“I used to say Division I head coach, but I was wrong because I think he’s going to be an NBA head coach,” Young said.
Udofia’s primary gig is as an assistant coach for the College Park Skyhawks – the Hawks’ G League affiliate. This week, though, his résumé will require some updating, as he is standing in as the head coach of the Nigerian national team.
Udofia has been in Tunisia coaching the team in a qualifying tournament for the FIBA Africa Championship, better known as AfroBasket. To be clear, it’s not Udofia’s job to keep. Since 2019, he has been an assistant coach for the Nigerian team, but he was elevated to head coach for this week’s games because the actual head coach, Golden State Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, was unable to take part because of his NBA duties, as were former coach Alex Nwora and assistant John Kuester, both for personal reasons.
Regardless, it’s a heavy assignment for a 30-year-old still learning the trade. He is the youngest head coach in team history.
“Honestly, I’ve kind of been preparing for it,” Udofia told the AJC last week, before his departure for Tunisia. “My goal and my dream has always been to be a head coach. So through these years, I’ve just been preparing it for it as much as possible.”
Udofia has done his job. D’Tigers, as the team is known, defeated South Sudan on Wednesday, Rwanda on Thursday and Mali on Friday, securing their spot in the continental championship tournament starting in August in Rwanda. Nigeria, the highest-ranked African team in the world (No. 22), will be a favorite.
His supporters would not be surprised at Udofia’s work in Tunisia.
“Tough as nails, high-character kind of guy,” Young said. “You knew he was going to play in the NBA or be a head coach or he was going to own 25 Popeye’s. He had success written all over him.”
Credit: Curtis Compton, email@example.com
Credit: Curtis Compton, firstname.lastname@example.org
After his Tech career ended in 2013 – he started 97 games for Hewitt and his successor Brian Gregory, was a two-time captain and averaged 7.6 points per game – Udofia played in the NBA’s development league for three seasons and then one season in Poland, where a worsening hip injury led him to retire in 2016. From there, he heeded suggestions from past coaches (like Young) that he himself take up coaching and was hired by one of his former teams, the Delaware 87ers, starting as an assistant in player development in 2016. Besides working out players, Udofia handled team video, drove the team van and was the equipment manager.
“Pretty much started at the bottom,” Udofia said. “Which was fine. I was cool with it. I learned a lot that year.”
Udofia doesn’t mind bragging on his laundry skills. After games, he sometimes did loads for the opposing team to make extra cash.
“I was actually good at it,” Udofia said. “I took it super serious.”
After one season, he was promoted to assistant coach with the 87ers, who are an affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers. The coach at the time of the 87ers (now the Blue Coats), Eugene Burroughs, said that Udofia was energetic, personable and had a fighter’s mentality. And while Udofia’s relative youth and recent history as a player in the same league earned him credibility and helped him relate to players, he was able to draw the line and still be a coach, Burroughs recalled.
One of Burroughs’ impressions of Udofia was that if a player came back to the bench grumbling about being pulled, Udofia had no problem lighting into him and explaining that he was being taken out because he wasn’t getting the job done.
“With that being said, the players respected him because they knew, one, he would do anything for any of the guys on the team, but he also would hold them accountable or their performance,” Burroughs said. “As a coach, you need someone that’s going to have that same message that you have and present that. And to have a young coach with that fire and spunk to hold players accountable, you don’t find that very often for a young coach to have that.”
During those two years, Udofia joined the 87ers staff in helping out the 76ers staff during training camp, which is where he was particularly drawn to then-assistant coach Lloyd Pierce. In Pierce, Udofia said he saw a coach who was sharp, intelligent and doing things the right way.
“Different drills and stuff like that, when he was assistant coach, I used to always go to his basket, talk to him, pick his brain,” Udofia said.
When Pierce was hired to coach the Hawks in May 2018, he brought Udofia with him to be an assistant with the Erie BayHawks, the Hawks’ affiliate. And when the Hawks franchise relocated its G League team to College Park for the 2019-20 season, Udofia made the move, as well, returning home.
His opportunity with the Nigerian national team hinged on a chance encounter. In the spring of 2019, he met Nwora – father of Milwaukee Bucks rookie and former Louisville star Jordan Nwora and Tech forward/center Ronni Nwora – while Jordan was training for the draft at the Emory Sports Medicine Complex in Brookhaven and Udofia was there helping the Hawks with pre-draft workouts at their practice facility at the complex. Udofia was introduced to Alex Nwora, who then was the head coach of the Nigerian national team, through a mutual friend.
