Tulane appears to have concluded its men’s basketball coaching search with a splash.
The Green Wave came to a pending agreement with longtime NBA coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. on Friday, sources familiar with the situation told The Advocate. The contract is expected to be finalized soon.
Dunleavy, 62, has never held a job at the college level. He was an NBA head coach for 17 seasons, spanning 1990 to 2010, working for the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks.
Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen did not immediately return a request for comment.
Sources said Dannen’s search ran the gamut of potential backgrounds, including college assistant coaches, college head coaches, broadcasters and administrators. But it was a former NBA coach, who hasn’t been on the bench since early 2010, that ultimately landed the job.
Known for his thick playbook and tactical mind, Dunleavy’s NBA record of 613-716 was highlighted by an appearance in the 1991 NBA Finals with the Lakers and trips to the Western Conference finals with the Trail Blazers in 1999 and 2000. Dunleavy was NBA Coach of the Year in 1999, leading Portland to the Pacific Division crown while tallying a 35-15 record in the lockout-shortened season.
In his seven-year tenure with the Clippers, Dunleavy served dual roles, also running the front office as general manager. Since 2010, he has been a broadcaster and filled various advisory roles.
“Dunleavy is, at heart, a teacher,” said ESPN.com reporter Kevin Arnovitz, who covered the coach’s stint with the Clippers. “That pedagogical style should translate well to the college game, where there’s less noise from the outside, where there’s time to practice and there are fundamentals about the game to learn.”
Dunleavy’s mission is to turn around a languishing program, which has been more of a graveyard than a stepping stone since the turn of the century. The Green Wave hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 1995 or the NIT since 2000, firing three coaches (Sean Finney, Dave Dickerson and Ed Conroy) since Perry Clark’s heyday in the 1990s.
But Dunleavy will be equipped with more help than those three at the start of their tenures. The American Athletic Conference is not only a multi-bid league, sending four teams to the NCAA tournament this year, but its contract with ESPN also ensures every home game and conference matchup is available on a nationwide broadcast.
The diminutive Devlin Fieldhouse has received ongoing renovations, expected to conclude in 2016, and the Hertz Center opened in 2012 to provide plush amenities for practice space, offices and weight training.
It will be up to Dunleavy to take advantage of those amenities and turn Tulane basketball into a winner.
He has participated in turnarounds before, improving the Blazers’ and Clippers’ winning percentages in each of his first three seasons and taking them deep into the playoffs.
“Dunleavy is obsessive about getting the right shot for the right guy at the right spot — that works anywhere,” Arnovitz said. “His teams have also overachieved defensively year in and year out.”
Now he’ll also be responsible for boosting the Green Wave’s sagging attendance and local profile, which careened down to averaging an announced 1,800 fans last season, a distant last place in the AAC.
Dunleavy’s name recognition alone could help fill some of those seats. When news of Tulane’s pending agreement broke Friday afternoon, “Mike Dunleavy” became a nationwide trending topic on Twitter and a report was on the front page of ESPN.com.
“There aren’t many people at our games,” Dannen said March 14. “That is an important message that’s being sent to us. When I got here I spoke to people who had been invested in basketball that, frankly, had given up. Not because of Ed (Conroy) or not because of anything else, but just because of the perception of where we’re at with our basketball program. So, right now, we need to show there’s a renewed commitment and there’s a redoubling of our commitment to men’s basketball.”
But the ultimate question remains: Will Dunleavy be able to win at Tulane?
Not only will he be competing in the AAC with traditional powers like Connecticut, Memphis, Cincinnati and Temple, but he’ll also have to fend off rising programs with increasing budgets like Houston and SMU.
“I understand some of our liabilities,” Dannen said March 14. “I’ve had a chance to look around the league and see what and who we are up against in the league from a resources standpoint and what we need from a talent and experience standpoint.”
Baker Dunleavy, Mike’s son, currently is associate head coach at Villanova, which secured a spot in the Elite Eight on Thursday. He’s a potential addition to the Green Wave bench with college experience and a robust résumé.
Dunleavy shares connections in New Orleans: He’s the brother-in-law of Sugar Bowl committee member Miles Clements, who played football for the Green Wave from 1973-75.
But Dunleavy has a difficult job ahead, trying to return Tulane basketball to relevance for the first time in nearly 20 years.
“He brings a sense of structure,” Arnovitz said, “and decades of experience watching the game evolve, reinvent itself and reinvent itself again.”