Greene County, Indiana, and Boca Raton have nothing in common. “Opposite ends of the spectrum,” says Dusty May, who grew up in Greene County.
About 400 students attend Eastern Greene High School, from which May graduated in 1995. Since 1990, Boca Raton has added more residents than Greene County’s entire population of about 31,000. Boca Raton is a city of transplants. People born in Greene County tend to stay.
May, though, left Indiana 23 years ago. Seven stops and one brief return later, the 46-year-old May has become the most high-profile non-native in Boca Raton as coach of the Florida Atlantic University men’s basketball team. But if May has been good for Boca Raton, the city has been even better for him.
After graduating from Indiana University in 2000, Dusty—his real name—was so grateful to get hired as video coordinator for the University of Southern California men’s team that he drove from Indiana to Los Angeles with just one stop in Phoenix.
“They said, ‘Unless you’re the village idiot, the job is yours,’” May recalls. “I was so eager. It’s so hard to get that first paying job in this sport.”
That job paid $17,500 a year. After leading FAU to the Final Four and coming one buzzer-beater from reaching the national championship game, May—who rode a used bike to work last season and describes himself as “frugal”—got a contract that will pay him $15.7 million over 10 years if he defies the odds and doesn’t leave before then for a much more established program.
“We are all committed to being here,” May says of his staff. Of his family, May adds, “We love the area.” He and his wife, Anna, have a home just south of the campus. The youngest of their three sons attends Saint Andrew’s School.
Certainly, FAU wants May to stay. Until he came in 2018, the Owls had had just four winning seasons since starting intercollegiate play in 1993. Under May, they haven’t had any losing seasons.
Yet it almost didn’t happen.
May accepted the FAU job, he said, after seeing the campus but not the gym. At the time, he was an assistant at the University of Florida, whose arena seats 10,500 people. Players train at a $10 million practice facility.
“The Burrow” at FAU seats about 3,000. The training facilities at the time were what May called, after a long pause, “subpar.” After May saw his workplace, he told his wife that he had committed “career suicide.”
Looking back, May recalls, he was “sleep-deprived” and “exhausted” after finishing UF’s season and then driving from Gainesville to Boca Raton. He took time to “regroup,” spoke with FAU Athletic Director Brian White, and stayed.
A FEW MORE SECONDS WITH DUSTY MAY
Your perfect day begins with … “blue sky.”
Your perfect day ends with … “a walk in our neighborhood.”
Your favorite place in Boca Raton is … “the gym.”
Basketball is the most beautiful sport because… “it’s five people working in unison at all times.”
This year’s FAU men’s basketball team will be… “hungrier than ever.”
May was right, though, about the challenge. Mike Jarvis had come in 2013 from St. John’s University, which has won more men’s games than all but eight other schools. Jarvis went 76-112 at FAU. Matt Doherty, who had coached six-time national champion North Carolina, came in 2005 and stayed just one season before bolting.
But for Jarvis and Doherty, FAU was a rebound after getting fired. May had never been a head coach. UF was his fifth job as an assistant. He already had begun to wonder whether he should adjust his career goals.
“There were times when I questioned myself,” May said. “We had a young family. All the moving put my wife through the wringer.” One year at Eastern Michigan. One year at Murray State. Two years at Alabama-Birmingham. Then four years at Louisiana Tech before going to Florida.
May wondered whether he should seek the stability of a high school or small college job. “I did phone interviews. Nothing came of it.”
A connection had helped get May a job as student manager at Indiana, which exposed him to Bob Knight, winner of three national championships. Roughly 100 people had applied for three or four spots. Getting to be a head coach is even more competitive. Another connection helped May get to Boca Raton.
In 2018, FAU had just hired Brian White as athletic director. His brother is Mike White, the former head coach at UF. May had been Mike White’s assistant at Louisiana Tech before moving with him to Gainesville as the top assistant.
May, Brian White says, “presented a plan that showed exactly what he wanted to do.” May had recruited players from this state not just at UF but also at Louisiana Tech, so he knew the territory.
And May is “high-energy every single day,” White says. “He is intellectually curious. He reads a lot. He finds new ways to learn.”
Ultimately, though, coaches must find talent and get the most out of it. That challenge exists at all levels, but especially at a school that had appeared in the NCAA tournament just once before May arrived.
“We thought that there was enough talent under the radar that we could find,” May says. “We pride ourselves on the development piece. We had a feeling that you could win here.”
The Owls did win, but modestly. FAU went a combined 66-56 in May’s first four seasons.
Then came last season.
White says anticipation began to build when FAU defeated Florida in mid-November. But no one could have anticipated that the victory would start a 20-game winning streak that didn’t end until late January.
“It was absurd,” May recalls. “It’s so hard to have even a three-game streak. It made us aware of how good we could be.”
Then came national press and a national ranking. The Owls won the Conference USA regular season and tournament championships. They made their dizzying run to the Final Four.
When San Diego State’s Lamont Butler made the season-ending shot, May didn’t feel “pain. It was numbness. The curtain had come down.”
On that season, yes. But not on what May and White hope to build in Boca Raton.
Impressive as that run was, it will be more impressive if May can keep FAU competitive at a high level.
To that end, May’s contract calls for a 20-percent increase each year in the team’s operating budget. White hopes to sell out every home game with season-ticket holders, with single seats coming only from what visiting teams don’t use. As of early May, they had sold about 700 season tickets. Five years ago, the number was more like 100.
Last spring, White teased the prospect of FAU playing more big-name teams at neutral sites as the Owls move to the higher-ranked American Athletic Conference. Boca Raton, White said, will be a selling point for recruits in the U.S. and abroad. Last season’s top three scorers were born in Indiana, Mississippi and Russia. “There is tremendous potential,” White says, “to win here.”
Others agree. In May, The Athletic website placed FAU fifth in its preseason rankings.
“Expectations don’t scare us,” May says. “It helps with fundraising. I’d much rather have it that way.”
White says of the program, “It’s a whole new world.” If FAU basketball has changed, however, what about its coach, who got to Boca Raton via, among other places, Ypsilanti, Mich., Murray, Ky., and Ruston, La.?
“My personal life has changed some,” May says. “When I take walks, I get recognized.” And the money? “We don’t do many things differently.”
Spoken like a well-grounded Midwesterner who recalled during our interview that the furniture business might have been a job option without the help of some people in the right places. Bring on the next challenge.