INDIANAPOLIS — During the 2007 NCAA Tournament, reporters flooded the Texas locker room, not only to talk to freshman phenom Kevin Durant, but also to get a word with Russell Springmann, the Longhorns assistant coach responsible for bringing KD to Austin.
Fourteen years later, the 51-year-old Springmann has arrived as an Oral Roberts assistant who helped land the nation’s leading scorer, Max Abmas. But this time, there’s no line forming for interviews and few even realize Springmann recruited the latest Cinderella star.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Springmann was considered one of the top assistants in the country. In fact, he was ranked the No. 1 high-major assistant in a FOXSports.com poll back in 2008.
But when Rick Barnes was fired from Texas and quickly landed at Tennessee six years ago, he didn’t take Springmann with him to Knoxville. Why wouldn’t Barnes keep an assistant who not only recruited Durant to Austin but also delivered D.J. Augustin and Damion James to the Longhorns?
It didn’t make any sense.
Springmann had turned down the Towson job in 2011 and spurned a four-year, $4 million offer to replace Rick Stansbury at Mississippi State in 2012. He was also among the finalists when Shaka Smart was hired at VCU in 2009.
Springmann spent 17 years on Barnes’ staff, working his way from an administrative assistant to one of the most coveted assistants in the country. So it was a complete bombshell when Barnes delivered the news that Springmann wasn’t coming to Tennessee.
“Coach [Barnes] always wanted us assistant coaches to be head coaches, and by me turning down the Mississippi State job, he felt he needed to put someone else in a position to benefit,” Springmann said. “We’d been together for almost 20 years. I’m thankful of the opportunity he gave me.”
But at the time, it wasn’t easy. There were questions that permeated through the industry because Springmann was one of the hottest assistant coaches in the country, and now here he was — unemployed.
“It made me take a step back, and it honestly made me evaluate myself more,” Springmann said. “When a challenge like that faces you, you can look at someone else or look in the mirror. I looked at myself.”
“Rick Barnes always had a saying,” Springmann’s wife, Neissa, added, “’You can be the proud peacock one day and the feather duster the next.’ We’d been the proud peacock, but in a minute it can all change.”
Springmann is a Silver Spring, Md. native who played at Salisbury State before spending four years as the head coach at Mardela High in Maryland. He then found his way into the Florida program and was a graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach under Billy Donovan before getting a shot from Barnes in Austin in 1998.
After three years as an administrative assistant, Springmann was elevated and quickly put in charge of recruiting underclassmen on a Texas staff that included Frank Haith and Rodney Terry. That assignment would lead to the first time Springmann remembers seeing Durant – then a sophomore at National Christian Academy – at the War on the Shore tournament in Delaware.
Springmann began a consistent dialogue with Durant’s father, Wayne Pratt, and the Longhorns were the first to offer. But Springmann then had to call Barnes and apologize for offering a scholarship without checking with him first.
“Don’t worry,” Barnes responded, assuming Durant wouldn’t even consider the offer. “He’ll forget about it.”
Durant never forgot.
KD wound up choosing Texas over North Carolina and UConn, and won the Naismith College Player of the Year award in 2007 after averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds in his lone season in college. But it wasn’t just Durant who turned Springmann into a hot coaching commodity. He lured Augustin, James and Jordan Hamilton to Austin as well.
Springmann didn’t get the VCU job in 2009 and later rejected Mississippi State’s lucrative offer in 2012, a decision which just about everyone thought he was nuts for turning down, including Barnes. Springmann’s first child, Durant, was almost a year old, and he just didn’t feel as though it was the right move for his family.
“I knew I’d be gone every day building the program and Neissa didn’t know anyone there,” Springmann said. “It had nothing to do with basketball. I made the decision based on my family and put them first.”
When Barnes left for Tennessee, he brought Rob Lanier and Chris Ogden with him and added Desmond Oliver from Charlotte. Springmann struggled to find another high-major assistant job and wound up joining Lamont Smith at San Diego. But that only lasted two seasons before he decided to move on.
“That was a time when he wasn’t sure whether coaching was where his heart was anymore,” Neissa said. “It was insanely stressful.”
Both Russell and Neissa admitted their marriage was tested. Russell proposed moving the family in with Neissa’s parents and taking a job managing landscaping and custodial crews to help make ends meet.
“He’s hard-working and feels responsible for taking care of his family,” Neissa said. “But his confidence was shot. The belief in himself was gone and that was the hardest part of it, having to watch that.”
“Russell was a shell of himself,” she added. “He didn’t see himself as having any kind of value. He had lost sight of his dreams, and that was heartbreaking.”
Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti, who has known Springmann for nearly two decades, threw Springmann a lifeline and gave him a job as a scout, although the pay wasn’t much. In fact, Springmann would work a few times a week for a cleaning company in San Diego washing windows to earn some extra money.
Springmann was researching Texas Tech’s pro prospects in Lubbock prior to the 2018 NBA Draft when the phone rang. It was Oral Roberts head coach Paul Mills, who knew Springmann well from his days as an assistant at Baylor. The two were competitors on the court and also on the recruiting trail.
Springmann missed working in college coaching with kids, and Mills wanted him to come interview for an opening. At the end of the conversation, Mills offered Springmann the job and asked him for an answer in the next day or two.
“I didn’t need to talk it over with Neissa,” Springmann said. “We had already talked about it.”
Mills, Oral Roberts and Springmann were the perfect match for one another.
“It’s a great spot for me,” Springmann said. “To be somewhere that faith is the centerpiece of the university, also the centerpiece of our program. We don’t push faith, but it’s an opportunity to be able to develop faith in people’s lives.”
Shortly after Springmann got the job, he was at a Dallas-area AAU tournament with Mills and got his first look at the diminutive Abmas. Springmann was instantly taken by Abmas’ ability to shoot, and also impressed with his ability to use ball-screens.
But Springmann never quite saw Abmas’ dominance coming. Then again, he never saw it coming with KD, either.
“Both of those guys — Kevin and Max — have things in common,” Springmann said. “They are special people of high character. Then you add their success, which is obviously at a different level for each, and those are the common denominators.”
Durant is glad to see his former coach find success at Oral Roberts.
“It was tough for him. He was at the highest level and then he’s out of Texas,” Durant told Stadium. “He’s been through a lot, but I think his journey has helped him in a way. I know he’s happy now and that’s what matters.”
“It shows he can recruit at the highest level and also the mid-major and lower level. He knows the game and is persistent. Beyond that, he’s a great person and a friend to me and my entire family.”
As for the Springmann family, Durant is now 10 and daughter Malaine is 7. Neissa admitted there’s been no shortage of reflection from her household lately. Sure, Springmann’s paycheck isn’t what it once was, and many in the industry aren’t even aware he is back in the business, but he’s got perspective now and is at peace — even if that means he never gets a head coaching job.
“I’m beyond happy,” Springmann said. “I prayed for the opportunity to coach again. Everything I prayed for is here, and that’s not an exaggeration. I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had.”
Thanks to his run at Texas, Springmann is now a seasoned veteran of March Madness. But this time he came to the Big Dance as an underdog, and Oral Roberts has knocked off Ohio State and Florida to become just the second No. 15 seed in history to advance to the Sweet 16.
“I told my wife this is the most special one.”