Mike Dunlap called out to his son, Holt, in the other room on Friday afternoon to see if he could come back into his new office, work the remote and find the Gonzaga-Oklahoma State NCAA Tournament game on the flatscreen TV.
He may have only been on the job about a week as Loyola Marymount’s new head basketball coach, but Dunlap knew the value of multi-tasking while keeping a West Coast Conference rival in his sights.
There’s been enough zigging and zagging in Dunlap’s career, but his return to LMU, where he was a 1980 graduate and spent the following five years an assistant, covers a wide-ranging traffic circle of experience.
The 56-year-old from Fairbanks, Alaska has hit nearly every corner of the basketball world thus far – attending a semester at Pepperdine before veering off to L.A. Pierce College for two years, coaching in Australia, winning titles at Thousand Oaks’ D-III Cal Lutheran and D-II at Metro State in Denver, and years as an assistant at USC, Iowa, Arizona and Oregon. Lately, it was more higher-profile exposure in leading St. John’s through a full season as well becoming as an employee for Michael Jordan as head coach of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
Dunlap has landed in a familiar setting, even though much has changed in the 35 years since he played at LMU. The Manhattan Beach resident explains:
Q: How do you usually spend NCAA Tournament time in March if you’re not involved in it? Watching game after game like everyone else?
A: I’ll watch as many as I can, and what I can’t, we’ll record them and I’ll go over them, slow ‘em down, maybe pick up something. I’ll find a Virginia game (for coach Tony Bennett) because I can always learn from him, as I did with his dad (Dick Bennett). Bo Ryan (at Wisconsin) is another one who’s extraordinary, as well as Tom Izzo (at Michigan State), for rebounding techniques. I’ll watch plays coming out of timeouts from Mike Krzyzewski, who is exceptional. I’m always trying to extrapolate things from them.
Q: So it’s not so much the results of the games as it is what nuances you can uncover?
A: Yeah, that’s the life I live in that way. Emotionally, I’m only invested in a couple of coaches. Mostly I’m on the hunt for little things.
Q: Even from Mark Few on the Gonzaga broadcast?
A: For sure, the OB (out of bounds) plays out of timeouts. He is very good at that.
Q: Not only do you have coaching experience in the tournament, but you can also draw upon that as a player. You were a senior on the 1979-80 LMU team that finished 14-14 but won the West Coast Conference at 10-6 because the University of San Francisco was put on probation. There was no post-season conference tournament, the NCAA only had 48 teams, and LMU gets sent to Arizona State to play the Sun Devils on their home floor for the first round against a team that had Byron Scott as a freshman and four other future first-round NBA picks. What are the things you remember most about that?
A: The highlight of that season was having to come hard down the backstretch (of the regular season) to get that done. We won a big game here against St. Mary’s in the last game to lock up the conference title. We had no one in the stands when the season started – we were awful the year before and only won five games – but that momentum was unbelievable. It was a lot like what we saw when Paul Westhead built things up later, but on a much bigger scale when he was here.
Q: You have said that Coach Westhead, who had the Lions in the NCAA Tournament three straight years (from 1988-’90), really put the WCC on the national map, as well as LMU. Do you find any residual effect of those days when you’re talking to recruits? Do any of them know – or their parents remember – the days of Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers?
A: I don’t think so. They don’t go that far back. There might be a rare kid who knows, but most of them are defined by what they see on ESPN, and ESPN rarely goes back there unless they want to talk about Gathers in some kind of ’30 For 30’ documentary about that. The challenge is that success hasn’t been sustained. Going to the Elite Eight is tough enough to do even under the best circumstances. The memory, and trying to move them to that point, is pretty difficult.
Q: So if LMU’s last trip to the NCAA Tournament was 1990, what’s the pitch to get players here?
A: Physically, this school has doubled in size since I was here. The medium is visual and it’s become powerful. It has morphed into something where you bring anybody onto this campus, and it’s ‘what a spot.’ We didn’t say that before. It’s not just the physical changes, but what a great spot in the city. We’re in a great locale, the facilities are really nice, and with the 100 years of tradition of the school, you can sell that mission with ease. And where we are with Gonzaga and BYU, they’ve put a mark on our conference as far as TV and video streaming exposure. There’s also the opportunity here play sooner than maybe they would at a UCLA or USC, and we’re going to play those people, too. There’s plenty to pitch here.
Q: What drew you to the campus in the first place to play? It had the tiny campus gym, a small neighborhood campus?
A: I wasn’t recruited at all when it came right down to it. I was a walk-on and my claim to fame I was able to pass the ball to a 6-foot-4 guy named Bruno Marcotulli – who can forget that name? He’s gone on to be an actor. We played together at Pierce College. When Loyola came to recruit Bruno, they knew we were buddies, so I was known as the guy who’d carry his duffel bag. I was persistent and just willed my way onto the team both my junior and senior years, finally getting a scholarship, which was taken away and then given back. That was my claim to fame.
