Stan Heath tugged on his mask, pulling it down to reveal the hairs lining the edges of his mouth. The sprouts of gray on his youthful face are reminders that he is not the promising new coach he once was.
“You know, I’m 56,” he said, punctuating the sentence with a roll of laughter.
Fifty-seven, in fact.
It’s hard to believe that the years flew by the way they did, that his career lasted long enough to look like a sine wave graph with multiple slopes and downslopes. Those who knew Heath would say he has gone through a remarkable evolution during this time, which begs the question why he is back to the same place where his life as a basketball player took off almost 40 years ago. .
Why did a man who reached for the stars and yearned for it all return to eastern Michigan to run the same basketball program where he once played?
“I think it’s all about fit and comfort level,” he said. “Where you can feel you can thrive. Not everyone thrives in the same environment.
It’s one of many lessons Heath has absorbed on a winding journey to Ypsilanti, filled with big breaks, unexpected detours, and just about everything in between.
There have been many incarnations of Stan Heath over the past 22 years. A valuable assistant in a national championship team. The next big thing after taking a mid-major on the cusp of the Final Four. The coach of a high-level program steeped in tradition, close to the top of his profession. A college basketball rejection, spat out of Division I after a fail and rejection. And now a reformed hoops enthusiast who thinks about the game in a different way after experiencing an underage revelation in the NBA.
“It’s really interesting how he’s changed,” said East Michigan assistant Bob Simon, who first worked with Heath at Wayne State in the early 1990s. “His vocabulary is different. His ideas are different. The information he has now, all the knowledge, it’s amazing.
It’s all funneled into the project he started with the Eagles, who haven’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 1998. Despite so many early springs without a whiff of March Madness, Heath proclaimed his alma mater a “sleeping giant” during his presentation last April. The revival Heath hoped to inspire would reflect his continued growth as a coach. A man once known for his teams’ inflexible defensive posture now wants to push the tempo and play the freewheeling style that has been embraced among the pros.
Heath’s experience is ambitious, and no one knows if she will succeed in a lower caste of college basketball. So far, EMU remains as comatose as he was before he was hired. The Eagles are 9-17 and are buried near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference standings with the league tournament fast approaching.
But Heath looked comfortable at the end of January, projecting optimism as he overcame a few early setbacks. The confidence stemmed from his past as once upon a time, when his career was something of a fairy tale, he ran the MAC and seemed tagged for stardom.
The rise and fall of a coaching star
As he reflected on that enchanted time, a look of disbelief appeared on Heath’s face. Even he had a hard time understanding how he could have been so lucky back then. It was like he was a butterfly, moving from one stage of his life to another on an accelerated schedule.
In 2000, Heath was a valued Michigan State assistant basketballthe national championship team managed by Tom Izzo. A year later, he was named head coach of Kent State, where as rookie head coach he inherited an experienced roster headlined by a transfer he recruited named Antonio Gates – the Detroit native who would soon make his mark in the NFL as an All-Pro tight end.
The Golden Flashes had won 24 games the season before Heath arrived and he managed to extract more. As conference season begins, Kent State is in full swing. Prior to bursting into the Elite Eight as the 10th seed, the Flashes had a string of 21 straight wins. A loss to Indiana in a Regional Finals ended his team’s Cinderella run, but Heath kept going.
The job in Arkansas had opened up after Nolan Richardson’s acrimonious exit and Heath had risen to the top of the candidate list. At 37, he was poised to take over one of the best programs of the 1990s. The Razorbacks had a rich tradition, a 19,000-seat arena, plenty of resources and passionate fans. It was exactly what he wanted: the big stage, the bright lights, a taste of life at the top of the college basketball food chain.
“I’m not sure you could have had more success,” he said. “I was just riding high.”
But it would be years before Heath found that feeling again as his trajectory quickly plateaued in the foothills of the Ozarks.
It was in that corner of the SEC country where Heath had made a serious miscalculation that derailed it, failing to adhere to a key principle of evolution: Ability to adapt to its environment. Perhaps due to naivety or stubbornness, Heath was determined to play a deliberate and rugged Big Ten style in a program where his predecessor ran a fast-paced system dubbed “40 Minutes of Hell”. Richardson’s teams covered the entire court, pressing and pushing the tempo. It was an attractive basketball and the fans loved it. They disapproved when Heath made such a jarring change and disbanded the Arkansas-grown identity. Then, when the losses started piling up early in his tenure, they got even angrier.
