Picking up after a disappointing 12-18 season, a lot is expected of new men's basketball head coach Johnny Dawkins.
Alongside Athletics Director Danny White and university President John C. Hitt, Dawkins addressed fans and media for the first time Thursday morning. High on his to-do list are better utilizing freshman center Tacko Fall and reorganizing the team's coaching staff.
In the next couple weeks, when Dawkins will make the cross-country move from California, where he previously coached the Stanford Cardinal, to Orlando, he hopes to jump right into the process of building a new staff with "different personalities." He'll be focused on getting to know the team he aims to lead to a successful comeback season in 2016-17.
"I want to give all of our players a clean slate. I don't want to come in with any preconceived notion about who they are and how they played in the past," Dawkins said. "What I want to do is get to the gym, work with them, evaluate them from the standpoint of the program offensively and defensively."
From there, he hopes to better utilize Fall, whose recruitment garnered national attention. The Senegal native continued to make headlines with multiple American Athletic Conference honors.
"I've seen Tacko. Tacko is 7-6 and he should be a force around the basket and we need to utilize that," Dawkins said. "Meaning that a lot of times, a team can fall into that trap of becoming so perimeter oriented that you forget about someone who has that presence."
After a weeks-long search for the right candidate to replace former head coach Donnie Jones, White was confident in Dawkins' abilities to turn the Knights around. Jones was fired March 10 after a 65-63 loss to Tulane in the first round of the AAC tournament.
“I’m pretty jacked up, I hope that comes across. UCF basketball is going to be a lot of fun," White said. "I'm not sure there is a better person in basketball with a better character reputation than Johnny Dawkins.
“If you have an opportunity to bring Johnny Dawkins in, that’s a no-brainer,” White said. “We’re going to make it fun. We’re putting a lot of marketing into making it an exciting, vibrant experience in the arena. I want this building to be rocking, and that only happens with the students.”
Dawkins, 52, spent his college career playing for Duke, where White's father, Kevin White, currently serves as director of athletics.
After dismissing Jones, who'd worked with the Knights for six seasons and collected a 100-88 record, White needed someone at the helm with a unique skill set and complete understanding of the game.
While at Duke, Dawkins played under legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski in the early 1980s. After playing in the NBA and before taking his head coaching position at Stanford, Dawkins returned to the Blue Devils as Krzyzewski's right-hand man on the court. Having learned all he could from one of the best college basketball coaches of all time, Dawkins feels prepared to lead the Knights.
"I learned a great deal from Coach K, of course," Dawkins said. "He's a mentor, a friend, and there are things that I'll always take from him is the sheer work ethic that he provided from a coaching perspective, his ability to stay passionate about the game that he's had for a long time. There's not a day that we've come to work when I was an assistant there, and that's the way it was for 11 years, that he was unprepared, so I learned about work ethic and being prepared."
After spending eight years with Stanford, racking up a 156-115 record and leading the Cardinal to the NCAA tournament in 2014 and the NIT championships in 2012 and 2015, Dawkins was fired March 14 following a 15-15 season, according to USA Today.
The 10th pick in the first round of the 1986 Draft, the NBA veteran spent nine years between the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and the Detroit Pistons. He averaged 11.1 points and 5.5 assists per game.
"I want these kids to have the same experience as I did when I was a student-athlete," Dawkins said. "If they can do that and move forward with their lives, then I consider myself a success."
While Hitt spoke of the many educational accomplishments of UCF over the past couple months, Dawkins expressed his desire to find men's basketball's identity.
"You need to have an identity. Every team that I have ever seen be successful has had an unique identity and you can picture and say 'this team does this and this team does that,'" Dawkins said. "The same thing applies for what we want to do. I think our identity has to do two things. One, it has to be on the defensive end of the floor. And two, when you watch us play, I want you to see the heart of our players. I want you to see the guys giving max effort and showing it every night."
With one coaching slot taken care of, White has one more to fill. Just a few days before Jones' dismissal, women's head coach Joi Williams was fired after nine seasons with the team. Regardless of who he's replacing, Dawkins plans on being himself.
"The role changed as an assistant and now head, and I try to follow the same principles to who you have to be," Dawkins said. "He [Krzyzewski] always taught me, he said, 'You can't be someone else. You have to be yourself.' In other words, Coach K as a personality is different from a lot of coaches and mine is different from Coach K's. So you have to be yourself while maintaining those values and those standards you've established."
Evan Abramson is the Sports Editor for the Central Florida Future. You can follow him on Twitter at @Evan_Abramson and email him at EvanA@centralfloridafuture.com.