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Gonzaga-Utah Valley: Special season opener for GU assistant Donny Daniels, son Eric

Gonzaga assistant Donny Daniels, left, with his son, Eric, in London. Eric is an assistant coach at Utah Valley and will be in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Friday to face the Zags. (Courtesy of Donny Daniels)
Gonzaga assistant Donny Daniels, left, with his son, Eric, in London. Eric is an assistant coach at Utah Valley and will be in the McCarthey Athletic Center on Friday to face the Zags. (Courtesy of Donny Daniels)

Not every Gonzaga game this season will have a built-in theme but the Zags are off to a good start.

Last week’s exhibition contest against West Georgia was a homecoming for Wolves coach and Spokane native Michael Cooney. The Zags’ date with Utah Valley on Friday brings father and son together, albeit on opposite sidelines inside the McCarthey Athletic Center.

It goes without saying that Gonzaga seventh-year assistant coach Donny Daniels and second-year Utah Valley assistant Eric Daniels were responsible for scouting reports for their respective programs’ season openers.

“It kind of makes it interesting,” Eric said. “I’ve watched Gonzaga quite a bit almost as a fan cheering on whatever team my dad was coaching. I feel like I have a decent feel for them.”

Gonzaga’s Daniels knows his son has a great feel for the game. Eric was around basketball all the time as a youngster, hanging out at Utah’s Huntsman Center when Donny was an assistant under Rick Majerus. Eric later became the all-time leading scorer at NAIA Johnson & Wales University in Denver.

But the elder Daniels didn’t know his son was planning on joining the coaching profession.

“He wanted to make money right away,” Donny cracked. “He was like every kid, he wanted to be a millionaire and travel.”

Eric, equipped with a marketing degree, had other ideas. He wasn’t ready to sit behind a desk. He was ready to stand on the sidelines, teach fundamentals, make recruiting pitches and scout opponents for modest pay.

“He was always supportive and he loves what he does,” the 32-year-old Eric said of his father. “He always tells me he’s never worked a day in his life. That was something in the back of my mind.”

Eric assisted at Southern Utah, moved on to Regis University for five years and spent one year as a video analyst for the Orlando Magic. Donny, 62, is closing in on 40 years in coaching with three turns as an assistant and one as a head coach at alma mater Cal State Fullerton, and lengthy assistant stints at Utah and UCLA.

When the Zags were looking for a season-opening opponent, Donny called Eric to gauge Utah Valley’s interest.

“First off, I was thinking the Zags are pretty good so it’s going to be a tough game,” Eric said. “Then I was thinking it would be a unique opportunity.”

Donny’s job demands limited his opportunity to coach Eric’s youth teams but he spent hours in the gym helping Eric work on his game. With Eric’s access to the Huntsman Center and an auxiliary gym, Donny joked, “I don’t know if he’s ever played on asphalt.”

Eric said they worked out “when we could. There were a couple of battles and fights because I was really stubborn back then, but he really helped me become the player I became.

“Now he’s helping me in this profession.”

Utah Valley arrived in Spokane on Thursday and, after practice and meetings, the Daniels were hoping there would be time to visit at dinner.

They speak several times a week by telephone. Their paths cross on the recruiting trail from time to time. Shortly after Donny was hired at Gonzaga, Eric came to visit and watched a game at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

Eric’s mom and sister will attend Friday’s game. Dad’s eyes are always on his son’s career.

“I’m so proud of him, to see how much he’s done,” Donny said. “When you’re a dad and your son is doing well and working in the same profession, it’s kind of a cool deal.”

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