Michael Perry is in his 10th season as an assistant in the East Carolina basketball program. This has been the highest profile week at ECU for the former Richmond star as he steps in as coach while Jeff Lebo recovers from hip surgery.
Perry will guide the Pirates at Connecticut on Sunday at 6 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford.
Perry has been there and done that.
“As an assistant earlier in my career while working for Lefty Driesell at Georgia State, he had to have surgery on his neck,” Perry said Thursday. “It was an injury that became an acute issue and [the surgery] needed to happen immediately. It happened during the course of the Christmas break and the team was about to head to Hawaii to play in a really high-level tournament and we were having a heckuva year. He had to step away and I actually ended up coaching the team for six or seven games.”
Mike Holmes, associate athletic director for sports communications at Georgia State, looked it up. Driesell took leave in the 2000-01 season and Perry guided the Panthers to the championship of the Nike Festival in Honolulu. Georgia State topped Hawaii 65-64, downed Alabama-Birmingham 74-63 and turned back Cal State-Northridge 97-88.
Hawaii was 27-5 that season and Cal State Northridge went 22-9. Both made the NCAA Tournament, Holmes said.
Those outcomes actually went on Driesell’s record. The Panthers were 29-5 that season.
“[Coach Driesell] was out and wasn’t able to be at practices but for that time I went through that transition,” Perry said. “Then when I finally became the head coach, he actually walked away during the midst of the season and I took over. So I’ve been a head coach before but this situation is eerily similar to the situation in which I was an assistant and I had to be the acting head coach for about six or seven games.”
Perry became head coach when Driesell retired on Jan. 3, 2003. The Panthers were 4-6 at the time and were 10-9 under Perry for the remainder of the season to finish 14-15 overall.
Perry guided Georgia State to a 20-9 mark in 2003-04 and a 14-6 record in the Atlantic Sun Conference. The Panthers were 14-15 overall the following season and 11-9 in league play. Georgia State went into a period of decline with a move to the more competitive Colonial Athletic Association, going 7-22 and 3-15 in 2005-06. There was some progress in 2006-07 as the Georgia State was 11-20 overall and 5-13 in the CAA.
“It really wasn’t on Mike,” Holmes said. “Changing conferences was a major step up competitively. We weren’t prepared in most sports. It took some time catch up financially and in recruiting. Rod Barnes came in and he averaged almost 20 losses a season for the next four years.”
Georgia State now competes in the Sun Belt.
Sharing the load
Lebo said he considered all three of his assistants capable of taking charge but Perry’s experience makes him the logical choice. Perry values the knowledge of fellow staff members Mike Netti and Ken Potosnak.
Game management decisions will have something of a committee approach.
“Very similar to the way we have managed games when Coach Lebo was here,” Perry said. “He gets input from all of the coaches, then he goes forth with whatever decisions that have to be made. The same will be true here. I will weigh heavily on their input in all decisions both on and off the floor, but certainly in game management.”
B.J. Tyson’s absence
Not only are the Pirates missing the seventh-year coach who has won more games at the Division I level than any of his ECU predecessors but junior guard B.J. Tyson, who was averaging a team-high 11.9 points, is out with a knee injury.
“Certainly, you miss a guy who’s capable of scoring 13, 14, 15 points a game,” Perry said. “Not having that, you’ve got to find it from other people. As a coach, you’re looking down the sidelines trying to figure out where it’s going to come from. We’ve got an idea. Hopefully, it can happen. Still, you’re at a loss for words when you have a kid so valuable to the program, not just because of his scoring, but because of his leadership. He’s going to be greatly missed.”
Communicating with Lebo
Lebo has returned home from surgery in Raleigh on Monday.
“Yes, he’s recovering,” Perry said. “Obviously, this week is going to be a really tough week for him but he seems to be moving forward in stride. Being the competitor that he always is, he’s taking it each day at a time. He seems to be in good spirits and I’ve been keeping him up to date. Throughout this whole period, I’m going to keep coach Lebo in the loop with everything that’s happening.”
ECU made just 15 of 59 field goal attempts (25.4 percent) in a 55-46 home loss to American Athletic Conference leader Cincinnati on Sunday. The Pirates were four for 23 beyond the arc, 17.4 percent.
Perry doesn’t claim to be Mr. Fix-It when it comes to errant shooting but he adds that there’s more to the game than shooting.
“I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen guys struggle,” he said. “I’ve seen guys overcome those struggles. I’ve seen programs and talked to guys who have tried everything that they possibly can from guys shooting more to guys shooting less. You’re running guys out of the gym because they’re in the gym too much. They’re thinking about it too much.
