'Everybody loved him.' Those who knew Dusty May during his IU days enjoying Final Four run
BLOOMINGTON – Mike Davis hasn’t been able to watch Florida Atlantic’s NCAA tournament run these past two weeks.
He’s convinced he might jinx the Owls, so he follows their games through his wife’s regular score updates. At one point during the Elite Eight win over Kansas State, FAU fell behind by seven, and Davis worried even those might be affecting the outcome.
So, Davis was surprised after the game, when he looked at his buzzing phone to see an incoming FaceTime call from Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May. When he answered, Davis found his former assistant and a jubilant team waiting for him.
“What a beautiful moment, as a coach,” Davis said.
The sentiment is shared across friends and former colleagues who know May from his time as an Indiana manager and staffer. Ahead of this weekend’s Final Four, the Eastern Greene alum has more than a few former Hoosiers pulling hard in his direction.
It was Davis — for whom May had worked as a student manager, a graduate assistant and an assistant coach at stops with IU and UAB — who observed from outside their program what the Owls might be capable of this season.
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The story is well-traveled now: After Davis’ Detroit Mercy team lost 76-55 in Boca Raton in November, Davis asked his former assistant if he could speak with the Owls. Playing Florida Atlantic, Davis told IndyStar, had been “like there were eight people playing on defense, eight people playing on offense.”
“No matter what we did, no matter how hard we played,” Davis said, “it didn’t matter.”
Davis wanted the Owls to know something he’s learned across more than 40 years in coaching. That “a real teammate,” Davis said, “is someone who can want his teammates’ success more than his own success.”
By late March, the small handful of teams in the country capable of reaching that level of togetherness will have revealed themselves. But Davis isn’t accustomed to seeing that kind of synergetic cohesiveness in November, and he wanted to encourage the Owls to hold tight to their chemistry.
“My message to them — I’ve said this for the last 15 years as a coach, and unfortunately, some guys get it, some guys don’t — but there will only be five or six teams in the country that will be a real team,” Davis told IndyStar. “When I left, Dusty called me, he said, ‘Those guys felt like you were talking to them.’
“When you watch them play, that’s what you see.”
May’s career arc has saturated the college basketball consciousness in the past month, as he’s led the Owls to a 30-win season, Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles and, now, a berth in the program’s first Final Four.
It began close to here, May a graduate of Eastern Greene High School, whose Wikipedia page will tell you might be addressed in Bloomfield but is much closer to small, unincorporated communities like Solsberry, Hobbieville and Cincinnati.
May served as a student manager at Indiana from 1996-2000. He came to Bloomington for the same reason many before him had — thankless as it might sometimes be, working as a student manager under Bob Knight had proven a crucial first step into a career in coaching for others before him.
“Being a manager at Indiana is a lot different from being a manager almost anywhere else in the country,” Davis said. “There’s something about being a manager there that elevates you in the real world and in the coaching profession. When you look through a lot of the managers who have come through Indiana and been successful as coaches, he was one of those that wanted to be really, really good. He wasn’t above anything when it came to improving himself as a coach.”
May is one of several managers from that period who went on to become successful college coaches.
Joe Pasternack went on to serve as an assistant at Cal and Arizona, and as head coach at New Orleans and, currently, UC Santa Barbara. Mike Schrage coached as an assistant at Stanford, Butler and Ohio State before getting the head-coaching job at Elon. Schrage is now on staff at Duke.
“When you’re a manager at Indiana, you learn three qualities: self-discipline, loyalty and an incredible work ethic,” Pasternack told IndyStar. “He had an unbelievable way about him, a personality. Being able to connect with people is one of his biggest strengths.”
After graduating from IU in 2000, May accepted a graduate assistant position at Southern Cal under Henry Bibby.
He stayed there two years before returning to Indiana to serve on Davis’ staff in 2002, where he stayed until he took a full-time assistant-coaching job with Eastern Michigan in 2005.
“The ultimate competitor,” said Dane Fife, who played for Knight and Davis at IU and was on staff as a graduate assistant when May returned to Bloomington. “The best thing about him is, he has a great understanding of the level you have to be able to compete at to win a championship in anything. I’m certain he’s brilliant with Xs and Os. I’m certain he’s brilliant at teaching the game itself. But I think Dusty has a great understanding of the fact that if players don’t compete, you’re not going to have a chance to win.”
