 'VMI' into an adjective or a verb." But towards the end of the 2015 season, Baucom felt a twinge. The athletic director who had hired him had since retired, and the strain of recruiting to VMI was beginning to weigh on him. "At VMI, there are five guys sleeping in a concrete room with no air conditioning and wooden cots," he says. "I was happy to have a job, but it gets tough to get athletes and beat schools head-to-head."
Baucom had first dipped his toe in the coaching carousel back in 2010—he was the Citadel's choice 1A when the school last had a vacancy—and intermediaries contacted Baucom last spring if he still had interest. McKillop, his mentor, had warned him that the Citadel was the hardest job in DI, but Baucom felt ready for the challenge. "In terms of potential to win, The Citadel has a better chance," he says. "The locker rooms and the film rooms, even the barracks, are better than what I had at VMI. It feels more modern, and it's an opportunity to build another program."
There is also the financial incentive—his salary is nearly $200,000 a year. Logistics aside, training an entirely new group of players in the intricacies of his sole-melting system has been stop and go. His players weren't ready for the conditioning, which included a preseason series of 400 meter sprints in 55 seconds or less. The Citadel was the nation's slowest team last season, using a grinding 59 possessions a game, so the returning Bulldogs weren't used to the track workouts.
Trusting Baucom has perhaps been a bigger issue. His system has been tweaked over the years, and is no longer as rigorously risk and reward as it was, although Baucom will still bench a player if he attempts a mid-range two-point field goal. Still, his players have been slow to adjust to its freewheeling philosophy. "We discuss in practice that there are very few bad shots," Baucom says. "If you are open, shoot it. I wouldn't have you out there if I didn't trust you."
They're all still figuring it out, but for the first time since 1900, when the Citadel finished the season 0-1, the team has a chance to be relevant. The promise and potential to finally make the NCAA tournament has never been more real. Yet before that happens, Baucom had to face his former team. The first game was played in Charleston, and according to Baucom, it was emotional: his practice ran long, and handshakes and daps quickly gave way to hugs. Only two of the 13 Keydets on the VMI roster aren't his recruits, diamonds he turned up on endless summer weekends fat with AAU tournaments. "I love those kids," Baucom says. "And I'll always be their coach."
Although it was unstated, Baucom felt pressure to win. "I felt like I had bricks on my back," he says. "I wanted to beat those guys as bad I beat anybody, but I can't wait for them to graduate and I can be a part of their lives again. I don't want those kids hurting on the account that we beat them. It'll be different four years from no, because all my guys will have cycled through."
Of course, the really emotional game is still on the horizon: VMI's senior day, the final game of the 2016 season, at home against the Citadel. "I expect a huge crowd," Baucom says. "People who feel betrayed by me will be there to express their feelings, as will my friends who understand why I took this job. They still tell me, 'We will always pull for you except for two games a year.'"
Whenever his friends would ask if his dream job was coaching at Kentucky or North Carolina, Baucom would answer all he wants is to coach somewhere with palm trees in front of his arena. There isn't a lack of those outside McAlister Field House, but the rub is that he now just has to always beat the team that gave him a chance, the school that restarted his life a decade ago.
"Guys who get a job in a whole different league are fortunate," Baucom says. "They don't have to compete against their kids, whereas I have to three times a year. I'll just be glad when that 40 minutes is over and we have more points than them."