New Florida basketball coach Todd Golden riding the analytics wave to the top | Whitley
Todd Golden is a numbers guy, and the digits said he should have been happy. He was single, 26 years old, had a budding sales career with a six-figure salary in San Francisco.
There was just one problem.
“I was absolutely miserable,” he said.
So, numbers be darned, Golden quit. He moved across the country and took a huge pay cut to become an assistant basketball coach at Columbia.
“It felt like heaven,” he said.
It was purely a gut decision. If you’re a Florida fan, that should make you feel better about the school’s new basketball coach.
Young coach can do the math
After Mike White’s whirlwind departure to Georgia, Scott Stricklin looked to the future. He quickly hired a coach right out of New Age central casting.
Golden is young (36 but looks 26), articulate, self-assured and on the cutting edge of basketball’s numbers revolution: analytics.
It’s applying mathematical and statistical principles to sports. At least that’s one definition.
“It’s just crap people who are really smart made up to try to get in the game because they have no talent,” NBA star turned broadcaster Charles Barkley decreed in 2015.
Time has proven Sir Charles wrong. If analytics were crap, just about every pro and college sports team wouldn’t now be using them.
But Barkley’s words still resonate, partly because people don’t like what they don’t understand. And to understand analytics, you have to understand math.
It freaks me out, and I’m hardly alone. About 15% of Americans suffer from math anxiety (MA), according to Psychology Today. It’s a negative emotional reaction to solving mathematical problems.
Anxiety aside, I’m just not that smart. You get the feeling Golden is.
“I was definitely gifted in math,” he said. “English and reading, not so much.”
Sports and math intersected with him as a kid when he’d devour box scores over breakfast every morning. Golden was a good enough athlete to lead Sunnyslope High in Phoenix to a state title. But he was too scrawny to get much love from college recruiters.
“It’s a little cliché,” Golden said, “but I’ve always been a bit of an underdog.”
He walked on at St. Mary’s, where assistant coach Kyle Smith was an analytics pioneer.
There was the “hustle rate,” which tracked such things as steals, deflections, charges, defensive rotation errors. Metrics like shot location, points-per-possession, assist percentage and usage rate counted as much as points and rebounds.
“I loved it,” Golden said.
Analytics crunches all those numbers and formulates strategies based on percentages. It’s led to the death of the baseline jumper and about 4.8 trillion 3-point shots every season.
Golden was part guard, part computer at St. Mary’s. Of 130 shot attempts his senior season, 122 were 3-pointers. He made 46% of them, had 82 assists, 27 steals and 22 turnovers.
“I was the most offensively efficient player in the country,” Golden said.
So, how’d he end up in a miserable sales job three years later?
Todd Golden found happiness in 'Nerdball'
After playing pro ball in Israel for two seasons, he yearned for a regular life in the U.S. The money was good; the weekends were off; the future was promising.
All that didn’t add up to happiness.
“I just had an itch,” Golden said.
He called his old buddy Smith, who’d revived Columbia’s program playing “Nerdball.” Golden spent two years immersed in that basketball nerdiness, two years at Auburn, then returned to San Francisco as an assistant.
He kept devising ways to measure hoops data. More importantly, he learned how to sell it to players.
“The best coaches are able to use analytics without making it all about the numbers,” Golden said.
He became head coach in 2019 and just led the Dons to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years. Now, here he is, settling into Billy Donovan’s old office.
Sometimes, you’ve just got to go with your gut.
“As a young coach, you aspire to get to a place like this,” Golden said.
He’s still suffering a bit of reverse sticker shock. He and his wife, Megan, have two young children. They lived in university housing in San Francisco.
There was no yard. No grass. “Not nice,” Golden said.
The place was valued at $2.2 million on Zillow.
“It’s hard for me, as an analytical guy, to understand that,” Golden said.
He just signed a six-year, $18 million contract. I didn’t ask what he paid for his new house. But it’s 5,400 square feet and has plenty of yard space. His kids can’t believe it.
“I mean, cloud nine,” Golden said.
Will everybody live happily ever after in Gainesville?
Check back in a couple of years. Whatever happens, Golden is going to do things by the numbers.
Based on how that’s worked so far, my guess is fans are going to like the new basketball product.
Even if they hate math.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley.