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Time to let it Fly

New men’s basketball coach Michael Fly has earned his wings, and he says they’re a perfect fit

Since Florida Gulf Coast University’s men’s basketball program was elevated to NCAA Division I status in 2007, the head coaching job has been a huge springboard for the two guys who most recently held the position.

Andy Enfield (2011-13) came to FGCU from Florida State, and in his second season won two NCAA Tournament games to make the Sweet Sixteen and create the “Dunk City” legend that still flies today. He then departed for Southern California of the PAC-12.

Joe Dooley (2013-18) was then hired off a Kansas staff and his teams won at least 20 games all five seasons he was here. That led him back to East Carolina and a new deal with a Colonial Athletic Association program that had fired him from his first head coaching job in 1999.

Two great coaches. Two great success stories. Two great guys who left FGCU for bigger things.

That brings us to FGCU’s new guy, Michael Fly, although he’s not exactly “new.” Brought to FGCU as an assistant by Enfield from FSU, Fly is the last remaining link on the floor to the Sweet Sixteen team.

So, what makes Fly different from the two FGCU coaches with whom he worked?

For Enfield and Dooley, FGCU was always going to be a catapult to the next job.

For Fly, being the men’s head basketball coach at FGCU is a destination.

“You have to look at what’s important to you,” Fly says. “Are you chasing the money, the prestige, the biggest conference logo on your chest? Or do you feel the place you are has a chance to be even better than it is? We’re not close to our ceiling. Our chance for long-term success — and for me, long-term happiness — is right here.”

Michael Fly as an FGCU assistant with Kevin Mickle (left) and Marc-Eddy Norelia in 2017
Michael Fly as an FGCU assistant with Kevin Mickle (left) and Marc-Eddy Norelia in 2017

If anyone had questions whether a 35-year-old Kentuckian who tutored under accomplished coaches Bernie Bickerstaff and Leonard Hamilton was finally ready to lead his own program, it certainly wasn’t Ken Kavanagh, the Eagles’ athletics director. It took Kavanagh just one day after Dooley was hired at East Carolina to name Fly head coach April 5.

“There’s a certain pride that comes with being able to promote from within, from building a culture,” Kavanagh says. “You look at other programs that have been successful that way — Butler with Brad Stevens (now Boston Celtics head coach), for instance — and Michael certainly earned this chance.

“Great coaches such as John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski had to start somewhere,” Kavanagh continues. “We hope that one day, we can say that Michael Fly got his start here at FGCU.”

Actually, Fly might have gotten his head-coaching start at FGCU, but his beginning in the basketball business was far less glamorous.

He’s from a small Kentucky town called Fulton, and his boyhood dream of playing for the storied University of Kentucky Wildcats and going on to the NBA “died when I didn’t get any taller.”

During his sophomore year as a non-athlete student at Kentucky, Fly asked Bill Keightley, the team’s longtime equipment manager, about becoming a student manager with the elite basketball program. Keightley quickly snuffed young Fly’s hopes about joining the Wildcat program. Instead, Keightley pointed him down the road to nearby Georgetown College, an NAIA school, where then-Coach Happy Osborne put the kid to work in 2004-05 as a student assistant.  There, Fly was immersed in the nuts-and-bolts of the program while he was still attending Kentucky, earning a degree in secondary education with a focus in history and a minor in psychology.

The original fallback plan of becoming a high school teacher and coach ended when Fly “got three classes into a graduate program in education and said ‘that’s not for me’.” Instead, “I took a shot in the dark and hustled my way in, with no blueprint” by landing an internship as a video coordinator with the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) under Bickerstaff in 2006-07.

“That put me in a great place careerwise in terms of connections,” Fly says. “I tell every young coach that if you have a chance to work in the NBA – even if you aren’t making money – do it. You’ll learn more than you will at any other level.”

An internship in corporate and broadcast alliances at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis followed in 2007-08. That introduced Fly to the business side of the game. “It was great to see how all the different parts of the NCAA work,” he says.