Heath could never seem to placate his critics even as Arkansas made incremental progress and dealt with the fallout from a racial discrimination lawsuit Richardson filed against the university. At the end of its third season, the Razorbacks had emerged from under the dark cloud and became a winning team again. The following year, they returned to the NCAA Tournament. Then they replicated that feat the following season. But the Arkansas administration lost patience. Back-to-back first-round exits, including a deflating loss to Bucknell, sparked Heath’s ouster in 2007.
The rising star had fallen.
His descent continued in South Florida, where Heath tried unsuccessfully to turn the Bulls into a contender in the unforgiving Big East. During his seven seasons in Tampa, South Florida, he had five losing records and earned an NCAA Tournament berth. Even at various times when he seemed poised to make the Bulls consistently competitive, the momentum stalled and a backlash began, erasing the gains he had made.
“The clock is ticking right now,” Heath said. “The clock isn’t a slow clock where, hey, you have time. It’s ticking right away.”
Every grain of Heath’s hourglass had slid down when South Florida fired him in 2014. Heath spent the next three years picking up the pieces of his shattered career, working as an ESPN analyst before taking a job as a assistant to Jim Christian at Boston College. It was an odd arrangement, considering Christian was Heath’s right-hand man at Kent State. Now the roles had been reversed, reflecting the extent of Heath’s regression over the years.
As his outlook darkened, Heath seemed stuck. Then he got a random call from an old friend who wanted to know if Heath had ever thought about coaching in the NBA.
A second big break
John Hammond’s question caught Heath off guard. But the general manager of Orlando Magic, a former Detroit The Pistons executive was serious as he questioned Heath. Would he be interested in making the jump to the pros?
“What coach doesn’t think about that? Heath replied.
Hammond presented an intriguing opportunity, where Heath would coach the franchise’s new G-league affiliate, which was moving from Erie, Pennsylvania to Lakeland, Florida. Heath, who still had his home in nearby Tampa, was stunned by his latest stroke of luck. In the pros, Heath would be exposed to new tactics and another data-driven brand of basketball. The players he trained at the lower pro level had more skills than anyone he had coached in Division I, which led him to relax his hands-on approach.
“There’s been a bit of an evolution in how he views the game,” Magic assistant general manager Anthony Parker said. “You could see him embracing analysis and kind of merging with who he was as a coach and what he knows has been successful for him.”
Suddenly, the man who was once adamant about playing bully ball in the half court became receptive to expanding the floor, picking up the pace and incorporating more liberal offensive principles. Under his guidance, Heath guided the Lakeland Magic to win records in each of their four seasons and the G-League title in 2021. Six days after lifting the championship trophy, Heath was named Coach of the Year . It was a major blow given that previous recipients of the award include Nick Nurse and Quin Snyder, who now run their own NBA teams.
Could Heath follow a similar path to them?
“It was on my mind,” he admitted.
But he quickly felt the lure of his alma mater, which had a vacancy after the school parted ways with Rob Murphy in March 2021.
The Detroit Catholic Central graduate grew up in southeast Michigan. His coaching roots were in this state and his family lived there as well.
“This, here, this is my home,” he said. “It was like, man, where am I going to be happy? And it was happiness for me.
His second stint at Ypsilanti began in a house across from the freshman dorm where his undergraduate term had begun. Heath found that rather funny. It was definitely ironic. Who would have thought that after all the places he’s been, Heath would end up where he started? The circular path he traced would suggest that the evolution of Heath did not amount to much.
But then listen to the best player on the team, Noah Farrakhan.
“Accelerate the tempo? said Farrakhan. “He emphasizes it a lot. He’ll come up to me and say, ‘You have to play a quick game.’ But not too fast. Move fast with a goal.
It’s all part of Heath’s plan to bring the NBA game into a MAC program, where he hopes to attract quality players with an appealing style revolving around man defense and a quick offense he calls ” flash game”.
According to Teamrankings.com, Eastern Michigan is 12th in the nation in possessions per game, averaging 75.4. Heath’s last team in South Florida was ranked 170th in the same category. This is proof that Heath has changed, that it has adapted, that it has developed well beyond his early years on the sidelines. His new perspective on the game reflects how far he’s come.
“That’s how I see our program going,” he said. “That’s how basketball goes.”
And that’s where it’s headed because evolution proves that life always finds a way. The same can be said for the 57-year-old Eastern Michigan coach who found he really didn’t have to go far to try and take the next step.