Matt Lynch stood before his basketball team this fall, needing to do something necessary, no matter how awkward — he had to come out again.
“Having to ‘come out’ can sometimes be a daily occurrence,” said Lynch, who had been publicly out as a gay basketball coach since April 2020. “It does get tiresome having to feel like you have to tell your life story every time I meet someone new. I could just wait and let them find out on their own, but being gay and in sports, combined with my own personality, sometimes it can take a while to get the point across.”
Lynch could not assume his players knew that their new assistant coach at Chowan University in North Carolina was gay. He wanted them to hear it from him, all at once. He decided to tell them at their first team meeting, attended by 49 players from the Division II team and the school’s developmental team (the equivalent of a JV team).
“We were covering a bunch of team-related subjects — schedule, rules, expectations — and I asked Coach [Rob] Burke if I could have a few minutes to speak my piece,” Lynch said. “When it became my time to speak I asked a series of questions.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever liked someone. Everyone raised their hand.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever been in a relationship. Everyone raised their hand.
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a girlfriend. Everyone raised their hand (including me).
“Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a boyfriend. Only I raised my hand.
“I then explained to the group that in order for me to coach them the way I want to coach them that I have to be completely open and honest with them at all times. I also explained that this wasn’t necessarily me looking for their support or approval. I welcome the support, but at this stage in my life I have learned that you’re not going to agree with everyone at all times, and that’s fine.
“I had one player get up in front of the rest and attempt to come give me a hug. I stopped him and said, ‘We’re not doing all that lovey-dovey shit, that’s not what this is or what this was meant for.’ I appreciate that young man attempting to show me his acceptance but in that moment I wasn’t looking for any more attention to be giving to my sexual orientation than needed.
“We moved on and it never really came back up. Sort of anticlimactic I know, and it’s just the way I want it to be.
And with that Lynch, 30, began his new job as assistant coach at Division II Chowan and head coach of the development team, making him the only publicly out gay men’s basketball coach in the NCAA (Layne Ingram, who is transgender, starts his third season as coach of the Lansing Community College women’s team in Michigan).
For Burke, Lynch’s longtime friend, the reaction of his players to Lynch coming out wasn’t a surprise.
“For this generation of kids, it’s another day at the office,” Burke said. “They don’t think twice about it,” adding that “these kids are so mature and they have their own style.” Burke contrasted the reaction of his team with how common gay slurs were in the locker room when he was a player.
Lynch made national news after he came out publicly as gay on Outsports in April 2020. He had just lost his job as an assistant with the men’s Division I team at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and figured it was a good time to own who he was.
He then embarked on what he called the “best unemployed six months anybody could ever have,” speaking at virtual conferences about his experiences, being a guest on the Tamron Hall talk show and answering countless messages of support from other LGBTQ people in sports sharing their stories.
But he still itched to coach and was hired last season by UNC-Wilmington’s women’s team as an assistant. All along he stayed close with Burke, who was at the time an assistant coach at a Division III coach in Colorado. But in May, Burke got the head coaching job at Chowan, in Murfreesboro, North Carolina, his alma mater and also where his father was a legendary coach.
Burke had been the one person in basketball Lynch had confided in prior to publicly coming out. Burke had an idea his friend might be gay because he would always disappear when women flirted with him at bars. When Lynch told him he was gay at a Carolina Ale House in 2019, Burke nonchalantly told him that nothing would shake their friendship.
Burke’s first hire at Chowan was Lynch and he immediately accepted. The two had strengthened their bond with a 2020 road trip from Colorado to North Carolina after last season ended (with a stop to watch a college basketball tournament in Kansas along the way).
“He has a vision,” on how to build a Division II program with limited resources, Burke said of Lynch. “All the things I’m bad at, he’s good at,” Burke added, citing Lynch’s expertise with computer, tech, video and travel. Plus, Burke said, “He’s a great human being.”
For Lynch, working with Burke was a no-brainer.
“I took this job for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to work with Coach Rob Burke,” Lynch said. “Coach Burke just gets it. He’s the type of guy who has never seen the rain and never had a bad day. His energy is contagious as is his positivity. Coach Burke is going to turn this program around and restore it to the days of prominence when his father, Coach Bob Burke, was the head coach. ...
