Commentary

Dawkins at Stanford's helm after 11 years at Duke

Originally Published: June 6, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The grass is never greener than in the eyes of a coach.

And it has nothing to do with good fertilizer.

Coaches are part Hollywood social climbers, part wayward gypsies. Hyperkinetic and more tightly wound than a golf ball, they chronically have one eye on the action at hand and another on a better, more lucrative, more challenging opportunity. It is why the carousel never stops spinning and U-Haul is the first number on speed dial.

Johnny Dawkins
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeJohnny Dawkins was Mike Krzyzewski's top assistant for years. Now he'll be going head-to-head with his former mentor for recruits.

That has never been Johnny Dawkins' way. He is content, a shocking word choice when it comes to describing someone in the coaching profession. Meticulous and calm in the midst of petulant and pouty men flailing their arms like banshees, Dawkins let the grass grow under his feet for 11 years at Duke before leaving.

He had chances. Being Mike Krzyzewski's associate head coach is like being Bill Gates' idea man. You're qualified and eminently employable.

But in 11 years rubbing elbows with hoops' Midas, Dawkins never so much as interviewed with another university. Conventional wisdom held that he stayed because he didn't have to leave, that he was the heir apparent to Krzyzewski. But there is no formal plan at Duke like there was for Pat Knight at Texas Tech or is for Mike Hopkins at Syracuse. Dawkins said nothing has ever been discussed with him.

"I had heard those things but that's Coach's program," Dawkins said. "As a former player, I can't see anyone else at the helm, not even myself. That stuff always disturbed me. I didn't ever want people to think I was sitting around and waiting. I never felt that way."

No, Dawkins didn't leave because he got tired of waiting.

He left because he was ready to go.

"Timing has been everything for me and this just felt like the right time," Dawkins said. "It was time for a new chapter in my life."

Named the head coach at Stanford on April 26 in what can best be described as a stunning and whirlwind courtship, Dawkins is currently speed-writing that chapter. Coaching transitions are always tornadoes, with phone calls from well-wishers to job-seekers, players to meet and evaluate, and alumni to glad-hand and backslap.

But for Dawkins, there is more than your traditional get-acquainted tour. As much as that Duke name carries cachet and instant credibility, he has never been a head coach and will dip his feet into as unforgivable a league as there is in the country with a team that is currently swimming in change.

Dawkins replaces Trent Johnson, who just three months ago was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year, but who grew wary waiting for a contract extension at Stanford and bolted for LSU. ("The Wednesday before he took the job, he indicated to me he wanted to retire at Stanford. I told him I'd like that to happen," athletic director Bob Bowlsby said of Johnson.)

Dawkins inherits a team that in two weeks will cede 34.8 percent of its scoring to the NBA, when Brook and Robin Lopez join the pro ranks.

Bowlsby admits hiring someone without any previous head-coaching experience is a risk, but he believes Dawkins is a unique risk. As a player, Dawkins set Duke's scoring mark (since broken by J.J. Redick) and led the Blue Devils to the 1986 national championship game. And as a coach, he served as sidekick to Krzyzewski during six regular-season ACC crowns and the 2001 national championship.

"I don't think it's a recipe for disaster at all," Bowlsby said. "You minimize the risk by who you go after. We lost two first-round draft choices. You don't get better after that. Whatever we did, we'd be rebuilding this year a bit. There's no time frame about what we want to do."

There are players we're going to go head-to-head [for]. I think there are a number of kids out here, though. There's enough to go around. Our job is to make sure they come to Stanford.

--Johnny Dawkins on competing with Duke for recruits

Cardinal faithful might beg to differ. Certainly no one fails to see that the Cardinal face some serious restocking issues, but the handwringing nonetheless began when Stanford's prize recruit, Miles Plumlee, asked for and received his release to go elsewhere.

Namely, to Duke.

The similarities between Duke and Stanford -- a strong academic reputation coupled with a rich athletic history -- are what lured Dawkins 3,000 miles from home and a lifetime away from his comfort zone.

But in college basketball, similarity breeds competition and even more than on-court X's and O's, the biggest question dogging Dawkins right now is how will he recruit when Duke is on the other side of the door, instead of in his hip pocket?

"That's difficult," Dawkins said, meaning the awkwardness of facing his friends and mentor, not the challenge of it, "but there are players we're going to go head-to-head [for]. I think there are a number of kids out here, though. There's enough to go around. Our job is to make sure they come to Stanford."

That sort of quiet confidence is what sold Bowlsby on Dawkins. He is a former national player of the year, first-round draft pick and NBA player, but he carries himself with about as much fanfare as your neighborhood postman.

After wrapping up his playing career, Dawkins decided he might like a career in athletic administration. He had countless chips to call in for the fast ticket. Instead he took an internship at Duke, beginning in the ticket window so he could learn the business from ground up.

Imagine waltzing into Kansas State in 10 years and there's Michael Beasley collecting your season-ticket order. A little hard to fathom, isn't it?

For weeks after Johnson left for LSU, all sorts of names churned through the rumor mill regarding Stanford. Never Dawkins.

Bowlsby said he spoke with Krzyzewski to gauge Dawkins' interest, as well as Krzyzewski's own timetable. ("He told me he wanted to coach another 10 to 12 years," Bowlsby said.) And from there things moved quickly.

Frankly everyone was caught off guard when they heard Dawkins was leaving Duke. (And despite Nolan Smith's close ties with Dawkins -- Smith's father, Derek Smith, was best friends with Dawkins, who was the reason Smith chose Duke -- Smith is staying at Duke, said Smith's mother, Monica Malone.)

Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski said he knew Dawkins was in conversations with Stanford and understands why Dawkins jumped at the opportunity. Still, after sitting on the bench with Dawkins for 11 years (one as a player and 10 as co-workers), Wojciechowksi said it will take some getting used to not seeing Dawkins in his familiar spot.

"Maybe we'll have to retire his chair like his jersey," Wojciechowski joked. "But the chair might look a little funny hanging from the rafters."

Even Dawkins concedes sitting in the first chair will take some getting used to. He laughed when asked if he knew how'd he behave as a head coach, promising that he wouldn't practice his head-coaching mannerisms in the mirror any time soon.

Instead, he plans to follow the last bits of advice that Krzyzewski gave him.

"He told me to just be myself," Dawkins said. "That's simple but great advice."

And advice Dawkins has never struggled to heed.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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