Even after his turn as a manager had ended, and May worked higher up the staff tree under Davis, he remained accessible to Indiana players.
“Dusty was just a guy who was always super passionate about basketball. I remember him having film on every possession, every player you could think of. NBA guys, he would chop stuff up. If you asked him about it, he would have it,” said Marshall Strickland, who played at IU from 2002-06. “He was a great communicator. The players loved him, and just his willingness to do extra — to meet you in the gym at night, to get you an extra workout. All those things build on the traits it takes to reach the levels he is.”
After leaving Indiana in 2005, May briefly accepted a position on Fife’s staff when Fife was hired as the head coach at what was then IPFW, before taking the Eastern Michigan position. He later rejoined Davis at UAB, then worked under Mike White at Louisiana Tech and Florida before taking the FAU job.
In a business that can sometimes bend toward the cutthroat, Davis said May’s selfless approach to his job was refreshing.
“He was genuine,” Davis said. “He always was there to serve and work hard. And his work spoke for itself. If I wanted to go out and jog a mile, he’d jog with me. If I wanted to go out on a recruiting trip, he’d drive. Without any complaint.”
May has helped connect former teammates and staff mates with positions from coast to coast.
And they’ve delighted in watching the coach who still picks their brains (and vice-versa) on the most minute details of their shared sport steer his team to the pinnacle of college basketball.
“I always remembered Dusty being just how he is now, level-headed, intelligent, very driven,” said former IU player and assistant Mike Roberts, who got to know May taking grad school classes together. “He and I have talked a lot of basketball. He’s always looking to learn new things. Always. He’s always trying to study what the new trend is in basketball, what to play, how to be different.”
When Roberts was an assistant under Wes Miller at UNC-Greensboro, the Spartans ran an effective press that helped turn them into one of the country’s most-successful mid-major teams in the late 2010s.
May called Roberts once, wanting to pick his brain about how the Spartans’ staff taught that press, and why it worked.
Roberts shared both his thoughts and some practice film, and in exchange quizzed his friend on the latest offensive concepts May had been absorbing. May, Roberts knew, would have been watching everything from college, to NBA, to European basketball, for fresh ideas.
“He’s always trying to evolve,” said Roberts, now an assistant at Cincinnati.
Earlier this season, in the midst of what’s become the best season in program history, Fife traveled to Florida to watch the Owls practice.
He remembered the intense, inquisitive manager-turned-staffer, the fiery competitor soaking up all the knowledge he could. In Boca Raton, Fife found a calmer, quieter May. One still comfortable reserving some brimstone for an officiating decision he disagreed with, but also more stoic on the sideline. Able to inspire without shouting, and to build a team capable of carving a path to the Final Four.
The May America has come to know across this season, and certainly this past month.
“The Dusty May I kind of grew up with, worked with, I had him as that guy. The guy that was gonna be in your face yelling and screaming, and he’s not that way at all,” Fife said. “He has natural leadership qualities, but I think the way the team, the way those players, the way they’ve responded, just the amount of respect they have for their coach, that was really what I came away with.”
FAU has the early game Saturday, against San Diego State.
Davis may be watching, may not. Roberts, who roared so loudly during the Owls’ Elite Eight win over Kansas State neighbors in his Lawrenceburg condo complex became concerned, plans on finding a sports bar in Houston. The wave of posts from former teammates and players across social media will only intensify if Florida Atlantic goes one step further this weekend.
Pasternack texted May on Thursday and encouraged him to enjoy this moment as much as possible.
“It’s so special,” he said. “Dusty’s a very close friend of mine. We talk all year long. This magical run is amazing.”
Hoosiers of a certain age across the country have rallied around one of their own during this improbable run, and they’ll hope it keeps rolling into the national championship game Monday.
“It’s super exciting. I’ve seen a lot of the guys from that time post about him,” Strickland said. “We have so many fond memories of him. Everybody loved him.”
Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ex-IU basketball manager Dusty May has Hoosiers rooting for FAU