Sitting below his retired Hofstra jersey in the arena of the team he once helped put on the college basketball map, Craig “Speedy” Claxton could hardly hold back the tears.
“They say that it’s ‘the arena that Speedy built,’ so I knew it was going to be an emotional [day],” Claxton said on Thursday during a Zoom call with media members hours after a morning press conference introduced the former college star as the Hofstra Pride’s newest head men’s basketball coach in the same building Claxton once dazzled fans as a player.
Trading No. 10 (which Claxton wore as one of Hofstra’s all-time greats and which now hangs in the rafters of the Mack Sports Complex) for No. 13, Claxton received a commemorative Hofstra jersey — exactly a month before his 43rd birthday — as the program’s 13th head coach, fulfilling a dream that was 25 years in the making.
Starting his playing career with Hofstra under head coach Jay Wright in 1996, the 5-foot-11 Claxton averaged 22.8 points per game in his final college year and eventually led the then-Hofstra Flying Dutchmen to its first NCAA tournament in 23 years, as a senior, in 2000 — a feat Wright and Claxton’s teammates would repeat without Claxton a year later before Wright went on to reach three Final Fours and win two national championships with Villanova, where he remains a legend.
Claxton, meanwhile, was drafted 20th overall, by the Philadelphia 76ers, in the 2000 NBA draft. Fighting through injuries that plagued his professional career, Claxton averaged a respectable 9.3 points, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals per game over an NBA career that spanned slightly more than six true seasons with five different teams (Claxton was in the NBA for nine total seasons counting the two games he was limited to because of injury over his final three years).
When healthy, Claxton was a serviceable guard and played a pivotal role backing up former San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker, while helping the Spurs close out the New Jersey Nets in Game 6 of the 2003 NBA Finals.
Moving on to become a scout for four years with the Golden State Warriors, the native of Hempstead, NY (where Hofstra is likewise located) returned home to become a Hofstra assistant coach in 2013, more than 13 years after Hofstra Arena (now the Mack Sports Complex) opened on Jan. 2, 2000. The arena was built, in part, because of the success Wright and Claxton were in the process of establishing after Hofstra had been playing its games in the school’s Physical Fitness Center next door, in an environment with pull-out bleachers and a high school basketball feel.
Above all of his post-college stops, Claxton, even as an NBA champion, always held his college days in the highest regard.
“I wore a lot of names on the front of my jerseys,” he said. “The one that was always near and dear to my heart was HOFSTRA. Always.”
After serving as a Hofstra assistant coach for the past eight years, Claxton said of the players he’ll soon lead as a head coach, “I want these young men to envision their dreams as well as realize them.”
Foreseeing his own dreams and chasing them down like the records and wins he piled up at Hofstra is something that started long ago for Claxton.
While most players have dreams of becoming great players in college and in the professional ranks, Claxton knew right away that he not only wanted to be a star player at Hofstra but would one day work toward the position he suddenly finds himself in now.
“I absolutely did,” Claxton responded, about whether he had seen himself becoming Hofstra’s head coach before he ever played in his first game for the school. “It was always the goal to come back one day to lead this program. When I signed that N.L.I. (National Letter of Intent), I wanted to go somewhere where this would be a possibility. Coming to Hofstra, I had my mind made up. I wanted to go to a smaller school where basketball might not be as big as some of the other places and I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, and come back, and ultimately guide that program, and today’s the day. I’m thankful for the opportunity.”
For Claxton, it’s a chance that came about after former head coach Joe Mihalich (who brought Claxton aboard as his assistant) was forced to step down from coaching the team due to medical reasons.
Coming from a successful 15-year reign at Niagara, Mihalich drastically turned around a Hofstra program that had as many player arrests (six) as Division I wins during a rock-bottom 7-25 season in 2012-13. During the next seven years, Mihalich led the Pride to three Colonial Athletic Association regular-season titles and last year, to Hofstra’s first CAA tournament championship and what would have been the Pride’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2001, before the Covid-19 pandemic canceled those plans.
Reflecting on his time working for Mihalich, Claxton credited his mentor for grooming him and the rest of the Hofstra coaching staff.
“He let us do a lot that, normally, a lot of head coaches won’t let their assistants do,” Claxton said. “He prepared us to be head coaches. I thank him so much. Without him, I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair today.”
Mihalich, who will remain with Hofstra as a special advisor to the athletics department, was on medical leave for the entire 2020-21 season. Acting head coach Mike Farrelly filled in as Hofstra, picked first in the CAA, finished fourth, and lost in the CAA semifinals to eighth-seeded Elon last month.