Q: But how does a basketball player come from Alaska to the San Fernando Valley to play in the first place?
A: I went to a John Wooden camp and got some exposure, and an assistant for Gary Colson at Pepperdine recruited me to go there. I went there for a semester, realized I wasn’t going to play, kind of like a Robby Benson situation (a reference to the 1977 movie “One On One”), so after Pierce, a Loyola assistant named Dave Spencer, who was with head coach Dave Benaderet, knew that I knew Bruno, gave me a tryout and I made the team.
Q: Is there any similarities in coaching here at LMU than what you had at Cal Lutheran (where he was the head coach of the D-III school from 1989-94)?
A: Maybe with proximity, a school looking for consistency, maybe understated – although CLU has changed a lot physically as well. It’s the want to have a basketball team do well. Maybe it’s a timing thing to come back to a situation where support is at its highest and ‘we want to be good.’
Q: Coming off what many would consider to be the top of the coaching mountain – a head job in the NBA – must give you some experience that can carry a lot of weight. Does any of that translate to college?
A: There’s the study of the pick-and-roll, both offensive and defensively, you don’t have that time in college or that acumen, quite frankly. You’re going from a 40-minute game (in college) to 48 minutes – it’s almost English versus French, so different. There’s also the management of players who are not exactly going to what you say and when you want it done. You have to use all kinds of angles to get them to do. Those are the things that really tax a pro coach. I never made the NBA my dream. I just got asked and I knew I needed to have that tool in my tool box. I went there for an interview, there are 10 people who interviewed for the job, I had no expectations. I get a first interview, OK, go back to St. John’s, get a call to come back three weeks later to interview again. What? This is crazy. I do the next interview, fly back to New York, and by the time the plane lands, I’m seeing on my phone a story from ESPN that the job has already been offered to me, boom. I knew that by the time I was done with my career I didn’t want to turn down a head job in the NBA and have that regret.
Q: What was the biggest lesson in Charlotte?
A: Managing an NBA game, going through that kind of a season (a 21-61 record), not becoming negative, not having some big blunder where you’re throwing a fit because you’re getting pounded in a game. You have to learn to get through a difficult time, keep your poise and stay positive. And then, calling games night in and night out against guys like (Gregg) Popovich, you can only get better. Now on the recruiting trail, you can set yourself apart from everyone in the WCC because you’ve been to the NBA, where most kids want to go. I can tell them that I’ve been there and this is the road you need to travel. That carries its own power.
Q: And you can say, ‘I know Michael Jordan.’
A: Everybody wants to hear about that. You get those moments when you’re at a dinner and a guy will be there for two hours talking, and he’ll finally get to the Jordan thing because that’s all he wanted to talk about in the first place. I get that, and it’s fun. When you’re working for him, day in and day out, you can’t be affected, you have to go along with your business. The things that stand out about him, one is his self-deprecation. I never saw him in the time he was around the office and the things he did as the owner and president where his attire wasn’t his gear. And he has great gear but he never dressed up. He didn’t want to be treated different than the regular Joe and he works hard at his ability to just sit and put away everyone else’s anxieties they might have about being around him. I loved how he worked at being humble. He’s also so smart. He knows how to size up a room. He knows numbers – he can spit them out like crazy. Mathematically, I thought he was brilliant. I also had a sense that he has an idea of the big picture and where he wants to go, whether it’s his other businesses or how he wants the rest of his life to be. He has a real control of it.
Q: Did he have to be the one came in at the end of your season and send you off?
A: He wasn’t at that meeting, and I think he has such a big heart that those kinds of things are incredibly hard for him. I have heard that, I’ve experienced it now. I was always there with great gratitude because of how the team was the year before (seven wins in the lockout shortened season). It’s all about seeing how far you can drag that bucket up the hill. I can’t sit here and complain about a thing. That might be hard for people to think I’m being honest, but I was good and I kept the message positive for the team. And I really had some tough characters to deal with.
Q: How did you spend that off season leading into this job?
A: I took my wife and daughter to Italy to speak at a European clinic. Went to Australia, China … all basketball related. That’s one of the perks of having that ‘NBA card’ for a lifetime now. I was able to also visit other NBA training camps – (Tom) Thibodeau (with the Chicago Bulls), went to South Carolina to watch Frank Martin, went to Wake Forest to watch Jeff Bzdelik, both Krzyzewski (at Duke) and Roy Williams (at North Carolina) invited me in, Buzz Williams at Marquette. The point is I really studied hard and looked at things a lot of different ways. It’s all about sharpening the knife. Then the Loyola job came up and everything really transpired fast. I knew if I messed around with (athletic director) Bill (Husak) he would have taken the offer away. He didn’t want any kind of lag time. He didn’t want any of the players to leave. They did a great job with recruits.
