Explaining why he picked Mike Dunleavy Sr. as his men’s basketball coach, Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen said he was looking for somebody with a defibrillator in his pocket to “shock a sleeping giant back into life.”
The choice of Dunleavy, 62, certainly sent out shock waves for a variety of reasons — his name recognition, his NBA background, his age, his long coaching layoff, and his lack of college experience among them — and Dannen and Dunleavy addressed all of those topics in the coach’s introductory news conference on Tuesday at Devlin Fieldhouse.
Dunleavy did not shy away from bold proclamations as he took over a program that has not been to the NCAA tournament in 21 years, finished near the bottom of Conference USA for most of this century and placed last in the American Athletic Conference this season under former coach Ed Conroy.
“There’s no reason you can’t win in a big way here,” Dunleavy said. “The two programs that I’ve been most associated with are Duke (where his son, Mike Dunleavy Jr, played before heading to the NBA) and Villanova (where one of his son’s, Baker Dunleavy, is the associate head coach) — small private schools with small on-campus gyms. I may be naïve, but that’s my goal. I can’t tell you how long it’s going to take to get there, but I’m totally a believer.”
Dunleavy had a 613-716 record in 17 years as an NBA coach, but he guided the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA Finals in his first season (1990-91) and took Portland to the Western Conference finals in 1998-99 and 1999-2000. The bulk of his career was spent on reclamation projects for Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Clippers.
While researching Dunleavy, Dannen said another coach gave him the ultimate compliment.
“When he walks into a gym, I don’t care if it’s the American Conference or the ACC or the national championship game, he will never be outcoached,” Dannen said he was told. “The second thing was that he teaches the game better than anyone else in the world.”
Whom he is teaching it to next season remains a question. Sophomore post player Dylan Osetkowksi, the Wave’s leading rebounder and third-leading scorer, obtained a release to transfer a few days after Tulane finished 12-22.
A day after meeting with Dunleavy for the first time, freshmen Blake Paul, Von Julien and Taron Oliver attended the event at Devlin Fieldhouse. Another freshman, Melvin Frazier, was not there.
Rising senior Malik Morgan, who averaged 12.4 points, definitely will be back.
“Just by the vibes that he gave off, I feel like he’s really looking for big things from this program,” Morgan said. “I really wanted to stay one more year, finish my college career at Tulane and get my degree. And when I found out it was going to be coach Dunleavy, there was no other place that I’d want to be.”
Dunleavy never has coached in college, but he played up his contacts in Europe, Australia and Africa as a huge advantage, giving him a wide recruiting base.
He said he decided to go the college route because he loves to teach and found it too hard to find an opening with a championship-level NBA team. He liked Tulane in part because he loves New Orleans, where his wife’s sister lives.
He has not picked his assistant coaches yet, but he emphasized his connections there as well, saying he would look for guys with college coaching experience and had no timetable for completing his staff. That criteria would appear to rule out New Orleans basketball legend Randy Livingston, who starred at Newman High and played at LSU before an on-and-off career in the NBA from 1996 to 2007.
Sources have indicated Livingston, a scout and coaching consultant in Australia, is interested in returning.
“I know so many people in basketball,” Dunleavy said. “I can’t even believe since this has been announced what has really come up as far as people interested in the job.”
Dannen dismissed two concerns immediately: that Dunleavy has been out of coaching since 2000 and will not have much longevity as one of the older coaches in college basketball.
“Regardless of whether he’s coached in the last six years, he’s been active in basketball,” Dannen said. “He’s well-connected, and his ability to teach the game will never go away.”
Dannen said he expects Dunleavy to be a terrific closer in recruiting because of his history and cache, adding the primary traveling for recruiting would be conducted by his assistants.
Three of the Final Four coaches in college basketball this year — Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger — are older than Dunleavy.
Unlike football coach Willie Fritz, whom Danne hired in December immediately after taking the AD job, Dannen did not have Dunleavy in mind when he started looking for a replacement for Conroy. Two days into the search, former Tulane football player Miles Clements emailed him that Dunleavy was interested in the job.
Once he interviewed Dunleavy, the search ended.
“The ability to teach and care about people is what defines you as a great coach,” Dannen said. “I walked out of there and said. ‘He’s the one.’ That night, I offered him the job.”
It was a two-way recruiting process. Dannen admitted he had to sell Tulane as much as Dunleavy had to sell himself.
Dannen said he would make Dunleavy’s job easier than Conroy’s by upgrading Tulane’s travel routine, eliminating some of the bus trips and overnight stays that wore down the team every season. The rest he will leave to Dunleavy natural ability.
“I know talent,” Dunleavy said. “I think I picked the most NBA all-stars in the last 20 years, so that gives me an edge. I have something to sell them (recruits) that nobody else can. If they are NBA caliber players, there nobody out there who can prepare them the way I can.”