The Feb. 13 postgame box score from Orem, Utah, was probably the closest Matt Flores ever got to seeing his name show up on a college basketball stat sheet.
The self-proclaimed “absolutely average” high school basketball player growing up in Minneapolis says he never really pushed himself out of his comfort zone in those younger years – remaining content to just get through practices and workouts in the weight room.
“There were no stars next to my name,” says Flores, now into his fifth month as the strength and conditioning coach for the University of New Mexico men’s basketball team. “… I was afraid to be vulnerable in the weight room and get under the bar and do those things that get you better.”
Still, this past February, with two decades of life experiences under his belt and even more passion for basketball than before, Flores found his way, albeit not his name, into a college box score. In that game, as he sat behind the bench of host Utah Valley, where he spent the past two seasons as strength coach, a Wolverine player made contact with Dixie State’s Frank Staine, sending the latter to the floor and drawing a foul call.
The replay on the video board did not sit well with the home team’s bench.
“There’s no fans, so the whole gym was like obnoxiously quiet,” recalls Flores. “They were down on the other end and the guy flopped. … He got the call and I yelled, ‘That’s (something he shouldn’t have yelled)!’ The ref looked right at me and T’d me up.”
The postgame box score read: “Technical fouls: 1 (Team)”
It wasn’t his proudest moment, but Flores, 39, makes no apologies for his passion about the teams he works with.
“I’m intense,” he said. “I get so into it because I want them to win so bad.”
First-year Lobos coach Richard Pitino, for whom Flores worked as a graduate assistant at Minnesota in 2018, said that while he wasn’t aware of Flores’ technical foul, he isn’t surprised.
“What I noticed (in 2018) was infectious energy; an absolute amazing attitude every single day,” Pitino said. “And then when our opening happened (at UNM), I reached out and just got rave reviews. And he’s exceeded the expectations. …
“Look, I have no idea if he’s a great strength coach,” Pitino joked. “I think he is, right? But I know his attitude is amazing. And I know that he comes to work every single day and pours his heart and soul into it.”
Flores has plenty of experience from which to draw – from personal training, working with a variety of sports teams and even training Chinese Olympic hopefuls for multiple sports in Shanghai. But his philosophical approach to his job seems to be based primarily on two points of his life: the day he joined the Marines and all it did for him, and the day he realized that wouldn’t work outside the Marines.
“It took me getting in the Marine Corps to really buy into what performance can do for you and where it can take you,” Flores said, adding the shared struggles and pain of fellow Marines forged a connection that is hard to replicate.
“The bond is unlike anything else in the world,” Flores sad. “You are with that person – you were really willing to die for that person. And there are guys I still talk to that I would go that far for.”
That type of bond – “or as close to that as you can get” – he says he hopes his Lobo players can start to feel after hours of running sand dunes in the summer heat or swimming countless laps in the early-morning hours in July.
But Flores also knows getting there requires a much different approach.
His second pivotal moment came on the first day on the job with the Arizona State football team in 2012.
“When I got to Arizona State,” Flores recalls, “the head football strength and conditioning coach, Josh Storms (now at Florida State), was like, ‘Do me a favor. Just watch what we do for the first two days. Don’t say a word.'”
Flores did watch. And what he saw, or didn’t see, was telling.
There was more clapping than yelling.
Motivation came more from building than belittling.
It was an aha moment.
“We’re not drill instructors,” Flores said. “This is about motivating them, yes. But this isn’t the Marines. In that environment, that has a place. … But you do not bring that to college sports.”
Pitino says the results are undeniable, and there’s nothing resembling a drill sergeant about Flores.
“He is the type of guy who, when you walk in there, he’s playing music, and he’s dancing, and he’s making them laugh,” Pitino said.
Flores said his job, through conditioning, nutrition and strength-building, is to build a roster that matches Pitino’s philosophy.
“The tenacity and the nastiness of coach P’s teams – he wants to get up and down (the court), he wants to push the tempo all the time,” Flores said. “So we are not going to be a team that is walking around looking like bodybuilders, but we do need them to be strong. … (Fans should see) explosiveness.”