That led to Nwora bringing Udofia on as an assistant coach for the FIBA World Cup that summer in China, where the team’s leading scorer was another former Tech guard of note – Josh Okogie. (Jordan Nwora also was on the team, as was Al-Farouq Aminu, the Norcross High grad now with the Orlando Magic.)
After the team qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at the World Cup, Brown was hired to replace Nwora. Brown was under no obligation to retain Udofia, who worked to build a relationship with him even during the quarantine by participating in coaching clinics that Brown put on via videoconference.
“I was on the call every week,” Udofia said.
One day, Udofia said, Brown called and asked him if he wanted to be on the Nigeria staff for the first phase of the AfroBasket qualifying, held in November in Rwanda. That led to Brown tabbing him to lead the team this week in Tunisia. Udofia said he was “super excited” to be given the role, but also felt that coaching in the G League has given him the experience to take it on – the precise purpose of the league, to develop players and coaches for a chance at higher aspirations.
“I think it prepares you,” he said. I got the opportunity to grow in the G League. I got the opportunity to find my voice.”
He has an unabashed supporter in Brown, a past NBA coach of the year with the Cleveland Cavaliers who has logged seven seasons as an NBA head coach. The videoconference clinics were the first chance for him to get to know Udofia, but even in that constrained setting, he still made an impression on Brown, who hadn’t realized until now that he’s only 30.
“He’s got a nice presence for a young guy,” Brown told the AJC.
That trait, plus his contributions to the clinics and the fact that Udofia is of Nigerian descent led Brown to offer him a spot on the national team bench. And once Udofia joined him for the first phase of qualifiers – three games in November in Rwanda – he took full advantage of the opportunity.
“No matter what you asked him to do, he took it extremely seriously, and any and every job that was thrown his way, he got it done,” Brown said. “He did some scouts for us, led some film sessions, so he was really impressive.”
Brown saw a young coach with a passion for the craft and a desire to keep learning and growing.
“He’s just one of those guys, if he doesn’t necessarily have the answer right in front of him on how to do this or how to do that, he’s going to work his tail off to get the best possible answer so things can be right, not just for him, but for everybody else,” Brown said.
Brown revealed that Udofia was actually the third choice to sub for him this past week. Kuester, a former NBA head coach who has been on Brown’s staff with the Nigerian team, was also considered, but Brown said the timing did not work out with the schedule for Kuester’s COVID-19 vaccination. Still, Brown also said that he had had Division I coaches reach out to him to offer their availability to coach Nigeria, but he said he “felt really confident with Mfon after ‘Q’ couldn’t do it. I’m glad I made that choice.”
Brown said that he had been in communication this week with a Warriors staffer who was also helping with the Nigerian team (James Laughlin) and had been in Tunisia.
“He sung his praises,” Brown said. “He said Mfon is the perfect guy. He’s sharp and he’s got everybody together, he’s settled, he knows what he’s doing. It was great to hear that.”
As for whether he believed Udofia can be a head coach, Brown didn’t hesitate.
“I do,” he said. “And I agree it could happen on any level, too.”
More is ahead. There’s the AfroBasket championship in Rwanda. If the Olympics take place this summer in Japan, Udofia expects to be there assisting Brown and coaching, among others, Okogie, Aminu and possibly Aminu’s brother Alade, another former Jacket.
“I’m super grateful for the opportunity,” Udofia said. “I can’t wait.”
For Young, the FSU assistant who has been a mentor to Udofia over the years, his feelings for his protégé come clear through the phone.
“To see what he’s doing now is amazing,” Young said. “I’m so proud. I’m like a proud uncle.”
The Skyhawks are not playing this year, having elected not to play in a shortened season in a bubble in Orlando, Fla. When they resume, Udofia will continue his ultimate aim of a head coaching job. Burroughs, his head coach in Delaware, thinks Udofia would be a successful college coach “just because of his energy and his passion and his story that he can tell kids and families of where he’s been.”
With the support of established coaches, having demonstrated his capability and having already had one unlikely door opened to him, Udofia keeps an open mind on what the future may hold.
“When I say I want to be a coach, it doesn’t mean NBA coach or high-school coach,” he said. “Coaching’s coaching. I just want to lead a group of young men or a group of young women to become a better person and to reach their goals.”