That opened the door for Claxton after Hofstra conducted a thorough national quest for a new head coach only to end up with the longtime favorite son who was already on the Pride’s bench.
“It was quite extensive,” Hofstra vice president and director of athletics, Rick Cole Jr. said of the search. “We had an opportunity to talk to tremendous people that are great and talented basketball coaches, from sitting head coaches to wonderful associate head coaches and from all areas of basketball.”
Claxton’s role in Hofstra’s turnaround helped to ultimately finalize the Pride’s choice.
“We are so appreciative of where the program is,” Cole said. “Specifically, [thanks] to Joe Mihalich and how he and his staff have positioned this program over the last eight years, of which Speedy was a major part. This is not a rebuild job. This is a job that we hope can be taken to even greater heights and that’s our expectation with Coach Claxton.”
Cole noted that Hofstra wasn’t settling for an easy pick in deciding on Claxton, but rather, that Claxton set himself apart from other candidates.
“It’s really not necessarily what the others didn’t do, it’s what Speedy does and who he is,” Cole said. “Every search is about trying to find the right fit at the right place, at the right time, and we know we did that. [Claxton] is the right guy at the right time, at this place, to be our next head coach, and hopefully for a very long time. We’re really excited about what the future can bring with Speedy at the helm.”
That feeling is certainly reciprocal from Claxton, who thanked his former mentors before speaking about himself.
“Coach Wright, thank you for instilling in me what it takes to be a champion,” Claxton said. “I am forever grateful.”
Nearly unable to continue as he was overcome with emotion in the morning press conference, Claxton added, “Coach Mihalich, I wouldn’t be sitting here if it wasn’t [for] you. I love you. Forever.”
Claxton continued, “Members of the search committee, and Rick, I won’t disappoint you. I promise you that. Nothing means more to me than this university and our program. I am proud to be your coach.”
Happy for Claxton to see his longtime vision realized, Cole said, “It’s exciting that [he gets] the unique opportunity to get [his] dream job because we know he’s had other options in the past and he chose to stay with the hopes of someday being here. We’re thankful that he [did]. We’re looking forward to great things and we’re going to do everything we can to support him and his staff, and most importantly, his players.”
Smiling with joy during the Zoom call, Claxton later said, “Exciting times. I am honored and humbled to be leading this program into the future. Like Rick said, this was my dream job. This means the world to me today, to have that dream finally come true. It’s been a long time coming.”
Addressing Claxton’s character and the main reason Claxton wanted to be hired so much as Hofstra’s next head coach, Cole said, “He and a special group of men did some special things here as a student-athlete… but what really hit home is when you ask Speedy, ‘Are you an NBA player?’ he’ll say, ‘Sure, but I am a men’s basketball coach.’ It’s his greatest pride… he knows this institution is bigger than him [and] everyone.”
Those attributes, a confident Claxton promises, will extend beyond basketball.
“We will be champions on the court, in the classroom, in the community, and more importantly, in life,” he said. “We will strive for greatness in all that we do. The foundation is set. It is time to build upon it and watch it prosper.”
As much as Claxton loved leading Hofstra to a conference tournament championship as a player, he was even happier to do so as an assistant coach.
Asked which role made him happier in that regard, Claxton answered, “I would say coach because you put so much time and effort into developing these kids and at our level, it doesn’t happen for us every year. So, to see them take steps and get closer and closer to that dream, and to finally have that happen, meant the world to me. Getting there as a coach means more to me.”
To do that again, Claxton — whom Cole repeatedly described as “a good guy” and “humble” — doesn’t mind not being the smartest not most experienced coach on what will soon be his bench.
“I want to have vets around me, guys that have been in the business for a number of years,” he said. “They always say, ‘Surround yourself with greatness and guys who know more than you,’ so that’s what I’m going to try to do… [get] guys [who] can make the job easier for me.”
However Claxton’s coaching staff takes shape, it’s his relationships with Hofstra’s roster that will likely determine how successful Claxton will be in his long-awaited and highly coveted new role.
That was one of the key reasons, Cole says, that Claxton was promoted and it’s one of the areas in which Claxton believes in himself the most as a head coach.
“When you watch his interaction with his student-athletes, they respect him incredibly,” Cole noted. “They trust him, they believe in him, they feel that they can learn from him and he’s a living example of how hard work over a long period of time and how championship behavior can lead to really good and positive things.”
