Men’s Basketball’s New Era
Matt Figger, Austin Peay State University’s new men’s basketball coach, spent much of his childhood obsessed with coaching legends Vince Lombardi, Joe B. Hall and Paul “Bear” Bryant. In 1993, Figger took his first step in a lifelong journey to follow the lead of these legends when he became an assistant coach at Wabash Valley Junior College in Illinois. He took the job while still a college student himself at Pikeville College.
“I felt like it was the chance of a lifetime to pursue a dream I’d always had, which was to be a basketball coach,” Figger said. “It was a chance to quickly figure out if I wanted to pursue that deal.”
But pursuing a dream isn’t always easy, as Figger soon learned. On busy days, he’d leave the house at 5 a.m. to drive international students around the county, and he wouldn’t return home until midnight.
In 1994, he took an assistant coaching job at Vincennes College in Indiana, but the new post came with a small caveat—he had to complete his degree.
“There was one year where I lived basically in a warehouse,” he recalled.
“I had a mattress, a microwave and a shower. It was very humbling, but it made me more hungry to pursue my dreams.”
While coaching at Vincennes and pursuing a degree at Eastern Kentucky, Figger worked as a custodian from seven at night to three in the morning after practice. During his last semester, he took a class that was 250 miles away.
“There were days where I’d only get two or three hours of sleep, then make a 500-mile round trip,” he said. “The adversity turned me into the man I am today.”
He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in 1995, but he continued to work as an assistant coach at Vincennes. One day, while attending the University of Florida’s individual camps, he encountered a gangly, intense coach from Miami High School named Frank Martin. The duo struck up a friendship, with Figger eventually coaching five Miami players at his next assignment with Odessa Junior College in Texas. When Martin became Kansas State University’s head coach, Figger joined his staff. In 2008, that team made it to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite 8.
“I think Frank looked at us as kindred spirits because nobody gave us anything,” Figger said. “His high school coach pushed him toward college (at Florida International) and even then, Frank was working jobs and coaching JV basketball and taking classes on the side. Whether we knew it or not, like people bond together and I think that’s what started our journey.”
In 2012, Martin was named head coach for the South Carolina Gamecocks, and Figger followed his friend east. In the spring of 2017, the Gamecocks made their first Final Four appearance, dispatching powerhouse teams like Marquette, Duke, Baylor and Florida along the way.
A few weeks later, Figger was named APSU’s new men’s head basketball coach.
“Sometimes, I catch a moment—five or 10 minutes—and I sit back and think, ‘Wow, this is really happening’ or ‘That really happened,’” he said. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of that phenomenal run at South Carolina and then to be only the 12th head coach in Austin Peay history is a blessing in itself.
“I wouldn’t want anyone else’s journey. I think we all have our own paths, and maybe mine has taken a little longer than I’d like, but it’s prepared me to be the best person I’m capable of being at this moment in time.”
And Figger sees his job as a continuation of his most important roles in life—being a devoted family man.
“I want to be known as a good husband and father, someone who’s about family and who knows what his faith is,” Figger said. “When my time is done as a coach or as a human being, I want to be known as someone who tried to help young men accomplish things in their lives that they may not have been able to accomplish on their own.
“I just want to make sure our players know I love them and care about them as people. My job is to help them become grown men, to help kids coming from a troubled past or maybe didn’t have a great situation growing up, and teach them how to become a father, become a parent. I want to be about life.”