College Basketball

Former NBA star Mark Price fired up to coach Charlotte 49ers

Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball coach Mark Price (right) during his first practice with the team on Friday.
Charlotte 49ers men’s basketball coach Mark Price (right) during his first practice with the team on Friday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Go ahead and tell Mark Price he’s not up to reviving the Charlotte 49ers’ men’s basketball program.

You’d be doing him a favor.

“I’ve never been afraid of challenges,” Price said. “If you tell me there’s something I can’t do, then that’s what I want to do.”

This rebuild would be a challenge regardless of who the head coach is. The 49ers last qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2005 under Bobby Lutz. Under Lutz’s replacement, Alan Major, the 49ers made one National Invitation Tournament appearance in five seasons. Last season the 49ers finished 14-18, and a handful of players transferred last spring just as former Charlotte Hornets assistant Price was hired.

Overlay that circumstance with Price, 51, being a first-time college head coach. Most of his experience is as an NBA assistant, sometimes as a shooting specialist. He’s still navigating through NCAA rules interpretations and the nuances of recruiting.

And yet there’s abundant excitement surrounding Price’s first season at UNC Charlotte for two important reasons: He’s a fine teacher of the game and he has a sales pitch that distinguishes him from most college coaches:

“Every young player wants to be an NBA player when he comes to college ball. I know what it takes to be an NBA player: I know what one looks like. I’ve been one and I’ve coached them,” Price said.

“Somebody might be a great college coach, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has the tools to get a kid to the next level. Hopefully, that’s a big selling point.”

Price was just 5-foot-11 and 155 pounds when he arrived as a freshman at Georgia Tech in the fall of 1982. No one would have tagged him an NBA prospect then, but he lasted 12 NBA seasons, four times as an All-Star.

While he aspired to be a head coach of late, he wasn’t focused on the college game when Charlotte 49ers athletic director Judy Rose approached him last spring after Major resigned.

Rose had quietly done extensive research on Price once it was apparent Major might not be back. She went through an intermediary – former Hornets marketing consultant Carl Scheer – to gauge Price’s interest in the job, then discreetly met with Price for two hours at her home near Lake Norman.

About a week later, with the Hornets on a West Coast trip, Price called Rose to tell her how much he wanted the job.

“Once you meet with Mark, you think, ‘The way he played, the passion, the basketball IQ,’ ” Rose said. “There is always a risk (in hiring a coach with little college experience). But it didn’t feel like a big risk.”

Just get them on campus

Price had lived in Charlotte two years but knew little about UNC Charlotte. He was immediately impressed by the campus of 26,000-plus students and particularly the 9,105-seat Halton Arena.

Combine that with the fast-track effort to build a football program and the construction of light-rail transit from campus to Charlotte’s uptown and Price saw this as a prime opportunity.

“I just think we have a chance to blow it out,” Price said, even if the start was less than scintillating.

By the time all the transfers were done the roster was down to five players. So Price had to simultaneously hire a staff while figuring out how to re-assemble a roster late in the recruiting period.

He leaned on Hornets scout Buzz Peterson, who had previously coached Appalachian State, Tulsa, Tennessee, Coastal Carolina and UNC Wilmington.

Peterson told Price he should complement his teaching skills and name recognition with highly experienced college recruiters. That resulted in the hires of Houston Fancher (former head coach at Appalachian State), Chris Ferguson and Andre Gray.

Price’s message to the staff: “Just get them to this campus and we’ll have a chance to sign them.”

Staying out of the muck

One of Price’s strengths is his reputation for integrity. He says he won’t compromise that for this job, that either he and his staff will win doing the right things or he’ll find something else to do.

“I’m not going to get in the muck. If that’s how you have to recruit a kid, then I’ll go find somebody else,” Price said. “I’m not interested in head cases, whether that be players or coaches or whatever.”

Fancher said that while Price’s adjustment to college ball wasn’t “seamless,” he’s definitely adapted to the importance of effective recruiting and the time that takes.

Also, Fancher likes that Price has set high standards for prospects as a former NBA assistant.

“He’s probably turned down 80 percent of the guys we bring to him, saying, ‘I’m not sure he’s there yet.’ He’s really raised the bar. He wants to recruit and compete with the best.”

Price believes part of successful recruiting involves building a strong schedule that offers exposure to the players. To that end, the 49ers will play Georgetown at Time Warner Cable Arena this season and also Syracuse and either Michigan or Connecticut at a tournament in the Bahamas.

Also, Price had to lower his inhibitions about things such as social media. He started sharing himself on Twitter with the handle @Mark25Price.

“My wife actually tricked me into that. It scared me; there’s so much silliness to” Twitter, Price said. “A big Cavs fan up in Cleveland had created this Mark Price account and said, ‘I’ll give it to you.’ I don’t use it a lot, but it’s crazy that you put something out and 100 people see it like that.”

The 49ers commenced their first practice Friday with eight additions – three freshmen, two former junior-college players and three transfers. One newcomer arrives with special ties – Price’s son, 6-7 Hudson, will sit out the 2015-16 season after leaving Texas Christian to play for his dad.

Price says attitude is as important as size and skill in evaluating who should be offered a scholarship.

“I always say there are two kinds of players: players who love to win and players who hate to lose. Give me the players who hate to lose any day.” Price said. “The really great players find losing so devastating they’ll do anything possible to keep that from happening.”

Price often reminds his staff not to fear going head-to-head with the state’s big-name programs.

“Look at teams like Gonzaga, Butler or Wichita State: People view them the same way as so-called ‘high-major schools.’ That’s my goal,” Price said. “When we go in homes (to recruit) it will be N.C. State, Wake Forest, UNC and Charlotte.”

Adapting to college kids, NCAA rules

Price enhanced his reputation as a teacher two summers ago when he worked for months with Hornets forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to fix his jump shot.

Little as Price could work with his new players over the summer, they already have a sense how Price operates.

“He’s such a good mechanic. He knows what to look for and how to fix flaws,” said junior guard Braxton Ogbueze, one of those five carryovers from last season’s roster.

“He showed me how my shot could be more consistent if I would just keep my arm a certain way. He’s such a stickler for detail, but it really made a difference.”

One of Price’s frustrations in adapting to NCAA rules is how little time he can work with players in the off-season. Price could show up at Time Warner Cable Arena any time Kidd-Gilchrist wanted to work out. The college rules are very different.

“That’s probably been the biggest adjustment because I love to work with guys hands-on. You can bring guys to summer school, but there is all of two hours a week that you can get out on the court with them.”

Price believes the best – perhaps the only – time a player can improve his skills substantially is the offseason. It’s tough to do that if interaction with coaches is so limited.

“I hope the NCAA will continue to re-evaluate this because I think they are doing a disservice,” Price said. “If you allow (college programs) to bring them to school in the summer, then why not allow two hours a day (to work with coaches)? I don’t understand that.”

Father set the model

Price could have played it safe, remaining in the NBA to see if a head-coaching job would be offered. He interviewed with the Cleveland Cavaliers the summer of 2014 before they hired David Blatt.

But Price was raised in Oklahoma not to be intimidated by a challenge. His parents never coddled him, and that made him the over-achiever he was.

“They developed in me a sense of toughness – a no-excuse attitude,” Price recalled.

“My dad told me, ‘I don’t want to here this or that. You are what God gave you. Now go use it to the best of your ability.’ That’s always been my approach.”

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

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