From there, it was on to FSU as video coordinator under Hamilton for three Seminole NCAA Tournament teams from 2008-11. “The lowest rung on the totem pole, but the most valuable one from a starting point,” Fly says. “Your whole job is watching film, watching basketball all day long. It gives you the foundation you need to coach at a high level.”

It was at FSU that Fly bonded with Seminole assistant Enfield during the three years they worked there together. “I was fortunate he brought me here on staff as one of his assistants,” Fly says.

When Enfield and Fly got to FGCU, they found a team that had talent – players such as Sherwood Brown, Chase Fieler, Brett Comer and Bernard Thompson – but no attitude, Fly says. “There was no swagger. It’s about dressing a certain way, eating a certain way, traveling a certain way …. it was really about changing the mindset to, ‘We are here to play at a high level, and we are here to win.”

In their first season at FGCU, Enfield and Fly guided the steadily improving Eagles to the 2011-12 ASUN Championship game, where they built a 13-point lead before losing to Belmont. “Our players were crying after the game, but we made them stay out on the floor to watch Belmont celebrate,” Fly says. “We told them, ‘See this? That’s going to be you next year.”’

So it would be, with the Eagles carrying a 24-11 record and a win over Mercer for the ASUN title into the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012-13. There, No. 15 seed FGCU upset No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State to become the lowest seed ever to make the Sweet Sixteen.

“We caught the right matchups, which is always a huge part of the tournament, but we had a really good team,” Fly says. “We knew we had talent, but from an X’s and O’s standpoint, Coach Enfield was doing things you now see with teams like the Rockets and Warriors in the NBA in terms of spacing, fluidity and offensive freedom … things nobody was doing in college, and that these bigger, more talented teams had never seen.”

Not surprisingly, USC came calling for Enfield. “It was a very emotional time for Andy, but he had to make the move,” Fly says. “When you have wives and kids involved, it’s a decision you have to make.

“I had a chance to go with Andy to Southern California, but we knew the future here was bright. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was to make sure that I got to stay on the floor and recruit. He told me if the new coach is going to let you do that, you have to stay there.”

Fly’s loyalty would result in a great five-season run with Dooley.

“Coach Dooley is a huge practice guy … he looks at every practice as a win or loss,” Fly says. “His theory is that if we win the battles in practice, we’ll win the wars in games. I thought 85 percent of basketball was recruiting, and that I really didn’t need to be at practice all the time, but he emphasized the importance of that, to spend as much time on learning how to coach.

“I wasn’t ready for this five years ago. I wasn’t ready for this three years ago. To work my way up from second assistant to top assistant to where I am now, that doesn’t happen without Coach Dooley’s tutelage.”

Or with the help of the great Eagle players of the recent past. Fly is big on FGCU legacy and culture, and he always brings up the names — Comer, Brown, Fieler, Thompson, Julian DeBose, Marc-Eddy Norelia, Demetris Morant, Brandon Goodwin, Zach Johnson, Christian Terrell — who first raised the bar Fly plans to lift even higher.

The biggest difference for Fly the head coach is time management. “I have so much more respect for what coaches Hamilton, Enfield and Dooley go through on a daily basis … media, academics, administrative work, spending time with boosters, scheduling … a whole different set of things than you are used to.”

He’s also adapting to a second new job: husband. He married his wife, Heather, a prosecutor in the state attorney’s office in the 20th Judicial Circuit based in Fort Myers, in early August. She, too, is from Kentucky, and attended Georgetown College when Fly was a volunteer student assistant coach there, but they didn’t meet until about a year ago in Southwest Florida. They hope to start a family someday, and in a bit of reverse-lifestyle planning, the Flys might actually retire to New York City in the distant future after their working careers in the Sunshine State are over.

But for now, FGCU and Southwest Florida are home – the destination, if you will.

“When I was younger, I wanted to recruit the very best players I could, to bring in talent of the highest level,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I realize it’s just as important to have guys who will love FGCU, who will love our culture, love the community they are part of. Next to family, religion and education, this logo needs to be the foremost thing in their lives.

“I tell them, ‘This is my Kentucky. This is the most important program in the world.’”