To prepare for the tip-off of another great year of college basketball, CHD is reaching out to coaches and players around the country to get the inside scoop on what we can expect this time around. Jon Teitel continues our season preview series by chatting with Wright State coach Billy Donlon about living and working with his father.
You played basketball at UNC–Wilmington before playing professionally in France, Germany and Ireland: how good a player were you back in the day, and how did you get into coaching? As we get older we stretch the truth a bit! I played for some really good coaches including Jerry Wainwright. The school had not won a conference title in any sport before I got here but both my team and the swimming team each won a title during my time there, which I took great pride in. I was basically a 4-year starter and graduated with the most assists in school history. I was only an average shooter but could get by people and pass the ball. I was an assistant at American for a year before going overseas. I made about $10,000 and lived on campus with a cafeteria pass: it was catered by Marriott and was the best dining hall food in the country! I also saw the nasty side of the business: we got fired only nine months into the job before we even had a chance to coach the guys we had recruited. My grandfather called in a favor to help me get my next job, so that taught me the importance of knowing people. My dad’s parents came to Ellis Island from Ireland, so I was able to get Irish citizenship and played overseas with Marty Conlon and Jay Larranaga. Back then you could only have two Americans on each team, but since I counted as an Irish citizen I did not have to worry about being one of the two best Americans.
You were an assistant to Brad Brownell at UNC–Wilmington/Wright State: what makes him such a good coach, and what is the most important thing you ever learned from him? He has a great work ethic and honesty. In a profession where you are always put in difficult situations with difficult decisions, he has never come close to sacrificing his ethics just to win a game. He also has a great passion for the game and the ability to adapt based on the type of players he has. Players never agree with their coaches 100% of the time, but the bottom line is that Brad’s players always know exactly where they stand with him.
In the 2003 NCAA tourney as an assistant to Brownell at UNC–Wilmington, Drew Nicholas dribbled the length of the court and swished a fall-away 3-point shot off his back foot with a defender in his face in a 2-point win by Maryland: where does that rank among the most amazing shots you have ever seen? Getting to the tourney and winning games is what defines you, so based on the significance of that game it is first. The Wilmington Star News got an incredible photo of our guy a half-inch from blocking the shot. It is probably also the most heartbreaking shot I have ever been associated with, even though we had a few other buzzer-beaters happen to us. For years after that there was a cell phone commercial every March featuring that shot: it just never goes away.
In the 2006 NCAA tourney GW overcame an 18-point deficit in a 3-point OT win by the Colonials: how much of a home-court advantage did you have playing in Greensboro, and where does that rank among the most devastating losses of your career? It is tied with a couple of other games at the top of the list, including the Maryland game. I lost 2 conference tourney title games as a player which were also tough, and we have lost the last two years at Wright State in the tourney title game. We fouled a GW 3-point shooter at the end of regulation and he made a pair of free throws to send it to overtime. We felt we could beat anyone in the tourney that year and we had some really good players. It would have been nice to play Duke in Greensboro in the following game. I remember us having a great crowd there: our fans travel really well.
In the 2013 Horizon League tourney as coach at Wright State, Miles Dixon scored 14 points off the bench including a baseline jumper at the buzzer in a 2-point win over Detroit: where does that game rank among the highlights of your career? It is right up there. We were picked to finish last in the conference and it ended up being one of the best seasons in school history. It was a busted play at the end and Miles made a really hard shot to win it. I knew he got it off in time, which is always a good feeling. That win re-energized our fan base after coming off of a bad year in 2012: we were not favored to win, but that is why you play the games.
You finished that season by being named Horizon League COY: what did it mean to you to receive such an outstanding honor? I have a great staff. It is an honor due to all of the other great coaches in our league: Gary Waters has done a phenomenal job at Cleveland State and Greg Kampe has been at Oakland for 30 years. I give all the credit to my staff and players…and a little bit to the media for picking us last!
In the 2014 CIT your team had a 2-point loss to Ohio: what did your team learn from that loss that you think can help you this year? We got off to a 13-2 lead to start the game and might have relaxed a bit. However, you have to give credit to Ohio for playing well. We had five seniors who were starting for us at the end of the year, and we played one of our best games of the year to beat East Carolina by 14 points on the road in the first round. I know it is about winning, but to suffer two conference championship losses and respond the way they did speaks to the character of those guys.
Five of your top-6 scorers from last year have graduated (Jerran Young/Miles Dixon/Cole Darling/AJ Pacher/Matt Vest): how on earth will you try to replace their combined 44 points? It is going to be tough to replace not only their offense but their knowledge and experience. Other than college baseball there is nothing more grueling than a college basketball season because you play two or three games each week and are traveling all over the country. A football team might leave on a Friday night for a Saturday game, while we can be on the road for a week at a time. There are some things you can only learn through experience, which will be crucial for the three seniors on our current team. Teammates listen to their teammates at all times, and the better a player can coach their teammates, the better the team will be.
Your Director of Operations is a guy named Bill Donlon, Sr.: what is it like to have your father on your coaching staff? I am very fortunate that the president and athletic director allowed us to bring him aboard. We had an assistant who left to take another job a few Septembers ago, and I was back home in Illinois when I got the phone call about it. I did not want to open up the coaching search so I asked my dad if he wanted to do it. He said yes, retired from his job as a dean, and joined the staff. He worked for Rick Pitino and helped recruit the guys on the 1987 Final 4 team at Providence like Billy Donovan and Delray Brooks. He worked in the Big East and Big 10 so he has seen a lot. He is great at dealing with young people and has so much knowledge of the game. We live together: I joke that I pay the mortgage and he sets the curfew! He is my number one role model and I have always aspired to be like him, so it has been great for both me and our players. The rest of my staff does a really good job as well.
What are your goals for the upcoming season, and what are your expectations for the upcoming season? A lot of coaches say they are going to play faster but never do, but we are honestly going to give it a shot. Our goal is to compete for the Horizon League championship, even though there are at least seven teams with a legitimate chance to win it all: the parity this year is unbelievable. We have some good guard play, but I do not love that our 1st game is against Belmont and their Hall of Fame coach Rick Byrd.