Q: Was coming back here on your list of places you’d hope you might land? Or did it come out the blue?
A: It was on my radar because I was always comfortable here and Bill had talked to me before. But the bottom line had been either the school wasn’t ready to roll in what I would have demanded for the program or the timing was such that I was on a roll at another school.
Q: In a career you spent time coaching under George Karl, Lute Olson, George Raveling, Steve Lavin, Ernie Kent – did any of that rub off on you that you can define?
A: The guy I worked for here, Ed Goorjian (LMU head coach from 1980-85 when Dunlap was a new assistant) helped me the most because he got the plane off the ground, and he introduced me to John Wooden and Pete Newell, and I became part of the Newell family. He really took me in and had a huge impact on me. Newell played here – 1939 – and that was significant because when he started his first ‘Big Man’ camp, and Kermit Washington and Kiki Vandeweghe were part of that first group at the Loyola gym, and I was the caretaker of the key to get them in there. Same with the Lakers, who would need the Alumni Gym to practice sometimes, and as the graduate assistant here, I got them in and could stay around and watch Pat Riley run his first practices with Magic Johnson and Norm Nixon. , and I kept going, and sat and watched.
Raveling was brilliant because he took a business approach to everything. We would go to three-day seminar with IBM or Xerox, he’d bring George Allen in to talk us. He kept developing us as the whole person. He taught me how to be a head coach. George Karl, Lute Olson, Ernie Kent, each of them has great strengths. As an assistant to them, my job was to serve, but I was always picking their brain on the best stuff they did. With Lav, out of all them, his greatest strength is player confidence. I was able to watch how he got players to play above their ceiling. That was wonderful. The other thing about him was he was always great on TV and he taught me things about interviewing.
Q: The exposure you had taking over St. John’s for that season with Lavin out must have been a big jump (the team finished 11-17 with him as the interim coach in 2011-12)?
A: It was, but it was difficult with just six guys on scholarship going through the Big East. We’d go to Duke and play a six-point game and all we had were cherries. They had a remarkable year in what they did under those circumstances. We’d play at Madison Square Garden and have 25 reporters show up. The media is big so you have to be better in press conferences. That got me ready for the Bobcats and, when things don’t go well, they can get salty with the questions thrown at you. You might be frustrated, but your response can’t be that way. You don’t want to counter like that. There’s no benefit. Raveling and Lavin and Karl were always great with the media – as witness to them jumping into TV work. Those are the guys who can train you if you pay attention.
Q: So you can watch what a Mike D’Antoni is going through with the Lakers now and relate?
A: I have much greater empathy for him, as I do for Brett Brown (in Philadelphia) with this awful losing streak. I’ve been in Brett’s chair and that’s a tough one. What makes it tough for D’Antoni are the expectations, and the media here is different. No matter what he does, they need a piece of flesh, and they want his. Let’s say if he had a week off and a reporter could sit next to him and told him how he’s been coming off on TV or in the papers, I guarantee you could help and he’d be coachable. But the problem is he’s worn down and he’s holding onto something he basically can’t win with consistently. No matter what he says. It’s a real pickle, and I’ve been in that pickle.
Q: Someone like Dan Monson at Long Beach State has recently gone to the extreme of playing a lot of big programs on the road to prepare his team for Big West Conference play. What’s your philosophy in constructing a schedule as a head coach?
A: There’s a mathematical balance to it all, and there’s no benefit to playing the toughest schedule in the world and losing eight in a row. Dan can’t sell that to me, and I know because I’ve done the scheduling side of that before. You’re factoring in the injury side of things as you’re thinking about going to Kentucky for a $140,000 payday for your program. If you are that kind of guy who will do the power ranking and pound away, I’m not a proponent at that. A lot of times you’re in a deficit situation, kids get hurt, and you don’t have them for those conference games at the end. You don’t want to go the other way either. Whether it’s the media or your athletic director or somewhere in between, Dan has leverage in doing what he’s doing because of his contract and he’s had success there. It’s easy for a guy to lecture at Nike camps off a 20-win season that another way of doing it. The voice is different. I’d rather have a softer schedule and build someone inside-out as far as confidence goes. When you do get smacked, you hopefully can handle it. Our schedule next year includes USC and Arizona State on the road. It’s not impossible but you can see where we could get pounded there a little bit. But you don’t over react based on last year’s experiences.
== Mike Dunlap’s official website
== LMU announces on March 12 it has hired Dunlap as its 26th head coach
== The Los Angeles Loyolan covers his arrival
== LMU’s basketball seasons year by year
== A New York Daily News story on Dunlap as he started his NBA coaching career with a 7-5 record in Charlotte. ““He’s already the coach of the year,” said Jeff Van Gundy. “He’s done an incredible job.”