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New conference, same success: CHD interviews Davidson coach Bob McKillop

Davidson owned the Southern Conference for most of the past two decades due to their legendary coach Bob McKillop, the winningest coach in conference history.  The school joined the A-10 earlier this year, and they have picked up right where they left off by sitting atop the league with a 9-1 record so far: their lone loss came in November to North Carolina.  They have a huge game looming on the road against Virginia on December 30 before beginning conference play in the new year.  CHD’s Jon Teitel got to chat with Coach McKillop about his amazing NCAA tourney run in 2008, the joy of coaching his sons, and his famous high school classmate.

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You played at Chaminade High School where one of your fellow homeroom students was Bill O’Reilly: how good a player were you back in the day, and what was O’Reilly like as a teenager? I only started one game during my high school career but was fortunate enough to get a college scholarship. O’Reilly is the same now on TV as he was back then in homeroom.

After graduating from Hofstra in 1972 you signed as a free agent with the 76ers before being cut prior to their 9-72 season.  How close did you come to making the team, and how did you feel after seeing them have such a horrible season without you? I was not very close to making the team: I got released a few days before the first exhibition game. Anyone who plays the game dreams of making it to the highest level, so I would have enjoyed making the team.

In 1978 you decided to take an assistant coaching job at Davidson instead of at Penn: why did you choose Davidson, and how did you feel after Penn ended up going to the 1979 Final 4? I remember it well: it was late in the summer of 1978. I drove to Philly in a rainstorm and arrived at a campus that was going through a lot of construction to interview with my friend Bob Weinhauer. The next day I caught a flight to Charlotte and saw a beautiful coliseum with beautiful weather. I just felt it was the place for me. If I had not made that decision, maybe I would not still be here today.

You later won five NY state titles as coach at Long Island Lutheran HS during the 1980s, where you coached HS All-American Matt Doherty: how were your teams able to be so successful, and did you ever think that Doherty would follow you into coaching? I actually started my high school coaching career at Holy Trinity High School in the early 1970s, which is where I coached Doherty. Back then AAU basketball was not nearly as prominent as it is today: the HS coach was the conduit between his players and college coaches, which is what helped me get the Davidson job. Long Island Lutheran had become a national powerhouse by then, so the first three guys I hired at Davidson for my coaching staff all played for me: Doherty, Don Hogan, and John Corso. We keep the apple close to the tree!

What were the differences between the 2002 and 2006 NCAA tourneys (your team lost to Ohio State both times)? Getting to the tourney was a learning process for a team like us that did not get there every single year. The 2nd time we got there the coaching staff had been a part of it, and it was a benefit to get back there together as a team in 2008.

In the 2008 NCAA tourney Stephen Curry scored a tourney-school-record 40 points (8 threes) and had five steals in a 6-point win over Gonzaga in Raleigh (the school’s first tourney win since Lefty Driesell was coach in 1969): was it just one of those scenarios where every shot he put up seemed to go in because he was “in the zone”? Curry was in a zone for us…for three straight years! We had a bit of fortune and comfort in the matchup because we had played NC State in Raleigh earlier that season and had a lot of fans show up. Gonzaga had the wear and tear of flying across the country but still jumped out to an early lead on us.

Curry scored 30 pointsin a 4-point win over #2-seed Georgetown: how on earth were you able to win despite the Hoyas shooting over 63% from the field? They had a 17-PT lead in the first half. The second game was UNC vs. Arkansas, and the Carolina fans were cheering for us as a fellow in-state team to beat the Hoyas, who had knocked out the Tar Heels in the tourney the previous year.

Curry scored 33 points in a win over #3-seed Wisconsin: did you start to feel like you were leading a team of destiny? Some teams play to win and some play not to lose, and I think you see recent teams like Butler/VCU who always play to win. Wisconsin had won 30+ games that year so there was a lot for them to fear if they lost to us. We were tied at halftime and I think the Badgers got a little tight.

Curry scored 25 points in a 2-point loss to eventual champion Kansas after Jason Richards missed a 25-footer at the buzzer: did you think Richards’ shot was going in, and what was the feeling like in your locker room afterwards? The Jayhawks blanketed Curry in our half-court sets for the final 10 minutes of the game, so we opted to let him have the ball in his hands by bringing it up the court. Curry got double-teamed but Jason got open and had a clear look. I thought it had a great shot of going in, but it was just a bit wide to the left. I still have the image of Coach Bill Self on his knees hoping that the ball would not go in. The main emotion in the locker room was exhaustion: we had expended every ounce of energy in getting that far. One of our players said, “we did not lose: we just ran out of time”, which I thought was a pretty good assessment.

In 2008 you were named national COY: what did it mean to you to win such an outstanding honor? There are so many great coaches around the country, so to be recognized like that was quite a shock, but also quite a thrill.

In 2008 you lost the gold medal game in Argentina to Argentina (featuring Temple’s Juan Fernandez) as coach of the USA U-18 national team: how devastating was that loss, and could you tell at the time that your leading scorer (Kemba Walker) was going to become a star? There is a longstanding parallel between gold-medal-winning teams and the country where the game is played. There was an overflow crowd that was overwhelmingly supportive of the home team and we just did not come out on top. It was a difficult pill to swallow because Jerry Colangelo/Mike Krzyzewski have set the bar very high. Kemba was the MVP and separated himself from most players that age. He was a great performer and a great leader.

You are the winningest coach in SoCon history: what makes you such a great coach, and do you think that anyone will ever break your record? I do not know that I am such a great coach, but I have coached in the SoCon a long time and even played in the conference back when I was at ECU. If you look back several decades you will see that there were a lot of great ACC/SEC teams who were in the SoCon. I take great pride in the opportunity that Davidson has given to me.

Your son Matt played for you before becoming your assistant coach, and your son Brendan recently finished up his own career playing for you: who is the best athlete in the family, and how proud are you of all of your sons’ success? I am incredibly proud of them, as well as my daughter who was a tennis/track star, but I cannot distinguish between them to decide who is the best.

JonTeitel