“One other highlight is that we were able to hire my brother, Jeremy Lynch, as an assistant coach as well. Jeremy played college basketball and has a great mind for the game. Like Coach Burke, Jeremy brings an unbelievably positive outlook to the team day in and day out. Guys like him are invaluable throughout the grind of a the college basketball season.”
One of the most fulfilling relationships Lynch has formed since coming out is with Russell Turner, the head coach of the University of California-Irvine. At first glance, it might seem like an odd pairing. Turner caused a controversy in the 2019 NCAA tournament by using “queen” towards an opponent, a comment that was sexist and homophobic and sparked a backlash.
Turner has spent the past two years learning from his mistake. He attended the 2019 Outsports conference in Los Angeles, listening to stories from LGBTQ people in sports, so it was an issue he was engaging with when he heard about Lynch.
I was asked to be on a Pride panel held by the Wasserman sports agency in June 2020 and I invited Lynch to join me. One of the agent’s listening to Lynch was so impressed that he reached out to Turner, telling him he had to speak with this young coach. Turner read Lynch’s story and contacted him last summer. Lynch vividly remembers their first talk.
“The days and weeks leading up to Coach Turner reaching out to me were tough,” Lynch said. “I had just been fired from UNCW and I had just come out publicly via Outsports. I didn’t have a job and I didn’t think that me writing a coming out article would be a big deal.
“I remember I was starting to question if I could actually find a job as an out gay male within college basketball. What I was trying to do hadn’t been done, and that weighed on me. I even got to a point where I gave up coaching. I started to apply and interview for ‘normal people’ jobs.”
One night he and Burke got in a car to drive and go watch some basketball workouts in Wilmington. On that ride, Lynch got his first text from Turner.
“The general message was, ‘Keep going, I am with you.’ It was the reassurance that I needed, it was a glimmer of hope, and it was enough fuel to keep my coaching fire going. Since that text we’ve had countless phone calls and conversations. He’s become a resource, mentor, and most importantly, a friend.”
Turner remembers that he told Lynch, “I admire what you’re doing.” Turner felt a geographic affinity with Lynch, having himself been an assistant at Wake Forest in North Carolina from 1994 to 2000 and sharing some Tar Heel basketball mentors. In addition, both Turner and Lynch at one time coached a women’s team; to deepen the connection, Turner also knew Burke from when the latter worked at a Wake Forest summer basketball camp.
Turner and Lynch formed a bond — “He has in a sense recruited me,” Turner said — and regularly talk and text. They plan on meeting in person in December when Irvine makes a swing to Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, close to where Lynch grew up.
Turner was impressed by Lynch’s courage in coming out while unemployed and in the middle of a pandemic. “Sometimes as a coach you swim against the current and he had the courage to do that,” he said. “This is an interesting person in this business for the way he displays his authenticity and courage.”
His experience at the Outsports conference opened his eyes to what LGBTQ people in sports go through, Turner said, which is one reason that Lynch’s coming out resonated so strongly with him.
When Turner heard how Lynch had come out to his Chowan players, he said it struck the right chord.
“For players now, authenticity is the most important thing,” he said. “And the thing players respect most is courage.”
Though Lynch is just starting his first season coaching men, Turner sees good things for him ahead.
“Matt’s got a really interesting opportunity in front of him in this business and there are going to be doors that maybe don’t open as easily for him, but I also hope that there are going to be doors that do,” Turner said. “As I’ve gotten to know him, I’m confident that his future in this profession is bright.”
For now, Lynch is settling in to the new basketball season, which started Monday with a loss for Chowan (he did get his first win as head coach of the development team this month). As he pursues his dreams of being a head coach one day, he is not losing sight of the value of being a role model.
“I don’t necessarily think about being a public face for LGBTQ coaches as much as I think about being a face for LGBTQ people in sports,” Lynch said. “I live and work in a college town and I know that I am not the only person in the LGBTQ community in this town. I want to do my part to be part of anyone’s journey that may need some help.
“One of my favorite quotes to use is, ‘You have to be a part of your own rescue.’ I needed help. I needed rescuing. I had some dark days. But I was able to figure it out. I was able to turn my biggest fear into one of my strongest attributes. Now I task myself to be the person that I wish I had back in the day.”