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Charm of GU and Zag Nation drew Donny Daniels to Spokane

Donny Daniels brings 38 years of experience as player and coach to Gonzaga men’s basketball. (Colin Mulvany)
Donny Daniels brings 38 years of experience as player and coach to Gonzaga men’s basketball. (Colin Mulvany)

The new guy hasn’t yet lived through a basketball season in Spokane when it’s all Gonzaga, all the time.

But Donny Daniels is getting the idea. There are hints dropped every day – like having a reporter knocking on his office door in July, for instance.

It may take some getting used to. Yes, he’s starting his 39th year in the college game as player and coach. Yes, he’s bunked in the penthouse. He was on the Utah staff that went to the NCAA title game in 1998, but the Utes aren’t even the dominant passion in their area code. He walked in John Wooden’s footsteps at UCLA, and yet in the glitzpool of Hollywood even Kobe and ManRam can be afterthoughts.

But being the center of attention isn’t what lured Donny Daniels to Gonzaga.

How Gonzaga remains the center of attention, well, that’s another story.

“This place has always intrigued me as far as the sustainability – if that’s the right word to use – of the success of the program,” he said.

“So many schools, at the high-major and mid-major level, talk about being like Gonzaga. Everyone wants to be Gonzaga. It’s a good thing to aspire to. I’ve admired how they go about things. I thought that if everyone wants to be Gonzaga, maybe I should work at Gonzaga.”

When the smoke from today’s fireworks clears, college basketball’s July jackpot for recruiting is on, and Donny Daniels will be on a plane to where the players are – along with virtually every other Division I assistant coach in the country. The difference is, none of them are the most intriguing new face in his particular program.

Gonzaga basketball is hardly resistant to change – the program wouldn’t be where it is without some dramatic shifts in vision. But it is also a shrine to continuity, and with some qualifications it can be said that Daniels is the first outsider to join the coaching staff in two decades. Tommy Lloyd moved up from an administrative assistant’s position. Leon Rice, whom Daniels replaced, and Ray Giacoletti had both been close with head coach Mark Few long before being hired.

Daniels and Few go back, too, but as rivals on the recruiting trail. And in hiring the first African-American coach in the basketball program’s history, Few has also added a direct link to the deep, urban recruiting hotbed of Los Angeles.

Of course, if that means a change for Gonzaga, it means one at least as big for Daniels himself.

“But when you’re 55,” he said, “you just think differently – or I did anyway.”

And when he decided to make this most dramatic of job changes, he did it with a nod to the stability here.

For in what can be the most transient of professions, Daniels has been something of a stayer. He played at Verbum Dei High School in L.A., and returned to coach there. He played at L.A. Harbor College – and returned to coach there, too. He did five separate stints at Cal State Fullerton as player, assistant and head coach. He pulled 11 years at Utah, seven at UCLA.

“I guess one thing I really respect is how Mark has stayed true to the program here,” he said. “You hear his name mentioned for all these jobs, but you never hear about him interviewing. Guys staying with opportunities out there is rare in this day and age.”

The appeal didn’t stop there.

“It was an attraction to be in a different system,” Daniels said. “This is a transition program, a fast-break program – which I’ve never worked in. Looking from the outside, you can see they did a great job of identifying and developing talent – and then really letting their guys play within the system. You’re allowed to play. It’s like they say, ‘This is your skill level, this is what we want you to do – do it.’

“And every other program I’ve gone to has been a rebuilding situation. At Utah, the coach had been dismissed. At UCLA, the coach had been dismissed. At Fullerton when I became head coach, the coach had been dismissed and the program put on probation.”

That three-year episode could have been considered the nadir of Daniels’ career. Sanctions docked him two scholarships, and he was prohibited from recruiting junior college players. Doubling the win total from five to 10 his last season was the closest thing to a highlight. Yet he refuses to think of it that way.

“It was my place in time, I think, to help Fullerton get through probation,” he said. “I’m no martyr. I wasn’t falling on my sword. But it was my time, and good things came out of it.”

The job at UCLA, in particular. There, he had to two encounters with Gonzaga that most Zags would like to forget – the 2006 NCAA tournament loss when the nine-point lead disappeared in the last 3:26 (“They should have won that game,” Daniels acknowledged), and the recruitment of guard Jordan Farmar, the loss of whom was a disappointment to Few.

Yet even that was an endorsement to Daniels.

“That was one of the reasons I thought about this,” he said. “Jordan was very torn between Gonzaga and UCLA. His take on Gonzaga was that it was so family oriented – the guys seemed so together. And you see it – half the guys who play here, stay here. They don’t go back to Portland, or wherever.”

Beyond Farmar, Daniels has recruited and helped develop a number of NBA-ready players from the L.A. core – from Russell Westbrook at UCLA to Andre Miller at Utah and all the way back to Cedric Ceballos at Fullerton. He has coached under some legendary names – Bobby Dye at Fullerton, Rick Majerus at Utah, Ben Howland at UCLA – who have taught him that “there is no one right way to do it to be successful.”

And along the way, he’s discovered that it’s a pretty good gig.

“The amazing thing is that it’s not just that you’re working for someone – you’re not just at UCLA or Fullerton or Gonzaga,” he said. “You’re a part of thousands and thousands of people’s daily lives, without you even knowing it.”

The bet is, at Gonzaga, he’ll know.

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