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The success of Matt Lynch: How a gay basketball coach led his team to victory

gay college basketball head coach Matt Lynch
gay college basketball head coach Matt Lynch

As I'm a sports fan, my eyes did a double take last month when I saw this title atop a New York Times story: “This Man Turned the Worst Job in College Basketball Into a Slam Dunk,” so I immediately clicked on it, curious to see what that “worst job” was all about.

The man in question was Matt Lynch. That horrible job was head coach of the men's basketball team at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, located in the southwestern part of the state, with 1,100 students.

Lynch is 33, but if I was a bouncer at a bar, I’d have trouble believing his ID. And he realizes it too, remarking at one point how the 14 players on his team trust a coach who “looks like he’s 12.”

But looks can be deceiving. Lynch’s story sounds like something out of Hollywood. A gay man in his early 30s, with no head coaching experience, becomes a head coach at a school with a failed basketball program that hired four coaches in less than a year and eventually disbanded it in 2022.

To make matters worse, the school’s facilities were deplorable, with a court that was seven feet short of regulation, and no running water in a locker room that had no toilet. According to the Times article, the pay was a whopping $38,000 a year. Consider, if you will, the University of South Carolina at the Columbia main campus just re-signed its basketball coach, Lamont Paris, for $2.3 million a year through 2030. Paris did win the Southeast Conference Coach of the Year Award this year. But still.

As Lynch explained it, and as most sports fans know, head coaching jobs are hard to come by, so with the mindset of a veteran, Lynch lobbied, networked, and schmoozed his way to landing the Salkhatchie job. The people there saw something special.

When I suggested a video call at the last minute before our scheduled time to speak, Lynch replied, “OK, I need to get ready.” I wrote back, “No reason to do that, it’s not a job interview.” And Lynch came back with, “Dress for the job that you want, not the one you have.”

Of course he was hired, I thought.

Before landing the job, Lynch had been working his way up the ranks as an assistant basketball coach, first with Youngstown State University in Ohio (Lynch is from nearby Erie, Pa.), and then with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and then at Chowan University in Murfreesboro, N.C.

During that period, Lynch came out in an Outsports op-ed four years ago this month. There had never been an out gay man as head coach in men's college basketball, which made Lynch the first, according to Outsports,

Lynch’s devotion to basketball and his love of the game, along with his determination and smarts, have made him a success story as a head coach in just his first year.

His tenure began, with the help of his family, by renovating those facilities. Then came the hard part — Lynch had to recruit a team and build it from the ground up. That's where his schmoozing skills shone.

“I looked for guys everywhere, and guys who really were begging for a chance to play,” he explained. “When I spoke to them, I simply encouraged them to do what was best for them, and that if they came to play at Salk, I was gonna do whatever I could to help them be a better student, person, and basketball player.”

Lynch fielded a team of 14 freshmen, who hail from South Carolina and Virginia as well as from faraway places like England, Germany, Australia, and Costa Rica.

“I came to find out that they all respected me for who I am, and I love them to death. I just have a really special group of guys, and I realized that the moment they set foot on campus,” he said.

They also had no problem with Lynch being gay.

“I was honest with them that it took me a long time to accept the fact that I was gay, so I didn’t expect them to immediately accept me. But when you win, that can also color the way you view someone, and we did win,” he said with a confident smile.

The team ended the season with a winning record of 20-13, earning a trip to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship tournament in Kansas.

“The guys really do deserve all the credit,” Lynch was quick to point out — repeatedly.

While his humility is endearing — and sincere — Lynch has found a comfort level not only as a head coach but also with his sexuality.

“I think I knew I was different in about fifth grade,” Lynch said. “Me and my buddies didn’t really know what sex was about, but they would talk about girls, and I didn’t look at girls the same way. And around seventh or eighth grade, I still didn’t understand, but I remember having feelings toward another male.”

Lynch said that when he went to college, his sexuality became more clear, and his mom was the first to recognize it.

“My family is unbelievable. I'm very blessed. So many people don't get what I have. And I just tell everybody, I'm a product of my environment. My mom had my back before I had my own. And yeah, just kind of grew from there.”

Lynch’s father tragically died of COVID in November of 2020.

“He was the best man I ever knew, and I miss him every day. And in terms of my sexuality, at first he thought it was a phase; however, he liked to come to a conclusion about things, not emotionally, but by making educated decisions.”

In the end, Lynch said, his dad has his back too. “My greatest goal in life was to have him say he was proud of me. I do absolutely everything I can to do that, so that the next time we meet, those are the first words out of his mouth.”

With the spotlight Lynch’s success has brought him, does he feel any pressure or responsibility about being a queer role model?

“I didn't set out on this journey to take up the torch of a role model, but I'll help anyone and everyone I can regardless of their sexuality. I want to be easy to find. I want to be the person to help, and in the process be the best Matt Lynch I can be,” he shared.

That Matt Lynch, professionally, wants to be the best basketball coach he can be, not so much for himself but for his team.

With his family, close circle of friends, and his team of 14 soon-to-be sophomores, Lynch feels emboldened. “I can remember my dad saying four quarters is always better than 10 dimes. And I’m really lucky that, at the moment, I've definitely got four quarters.”