“All we can do now is support them, let those guys know that we have faith in them. We know they’re going to fall eventually. It’s not going to deter us in terms of how we feel about them or playing them. They’re going to continue to be out there contributing. The only thing we ask of them is to understand even though shots might not be falling, are there other things you can do to contribute to the overall product in terms of winning and also to us being competitive.
“You can still contribute in other areas even though your shot may not be falling. That’s what we’re imploring them to do — find those ways, find the ways in which you can contribute when your shot is not falling, whether it’s becoming a better defender, whether it’s a guy who’s going to be aggressive off the bounce and to make one more pass, a guy who’s going to do the intangible things. He’s going to create extra possessions off the offensive glass. There are a lot more things you can do to contribute to winning other than making shots.
“At the end of the day, that’s huge, no question about it — not to make light of that — but when it’s not falling what else do you do then? You’ve got to be a basketball player.”
Perry’s personal side
Perry was born in Oxford, NC, on Nov. 10, 1958.
“I was only born in North Carolina,” Perry said. “I actually grew up in Richmond. My mother was pregnant with me in Richmond and came to Oxford because that’s where she was from. I was born in a hospital in Oxford, then she immediately took me back to Richmond and I grew up in Richmond. I do have a lot of family in Oxford.”
Perry was elected to the Richmond Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002. He started all 108 of the Spiders games from 1978 to 1981. He averaged 22.8 points as a senior. Perry received all-conference recognition, he was an honorable mention All America and was drafted by the Kansas City Kings, who have since moved to Sacramento.
Perry is 6 feet, 5 inches tall and is a little heavier than his playing weight of 215-220 pounds.
He looks like a former football player.
“The football coaches were always trying to get me to come out,” Perry said. ” . . . When I was in college, we had a big-time prospect, a guy named Jeff Nixon, who was a fourth-round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills. I was in the gym one day working out and there was a team . . . it might have been the Cowboys were in the gym working him out. The guy was watching me work out and he came over, the scout did, and talked to me about football. I had played it when I was younger.”
The scout told Perry he reminded him of a player who had played for his NFL club.
“It might have been Cornell Green,” Perry said. ” . . . He started talking to me about how many football players were actually former basketball players that they had drafted. I got on their mailing list and they corresponded with me some when I was in college.”
Perry and wife, Darlene, have three grown children including daughters, Rashawna (33) and Ashley (27), and son, Michael Jr. (24).
“I actually met my wife shortly after college through a close fiend of mine from high school, who was a mutual friend of ours,” Perry said. “She introduced us but we didn’t start dating immediately. We became pretty good friends. To be honest, at that time, I probably wasn’t the dating type. . . . Like a lot of young guys at that time, I was interested in meeting a lot of girls as opposed to settling down for one girl.
“Years later, we reconnected and the rest is history.”
Perry was 2-2 as a Richmond player in games with ECU, including a split of two games his freshman year and another split as a senior. The visiting team won all four games.
Influence of coaches
Perry played at Thomas Jefferson High School in Richmond for Dave Robbins, who went on to win three NCAA Division II championships at Virginia Union. Perry coached with Robbins at Union before returning to his alma mater to assist Dick Tarrant. The Spiders reached the NCAA Tournament five times and made four trips to the NIT under Tarrant’s leadership from 1981 to 1993.
Perry was an assistant coach and later associate head coach at Georgia State while on Lefty Driesell’s staff.
“All Hall of Fame coaches,” Perry said. “I’ve been fortunate to have an opportunity to be on the sidelines, in the office, in basketball meetings with some really good basketball minds. My first coaching job was with Dave Robbins at Virginia Union and then I went on to the University of Richmond with Dick Tarrant. I was fortunate to be a part of some great wins there as well and then to Georgia State with Lefty Driesell and be a part of that building process there at Georgia State.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some really, really good basketball coaches. With coach Robbins, it was game management. At that time and probably somewhat now, but certainly in that time, you didn’t have the luxury of scouting as a lot of the Division I programs had. There were a lot of decisions that had to be made in game time as far as personnel, as far as offensive and defensive schemes. You just didn’t have that luxury of scouting reports and film that were afforded to a lot of the Division I schools at that time. There were a lot of adjustments that had to be made literally during the course of the game.
“Now we know every defense that a particular team is going to throw at you, certain times at which they are going to throw it at you. We know all the tendencies of all the personnel. Coach Robbins didn’t have any of that. He had to do it literally on the fly during the course of the game. He was a great game-management coach.
