April 25, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Dan D’Antoni took a rainy, gray Friday and did just what he wants his Marshall basketball teams to do.
He brightened more than a mood. The new Thundering Herd coach turned defense into offense.
The doubts about the 66-year-old hoops lifer and his inexperience in the college game? It seemed like D’Antoni was running his younger brother’s “seven seconds or less” offense.
In D’Antoni’s introductory press conference in the MU Student Center, he attacked those questions, those murmurs, with verve, with humor, and most important, with straightforward candor.
The bottom line was this: Basketball is basketball. Come on. Even those press row sitters like me grasp it. Spread it. Drive it. Kick it.
The terminology may change from high school to college to the NBA, but it’s still the same game D’Antoni started to love as a kind in Mullens and then turned into a career on the sidelines.
And it was obvious that coaching the Thundering Herd more than four decades after he wore that uniform is more than a job to him.
“I have no resume,” he said. “I have no more to write. I’m here … I’ve always wanted to be the coach at Marshall. I just never had the opportunity.”
And let’s be honest here. The nationwide hue and cry about Marshall hiring a coach with no college hoops experience is pretty much rooted in that very large clique that is college basketball coaching. D’Antoni is – or, was – an outsider.
You can look at it like this: If Marshall Athletic Director Mike Hamrick had hired another NBA assistant coach that wasn’t the older brother of a favorite son who has become something of an NBA lightning rod because his teams have struggled in the mega-markets of New York and Los Angeles, would so many heads have turned?
Had Hamrick hired assistant coach Ordinary Joe from the Pistons or Raptors or Kings, even on a rebound from Mike D’Antoni, there wouldn’t be so many eyebrows raised.
“The job was offered to two people at the same time,” Hamrick said, meaning Dan and Mike D’Antoni and not a couple of other names that were reported. “And I don’t think either one would have cared if the other one got the job. They were with each other.”
Hey, it’s a D’Antoni thing. The family has its own Herd.
Mike couldn’t take the job because of his Lakers’ contract. Dan not only took the job, he embraced it.
“It’s always been a dream of mine,” he said, “even when I was little.”
D’Antoni became emotional talking about the late Dr. Ray and Shirley Hagley, his close friends and away-from-home mentors who died in the 1970 MU football team plane crash. He told the audience he was a “good sales agent” – which was obvious from his monologue and then his Q&A session.
He can tell Herd players about what it takes to get to the NBA. He’s been there. He can tell them what it’s like at Marshall. He’s been there. And while plenty of questions remain unanswered – like contract terms and his very important staff and player personnel decisions – he did make clear the goals for Herd basketball going forward.
“We’re going to try to get in the NCAA Tournament,” D’Antoni said of a bracket in which 280 schools have appeared since Marshall last filled a seed line in 1987. “And we want to get in the NCAA and advance. We’re not playing to win the conference. We’re not playing to be (above) .500.”
The last time Marshall won a postseason game of any consequence – that would be the NCAA or NIT, not those pay-as-you-go tourneys of recent vintage – D’Antoni was a starting sophomore guard, a floor leader on a club that starred the late, great George Stone.
D’Antoni scored 24 points and had 11 assists as the Herd downed Nebraska in the 1967 NIT quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden. The Herd’s “Iron Man 5” fell in the semifinals and consolation game, but D’Antoni helped Marshall get back to the Garden the following season, too.
Only in a couple of seasons since then has Marshall basketball been relevant nationally. That’s the challenge D’Antoni faces. It’s one he accepts with vigor.
“I’m 66; I’m not dead,” he said.
“It’s a dream-come-true for me to bring a Dan D’Antoni back to Marshall University,” Hamrick said. “It’s where he belongs. It’s taken a while, but he’s here.”
The next 45 minutes belonged to D’Antoni, holding court about coaching courtside.
“When you get hit with something you’ve really dreamed about, it’s hard to fathom,” D’Antoni said.
He’s Marshall’s 28th men’s basketball coach.
“It comes down to selling yourself and selling the program,” he said. “I can do that. It’s not about me. It’s how I can develop (players). We’re going to have a good team, and we’re going to have guys who want to be here.”
No one wanted to be here more than this D’Antoni.
He’s already 1-0. He won the press conference.