ST. LOUIS – Johnny Dawkins seemingly has been in a zillion NCAA Tournaments, but this one is much different.
The former Duke star and assistant coach is in his first as a head coach.
His 10th-seeded Stanford team plays 2-seed Kansas at 11:15 a.m. Sunday for a Sweet 16 seat in Memphis.
Yes, Dawkins is here as an underdog. But at least he’s here.
He might have been looking for a job if the former two-time All-American at Duke hadn’t finally made the tournament in his sixth season at Stanford. Cardinal athletic director Bernard Muir inferred near the end of last year’s 19-15 finish that Dawkins would be fired if he didn’t make the tournament this year.
So when you ask Dawkins about what it’s like to be in the tournament as a head coach, you know his mind is racing about a lot of things beyond reminiscing about old times with Coach K.
Or about his 48 games in the tournament – nine as a player, 39 as an assistant in his 11 seasons under Mike Krzyzewski.
Or with his many big-game encounters with KU. Such as his senior year in 1986, when Duke defeated Danny Manning and the Jayhawks in the national semifinals.
But Dawkins – now 50 — smiled Saturday and took it all in stride.
“Moving over 18 inches to this seat is big,” Dawkins said. “It’s only 18 inches, but it’s a lot longer when you have to go from making suggestions to making decisions.
“You don’t realize how many decisions, even during the course of a game, you have to make. I think I’ve grown into it over the years.”
Like the decision to switch to a triangle offense – also known as a triple post – before this season to take advantage of the Cardinal’s size and disguise its lack of depth at guard.
Dawkins looked like a genius for the move when senior point guard Aaron Bright dislocated his shoulder during a Thanksgiving Day practice and was lost for the season. The triangle allowed Duke to absorb the hit easier and move Chasson Randle, a natural shooting guard, to the point.
He said he vaguely recalls beating KU twice in the 1985-86 season in close games, including a charging call in the final seconds of Duke’s 71-67 victory in the Final Four at Dallas.
After foul trouble tied up Manning and center Greg Dreiling and limited them to a combined 10 points, Ron Kellogg was called for charging into Danny Ferry with 11 seconds remaining.
“I believe it was a controversial call,” Dawkins said.
He doesn’t volunteer anything about the 24 points he scored on KU that night or the identical amount he put up in a loss to Louisville in the national title game.
“Coach is a very intense competitor,” Stanford senior Josh Huestis said. “When you look at his highlights from back when he played, you can see it.
“He really carries that same kind of attitude towards coaching, a fearless attitude. But he doesn’t sit around and tell us how he used to do it.”
Krzyzewski, however, told Dawkins he should speak up and tell his players some things.
“I spoke to Coach K before coming out here about what I should do differently as a head coach as opposed to as an assistant,” Dawkins said. “It was great advice.”
Make sure you follow your instincts, Dawkins said. Don’t be reluctant to share stories about your experience in the tournament. You’re the only guy who has been. No player can relay that message, so you have to do it.
“And he was right,” Dawkins said. “I think it really helped our players. They felt more at ease hearing some of the stories.”
A team favorite came from a game when Dawkins was playing and Duke lost a tournament game.
“They lost because the other team got an offensive rebound at the end,” senior forward Doug Powell said. “That reminded us we have to be aggressive to the end.”
This may be Stanford’s best chance in the tournament for a while.
After passing over several chances to leave Duke to become a head coach at mid-major schools, Dawkins decided Stanford was the right choice. He was hired in April 2008 to replace Trent Johnson, who had bolted for LSU.
But Dawkins arrived too late to do much recruiting for a team that was facing high turnover.
His first true recruiting class – now three seniors, two redshirt juniors – make up the backbone of this team that tied for third in the Pac-12 after never placing higher than sixth in his previous five seasons.
Four of Dawkins’ starters come from that group. And that doesn’t include the injured Bright, who has opted to transfer to St. Mary’s.
“We know this is our year,” Huestis said.
Even as an underdog. But Dawkins knows from years of tournament experience that surprises can happen.
Such as Duke losing as a 2-seed to West Virginia in 2008, his final year as a Blue Devil assistant.
Or like 3-seed Duke losing its first game to 14-seed Mercer on Friday.
“Mercer played well enough to win,” Dawkins said. “I haven’t seen it, I haven’t talked to Coach K about it.
“But I know if you win in this tournament, you deserve it. Anything can happen.”