RALEIGH -- America met Mercer on Friday and discovered an unflinching outfit from Macon, Ga., that stared down Duke in one of the seminal upsets in NCAA tournament history. America loves the little guy, the endearing underdog who dances from obscurity into our hearts on a March afternoon. But for coach Bob Hoffman, with his shock of white hair and alphabet soup basketball resume, Mercer is more than just a consummate underdog.
Hoffman, 56, took a circuitous route to his indelible moment, leading No. 14 Mercer over No. 3 Duke and Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski. Hoffman wound through stops in the NAIA, ABA and D-League, with countless van trips, Super 8s and Golden Corrals providing the winking lights in his career rear view mirror.
While America sees Mercer as a cuddly darling, Hoffman saw a coveted destination. "It's the Taj Mahal," he said.
Hoffman began his career as an assistant high school coach and full-time history teacher in Piedmont, Okla., in 1979. He became head coach in 1981 and was so amped up that he threw up nearly every morning. His wife, Kelli, termed this his "morning sickness."
From there he coached as an NAIA assistant (Oklahoma Baptist), NAIA women's head coach (Southern Nazarene), NAIA head coach (Oklahoma Baptist), Division I head coach (Texas-Pan American), Division I assistant coach (Oklahoma), ABA head coach (Arkansas) and NBA Development League (Rio Grand Valley).
He's been paid $16,000, blown out a tire after midnight on the road from Alva to Enid, Okla., and lived eight miles from the Mexican border. Along the way, Hoffman developed what he calls his "craft." He scouted NAIA opponents late into the night as an assistant at OBU, waking up for his morning job at a temp agency. He endlessly toured camps, attended clinics and slept on the floor of hotel rooms at the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, learning to counter pressure defenses and disrupt motion offenses. He eventually built a repertoire of plays well into the hundreds. Set by set, trip by trip, game by game, Hoffman forged a confidence that defines him.
One theme wove through all the backroads of Hoffman's coaching career -- winning. He took Piedmont High School to three state tournaments in four years, snapping decades of drought. He won an NAIA women's national title in 1990 at Southern Nazarene, which led to the head men's job Oklahoma Baptist. Hoffman made it to a pair of NAIA national title games at OBU, joking that they'd have won at least one if the players had been coached up a little better. The victories piled up as the years flew by, as the Duke win was his 526th as a college coach.
And Duke isn't the only stunning upset he's led. At OBU in 1993, he beat Oregon State in a tournament at BYU. (OBU lost at the buzzer to BYU in the final). He won 21 games at Texas Pan American in 2001-02, including beating Baylor to win the San Juan Shootout. At Mercer, he's beaten Alabama (twice), Auburn, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Seton Hall and Ole Miss.
"For lack of a better way of putting it, he's always been very confident in Bob," said former Oklahoma Coach Kelvin Sampson. "I wasn't with him, but I'm sure that when those brackets came out, Bob Hoffman said, 'Duke is going to have their hands full.'"
Sampson first met Hoffman in 1994 after he took the Oklahoma head job. They sat on the stands at a junior college in Texas, and Sampson wondered why the best player on the floor ended up at Oklahoma Baptist. So in 2004, when Hoffman called Sampson and asked for a spot on the Oklahoma coaching staff, Sampson agreed.
DAVIS: Can Mercer do it again?
When Sampson and Oklahoma parted ways, Hoffman wasn't retained, and his itinerant journey continued, with stops in the ABA with the Arkansas Aeros and in the NBA Development League with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Along the way, a distinct style emerged. Hoffman is a devout Christian who doesn't cuss, and his preferred drink is unsweetened iced tea with no lemon. (To avoid the vomiting these days, he skips pre-game meal and pounds tea instead.)
Hoffman's players enjoy his animated style, as they imitate the way his tongue fluctuates rapidly while he's yelling at them. "Like a worm," said Mercer junior Darious Moten.
They also marvel at his endearing knack for substituting out swear words, as he'll tell them to "get up in their chili" or "knock the fire out them" when pleading for better defense. If Hoffman is excited he'll scream "Attababy," something the players echo in appreciation. His postgame dancing still needs to be coached up, as he jokes that he didn't get much practice as the son of a Baptist minister.
Hoffman stalks the sideline like a bear on the prowl, with his signature move a vicious foot stomp with WWE-like qualities.
"Like the Hulk has the Hulk Smash," said Mercer associate coach Spencer Wright, who played for Hoffman at OBU. "He has the Hoffman Stomp."
Hoffman's teams run bushels of set plays, making them hard to guard and impossible to scout. Mercer ran more than 50 of its 150 sets against Duke, with play calls like "dive cow," "pig sty" and "cheese fries" available.
"The other team can't know all our plays because we don't know all of them," said senior point guard Langston Hall.
Hoffman's sideline instincts can best be summed up by the game's pivotal play on Friday, a pick-and-roll bullet pass from Hall to center Daniel Coursey that gave Mercer a five-point lead with 67 seconds remaining. Sampson watched the play at the Houston Rockets practice facility with Kevin McHale, and they howled in delight.
"Duke's No. 1 mission is to pressure you, rattle you and turn you over," Sampson said. "Bob spread the floor and used the pressure against them. He turned their strength into a strength for him. Bob knew how Duke would play the screen and had the perfect play for the perfect situation."
And with that shot, celebrations broke out around the country. Win Case, Hoffman's friend and former rival while he coached at NAIA Oklahoma City University, jumped up and hugged his wife in Murfreesboro, Tenn., when Mercer finished off the win. "It was like I won the game," Case said.
Former Arkansas star Todd Day, who played for Hoffman in the ABA, screamed in his Memphis home. "It was a proud moment," Day said.
But Gabriel Muoneke, a former Texas star who played for Hoffman in the D-League, didn't even celebrate. "I promise you, I was not surprised," he said. "I know him well enough to know he's not done. To him it's not a big deal."
To reach that moment, Hoffman put together a staff that hasn't turned over the last four years. None of Mercer's full-time assistant coaches played Division I ball. The closet thing to a blue blood tie is that assistant Doug Esleeck coached North Carolina's junior varsity team. To all of them, Mercer is the basketball Taj Mahal.
"I think it's just that they've gone about where they're at almost the same way I have," Hoffman said. "They learned their craft the hard way. They weren't given anything. To me, that's a big deal."
Mercer faces No. 11 Tennessee on Sunday for a chance to continue Hoffman's charmed run. Mercer hadn't made the NCAA tournament since 1985 and won a game Friday for the first time in NCAA Tournament history. Mercer has mojo on its side, from its five senior starters to a raucous band of supporters. Also, Mercer thumped Tennessee, 75-67, in the NIT in Knoxville last year with many of the same players.
A few more people will be watching this game. A win would make Hoffman the toast of America this week and allow us to ponder if his moment came as a culmination of his winding path or because of it.
"Basketball is basketball," Hoffman said. "If you can coach, you can coach. If you understand the game and break it down, you can teach anyone how to play. It's fun to know that it can happen the way that it did. It's harder. But it's fun to know it can happen that way."