“Dick Tarrant, it was the discipline and execution. Those were the things that he hung his hat on. He thought that it wasn’t so much about the Xs and Os but just the discipline of your program and that the more disciplined team wins. That was one of his strong suits — and preparation, developing a game plan, practice preparation and discipline.
“With Lefty Driesell, it was not only how to coach a basketball team but how to build a program.”
Perry is a solid recruiter, an area which is acknowledged to have been one of Driesell’s strengths.
“He was an outstanding recruiter,” but a basketball coach as well,” Perry said. “Sometimes, that’s kind of understated with him. I was talking with him [Wednesday] as a matter of fact and he was telling me that [Kentucky coach John] Calipari reached out to him last week and invited him up for a week just to kind of take a look at his team and share some thoughts with him.
“Calipari was telling him about when he was an assistant for Larry Brown [at Kansas]. They played Maryland and he was responsible for the scout and he was telling him how impressed he was with Coach Driesell’s team. There were some special situation plays and he said he got an out of bounds play from Coach Driesell that he still uses today. It’s helped him win two or three games over the course of his career.
“His coaching is somewhat understated but he was a heckuva basketball coach and as far as recruiting, one of the best.”
Beware of Huskies
UConn fell 69-49 at Southern Methodist on Thursday night, hitting 18 of 53 field goal attempts (34 percent) in dropping to 7-11 overall and 2-4 in the AAC.
“Dangerous opponent,” Perry said. “One of the teams that a lot of the teams in the league are going to be watching carefully going forward because they’re the type of team that a month from now, people are going to be surprised at probably how well they’re playing.
“They had a tough schedule early. They have some injuries as well. That’s a lot in terms of adjustment and trying to figure things out as a team in terms of trying to figure out how you go forward with those types of obstacles. Youth, tough schedule, injuries — that’s a lot to overcome. Their struggles early were as a result of that. And they were going through some similar woes as us in terms of their shooting. They have good shooters who aren’t shooting the ball well. As they begin to shoot the ball better, you’ve seen more wins of late from them. They’re playing better and they’re very competitive.
“Talent-wise, they’re very talented at every position. They’ve got outstanding talent, When you’re getting Top 25, Top 50, Top 100 players, eventually the cream rises to the top. That’s why they have been successful and it’s only a matter of time with this group they have now, one of the most talented teams in our league.”
Lebo has talked about moving up in the AAC. ECU (9-10, 1-5) is tied with Tulane (4-14, 1-5) for eighth in the league. The Huskies (7-11, 2-4) are seventh.
ECU players respond
Perry has pleased with how the players have responded to the circumstances resulting from Lebo’s surgery.
“The guys have been terrific,” Perry said. “They’re a very mature group. They’re a high character group. Coach Lebo was really great in terms of talking with them about his expectations . . . and how much he valued their character and he was sure that they would be about the right stuff during this period, this transition, and he was right. . . . They’ve been respectful. They give me a hard day’s work. They’ve been respectful to the other members of the staff as well. That’s all you can ask for, be respectful and the guys continue to work hard. It’s a next man up mentality within the program anyway. From players to coaches, we’re always willing to step up. They’re doing a great job in that regard. They really are.”
Keys for Sunday evening
Perry shared his thoughts on keys for Sunday’s matchup.
“Transition is going to be important,” he said. “Both teams are not shooting the ball particularly well. Easy baskets are of tremendous value so we’ve got to limit the easy basket opportunities for them and we’ve surely got to create some easy ones for us. The other thing with getting some easy scoring opportunities, the guys need to see the ball go through the basket to get their confidence going. You get a couple of shots to go, you get a couple of free throws, all of a sudden you have a better feel. You have a little bit more of a rhythm. Your perimeter shots ideally can follow after that. It’s going to be important to get some easy baskets, limit their transition opportunities and their second shot opportunities as well. We’ve got to keep them off the glass. They’ve got great size at every position.
“We’ve got to execute at a high level with speed and we’ve got to continue to play one-more basketball. When I say one-more basketball, meaning be willing to pass up the O.K. shot so your teammate can have a great shot. That’s what we’re going to do, continue to do that and play together as a team and play hard.”
ECU defeated Central Florida 81-80 in overtime at XL Arena in Hartford in the opening game of the AAC Tournament in 2015. The league event returns to the venue March 9-12 this season.
“I’ve been to that arena before ,” Perry said. “Some fond memories when I was part of an NCAA Tournament team at the University of Richmond as a coach. We beat Indiana and Georgia Tech to move on to the Sweet 16. Both of those games were played in that arena so I’ve got some fond memories of that arena in Hartford. . . . I’m looking forward to it and I’m excited.”