Claxton said, “I think I relate [to the players] just fine. I’ve been in the business for a while now and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of being able to lead this younger generation and staying in tune with them. When you understand the group that you’re trying to lead, it allows you to be a better leader.”
Cole added of Claxton, “It’s a commitment to putting the student-athletes at the forefront every decision he makes and… letting the men know he will do everything for them but he expects them to be the very best version of themselves and to understand that there’s accountability for high expectations and championship behaviors. As a coach, players want to play for him. He develops players. His players respect him and want to learn from him, and in many cases, they want to be just like him.”
Certainly, Claxton’s Hofstra pedigree helps his players feel that way.
“I walked in their shoes and they know that,” Claxton said. “So, whenever I talk to them, they can wholeheartedly accept what I’m saying and believe it. That’s the most important thing, is that trust factor, when you’re dealing with these kids in this day and age.”
By no means is that a guarantee for success, however, for former greats coaching later on at their alma maters.
It’s worked out well for some, like with Michigan head coach Juwan Howard. For others, like ex-St. John’s head coach, Chris Mullin, not so much.
But that doesn’t deter a supremely self-assured Claxton heading into his new role.
“Every situation is different,” he said. “Sometimes it’s going to work out and sometimes it’s not. I strive to be great and I know I’m going to be great. We’re going to win here.”
One way to do that is being open to recruiting in new ways, especially in the current climate of unprecedented high player movement, through the transfer portal, which is underway this offseason in a way college basketball had never seen before.
“You’ve got to adapt,” Claxton said. “It is what it is. Life is about adapting. The transfer portal is huge right now, so a lot of schools are looking to build through the transfer portal rather than taking a high school kid because, as we all know, at this level, you win when you have older kids. So, we’ve got to dive into that and hopefully, we can get a couple of good kids out of it.”
Of course, the portal can work both ways, causing coaches to lose players they’d rather keep. But Claxton has a plan for that too.
“That’s definitely a concern, but you have to look back on the relationships that you have with your kids. It’s almost like you have to re-recruit your kids while they’re on your roster. Most of these kids, if you’re loyal to them, they’ll be loyal to you.”
As for the more typical type of recruiting, Claxton believes his own personal history with Hofstra will be an advantage from that standpoint over another candidate the Pride might have hired.
“It definitely will help with recruiting,” Claxton said. “Walking around campus, you’re going to see my picture everywhere we go and it’s like, ‘I have the blueprint on how to be successful from this program. All you have to do is follow it.’ I lead by example and I will always.”
Regardless of how the Pride’s decision turns out, there’s one completely undeniable thing about the hire at this beginning point of the Claxton era — there probably wasn’t another person on the planet that would want Hofstra basketball to become a success more than Claxton does.
“I know that Speedy Claxton loves this institution with every ounce of his person,” Cole said. “He wants to help players prepare for life like Hofstra helped him. He’s committed to helping his players succeed by every measure.”
Backing those words up, Claxton added, “I’m looking forward to guiding these kids on and off the court and helping them become men, and ultimately being a great representative of Hofstra University in the future.
“This is everything. I don’t only want to be a great player here, I want to be a great coach and ultimately be a great leader of Hofstra University. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about my legacy right now. That’s [what’s] at stake.”
Style-wise and effort-wise on the basketball floor, Claxton already has his next vision.
“We’re going to be up-tempo, we’re going to play fast, and we’re going to get up and guard you,” he said. “We’re going to take it back to the ‘90s. When you play against Hofstra, you’re going to feel us and you’re going to know you’re in for a game from [the opening] jump ball.”
To help make that happen in the future, Claxton was already at work trying to court new talent as he received congratulatory messages, including one from a source that surprised him.
“I heard from Coach Wright and Tom Pecora (a Wright assistant who succeeded Wright as Hofstra’s head coach from 2001-10), but the person that shocked me the most that I heard from was (Hall of Famer) Larry Brown,” Claxton said. “I actually answered the call by accident — I was talking to a recruit, letting him know how much I wanted him here with me, and that he was my first call after getting this job — so I answered LB’s call by accident. I thought I butt-dialed him, so I said, “Hello?” and it was him on the other end, and I said, ‘Wow, this is a shocker!’ He just had nothing but praises to say to me. He actually said he’s going to come to a practice.
“It’s going to mean the world to me for him to follow my journey and to be a part of it. That was my first NBA coach and I will love him forever.”
If Coach Claxton has as much success as Claxton did as a Hofstra player, expect Pride fans to feel the same way about both.