Benny and the Hawks

BY Keith T. Barber

Each basketball season brings with it a unique set of challenges.

No one knows this coaching axiom better than University of North Carolina Wilmington head mens basketball coach Benny Moss. Expectations are running high for the Seahawks as the 2008-09 season rapidly approaches and with good reason. Last season Moss helped orchestrate one of the biggest one-year turnarounds in Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) history as UNCW went from a 7-22 season (finishing 10th in the final standings) in 2006-07 to a 20-13 mark (tying for second) last year.

Moss gives much of the credit for UNCWs transformation to last years seniors Todd Hendley Daniel Fountain T.J. Carter and Vladimir Kuljanin. “They meant a lot to this program and to this university ” Moss says. “Now going forward its hard to replace those guys who meant so much.”

Coming into his third season in Wilmington Moss 38 is also becoming difficult to replace. University officials demonstrated their confidence in Moss this spring by awarding him a two-year contract extension which will keep the talented and well-traveled coach at UNCW through the 2012-13 season.

“Benny has shown great leadership. Hes an excellent motivator. Hes committed to the academic piece of what we strive for here at UNCW and he knows how to win ” says UNCW athletic director Kelly Mehrtens. “When you talk about leading young men in this day and age to value education value competition and value each other it definitely starts at the top.”

Moss says the challenges of the 2008-09 campaign will center primarily on filling the void left by Hendley Fountain Carter and Kuljanin.

“Were extremely young ” says Moss. “Thats a little bit the result of two years ago inheriting the two empty classes. We only have one senior on our team Marlo Davis. Weve got three juniors that came as freshmen that first year so the bulk of our team is freshmen and sophomores. I really like this team though we have depth we have some talent but there is no substitute for experience.” Or leadership.

Moss learned about leadership from his middle school basketball coach Richard Hauser while attending Westfield School in rural Stokes County North Carolina. Hauser fondly remembers Moss as a highly-competitive youngster despite his diminutive size.

“I dont know if he weighed 100 pounds but he was an excellent shooter ” says Hauser. “He grew about 10 inches between eighth and ninth grade and went from a shooting guard to an inside player.”

Moss height (69″) natural talent and sheer determination made him a feared competitor at East Surry High School (Pilot Mountain NC) says Hauser.

Athletic talent and a powerful will to win runs deep in the Moss family Moss mother Janie played high school basketball and his older brother Lee excelled in both basketball and baseball. In January 1961 Moss aunt Judy Vaughn made it into the pages of Sports Illustrateds “Faces in the Crowd” with her 106-point single-game performance (40 field goals 26 free throws) while playing girls basketball for Westfield School. One look at Moss on the sideline during a game and its clear that he inherited his familys fierce competitiveness.

Moss tried coaching

While playing in a camp counselor pick-up game after graduating from Pfeiffer University Moss suffered a knee injury. In the face of the setback he focused his energy on rehab finishing his MBA and getting ready to play pro ball in Europe. Thats when former Pfeiffer head coach Bobby Lutz stepped in. Lutz asked Moss to serve as a graduate assistant for the Falcons and the rest is history.

“I truly fell in love with coaching that year ” says Moss.

After working as an assistant coach at Pfeiffer for three years Moss spent two years at Phillips University in Enid Oklahoma before a two-year stint at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia Arkansas. After that Moss went to UNC Charlotte (when Lutz accepted the head coaching position with the 49ers). Six years later in the spring of 2006 former UNCW head basketball coach Brad Brownell announced he was leaving the Seahawks after four successful seasons to take the head coaching job at Wright State University. Moss interviewed for the job on his 36th birthday April 18 2006. It proved to be a turning point in his life.

“I was rewarded with the best birthday present Ive had thus far ” says Moss.

After taking the helm Moss faced enormous challenges. The lanky soft-spoken coach had replaced a popular successful coach in Brownell who had led the Seahawks to two conference championships and a 25-8 record during the 2005-06 season. However Moss arrived on campus to find the cupboard bare. Then the Seahawks star player Carter was lost to a hernia injury that would keep him out the entire 2006-07 campaign.

“I came in with a vision of what I wanted to do and wound up having to adjust everything ” says Moss. “We inherited no freshmen and no sophomores coming in the first of May. Then having T.J. go down having about five or six guys in the program. It could have been demoralizing but those guys didnt let that happen.”

After a disappointing 7-22 finish Moss fell back on one of his biggest strengths recruiting. He hit the recruiting trail immediately following UNCWs final game of the season a loss to Towson State in the first round of the CAA tournament. It provided him the opportunity to be in his element sitting at kitchen tables across from UNCW prospects and their families.

Confidence with recruits

“We sell the total package ” says Moss. “We tell recruits Youre going to get a great education. When you get a degree from UNCW its going to mean something. We stress that bigger is not always better and they will have an opportunity to grow and develop at a mid-major school.”

Moss takes a philosophical approach when searching for players who can blossom at UNCW. Hes not necessarily out there looking for the best basketball players; hes “looking for players that fit into our grand scheme of things.”

Darion Jeralds a junior guard joined the UNCW basketball squad as a walk-on in 2006. Geralds says Moss coaching style centers on caring about each individual player regardless of whether youre a star or a back-up.

“When you come in as a freshman he definitely looks after you ” Geralds says. “He makes sure all the coaches take care of you all the coaches have your best interests in mind. Hes big on books and getting your schoolwork done first. Hes a players coach.”

Assistant coach Brooks Lee says Moss management style centers on freeing up players and coaches to utilize their talents and abilities. “Offensively he lets the guys be very free and confident in themselves which is a players dream ” says Lee.

Sophomore forward Dominique Lacy says Moss is very adept at communicating his expectations to his players both on and off the court. “Faith family books and ball ” says Lacy repeating Moss priority list in order. “It means a lot. Thats how life is thats how you succeed in life.”

Moss open-door policy and one-on-one sessions with players throughout the school year are two more elements which have been critical to creating a family atmosphere at UNCW.

“Every player is an extension of my family ” Moss says. “Ive got 15 more sons this season.”

Moss immediate family wife Dee Dee son Duane 9 and daughter Courtney 6 has remained by his side throughout the ups and downs of each season. Thats why Moss schedules recruiting visits around his childrens extracurricular activities and frequently brings Duane to practice sessions.

Coming into his third season Moss appears to be feeling at home in Wilmington. He hasnt shied away from the responsibility of leading one of the best mid-major basketball schools in the nation. True to form he thrives on the enormous challenge each season brings.

Despite its youth and inexperience UNCW fans can expect to see an entertaining brand of basketball and young men competing at the highest level this season for a coach who they know is on their side.

“So many of our players have never played a college game ” Moss points out. “So many of the sophomores only have one season under their belt but were moving forward. The good thing is well get to watch this team grow throughout this year. We only lose one player going into the following season and we only lose a handful of people the next year so well have the core group together for the next two or three years in a row. It should be exciting to watch them grow.”