Tonight at the Salk Palace, the home court of the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie in Walterboro, S.C., Matt Lynch will finally realize his dream of being a head men’s basketball coach. Among the biggest perks? He gets to call a timeout.
Being able to call a timeout has been a line Lynch has used to describe his excitement in the year since being named coach at Salkehatchie, a Division I junior college. It’s meant as a joke, but it also has a deeper meaning for Lynch. It says he’s in charge of a program, something he has long dreamed of.
Tonight’s regular season opener against the development team at Chowan University (where Lynch was an assistant under his best friend, Rob Burke) is a coming out for Lynch as a head coach. It’s also a coming out of a more historic nature. (Update: Salkehatchie won its opener 97-58.)
Lynch, 32, who is gay, is the only publicly out head coach of a men’s college basketball program at any level, having come out in an essay for Outsports in 2020. While he realizes the significance, he has not dwelt on it nor used it as a selling point. Being gay is simply one line item in his bio, though he is aware of its uniqueness (it’s one reason the New York Times is doing a profile on Lynch.)
“My internal battles with my sexuality took me years to figure out, and it’s still something I am attempting to figure out,” Lynch said. “But it does amaze me how something that I once tried so hard to change has now become such an ‘average’ part of my daily life.”
Lynch never discussed his sexual orientation when recruiting players to come to Salkehatchie. He assumed everyone knew, since any Google search would have brought up the fact quickly. One of his players even asked him if he was dating (the assumption being was he dating a guy).
Yet at a team retreat this summer at a rental home Lynch owns in Wilmington, N.C., he decided he needed to address it for the sake of transparency. The team was passing around a basketball as part of a bonding exercise and the person holding it had to talk about themselves in as much or little detail as they wanted.
When Lynch’s turn came, he spoke about his life growing up in Erie, Pa., and his basketball journey for about 25 minutes (his players swear it was more like 45). Then he got to the part of talking about his sexuality.
“This next part of the conversation pisses me off that I have to tell you I’m gay,” Lynch said to his players. “Not one of you had to say you were straight. It’s just me being transparent.”
Lynch told them that he didn’t need their support nor approval, though he would welcome either. “It’s no one’s business who I put my head down next to at night,” Lynch said. The subject has not come up again.
Since Lynch’s hiring was announced in December, he’s spent the past year building a program from scratch after Salkehatchie suspended its basketball program for a season after the last coach abruptly quit. It was a lot more work than he ever imagined.
What’s been frustrating for Lynch is the amount of time he has had to devote to duties that are tangential to being a coach. Obviously, recruiting is a core mission and he used in-person visits and Zoom calls (some players live as far away as Australia) to recruit his 14 players.
In addition, though, he had to spend months raising money for a program with tiny budget (including spending $2,000 to $4,000 of his own money, he estimates). Then there were non-coaching maintenance tasks he had to attend to, such as personally ripping out the old carpet in the locker room so it could be replaced; enlist his family to paint the locker room; a weeks-long scramble to find housing for his players (settling on a seven-bedroom apartment, two to a room with one kitchen and two bathrooms) and having to write media releases.
And the work doesn’t end with the season starting. Lynch has to find people to work the scorer’s table at the gym for opening night and staff the concession stand and the team merchandise store. Try to imagine Tom Izzo and John Calipari having to worry about who sells the popcorn at their home games. And when asked if the season opener was being livestreamed, Lynch replied, “I’m working on that.”
“It’s been life lesson after life lesson after life lesson,” he said. “I’m learning a lot and it will make me much better.”
Lynch describes his skills as “elite in recruiting and running the program,” in terms of fund-raising and marketing. While other schools on Salkehatchie’s schedule fund their programs with full scholarships for players, Lynch has zero such scholarships to offer. Yet he still managed to recruit 14 players, get them settled on campus and ready for the season.
Whatever frustrations Lynch has had with the logistics of building the program do not carry over to the excitement and love he has for his players.
“These guys are unbelievable,” he said, referring to them as high character and amazing people who bonded quickly. The connections come despite, or perhaps, because of the diversity on the team. The 14 players come from five countries — the U.S., Australia, Britain and Costa Rica.
“Originally, I did not set out to recruit the entire planet, but it sort of just worked out that way,” Lynch said. “This is my 14th year of coaching, and I have been blessed to coach some really great players that went on to become professional players. So through those relationships I was able to become connected to potential recruits all over the world.
“My ‘elevator pitch’ was pretty simple: Opportunity and relationships. We did not have a basketball program last year, so I was able to sell guys on the idea of coming to Salk and being able to develop while being relied on.
“Everyone on our roster was looking for a home at this time last year. These young men could have chosen to ‘buy a house,’ as in join a program that was already solidified. But instead they chose to come here and ‘build a home’ with me, as in be part of the foundation of this program. So that’s what Year 1 is about, building. Building our culture, our habits, our relationships on campus and in the community, and our standards.”
The team went 0-6 in the preseason, a fact that Lynch hopes to use as a motivator. “We invented ways to lose some of these games,” he said of a schedule that included Division II college teams and junior college teams that have more resources than Salkehatchie. “I really challenged them throughout the month of October.”
The games also showed Lynch what he’ll face as a first-time head coach.
While calling himself “elite” in some areas, Lynch calls his coaching skills “average,” a nod to being a rookie head coach and learning on the job. He gave an example of preparing an elaborate game plan for an exhibition against a Division II university team, a plan that went out the window when one of Salkehatchie ’s key starters got injured and had to be taken to the hospital.
“I don’t give myself enough grace,” Lynch said of being self-critical of his coaching skills. “I’m in my first year should be just ‘average’ now.”
With three home games to start the season, Lynch has confidence that Salkehatchie can start 3-0 and set the foundations for the season. While his focus is all basketball, Lynch does recognize the import his personal journey has had.
“Being a head college basketball coach and openly gay definitely makes me unique,” he said. “But at then end of the day, people are people, and I just try to be the best Matt Lynch I can be, and let the chips fall where they may.”