On March 10, UCF came into the American Athletic Conference tournament as the host team in Orlando at the Amway Center. At approximately 9:15 p.m., the Knights were sent packing. In a demoralizing upset to No.10 seeded Tulane, 65-63, the Knights were eliminated from the post-season.
The team shot 36 percent from the field, surrendering 21 turnovers, and although they only lost by two points, many questioned why they were even in that position to begin with. That game, in many ways, was a microcosm of a season with many ups and downs, a lack of discipline, a lack of leadership and a lack of identity.
Following the tough loss, Athletics Director Danny White made the tough yet “necessary” decision of firing head coach of six seasons Donnie Jones, who compiled a 37-54 record over the last three seasons. With the firing came an opportunity for a new chapter to begin for men’s basketball.
“This is the hardest part of college athletics in my opinion,” White said. “From the athletes perspective, [and] certainly from my perspective; the coaches perspective. But sometimes change is necessary if we want to grow the program where we aspire to be.”
After meeting with the players during spring break about the future of the program and what needed to happen for them to be successful, White found that what the players wanted was to be held accountable by their future coach.
“We started our process meeting with the team as I do with every coaching search; I wanted to hear from them,” White said. “What are our strengths, what are our weaknesses, why are we not achieving the level of success that we all want to see with our basketball program? Some of the characteristics that they were looking for in a new coach … things they talked about [were] defensive principles — emphasis on the defensive side of the floor.
“We talked about accountability, [the] discipline approach being consistent. Talked about a player-coach that played at a high level, a leader by example, someone who’s family oriented, somebody that’s won championship — I don’t know a better way to say it –— that’s coach Dawkins.”
New head coach Johnny Dawkins is widely recognized as Duke’s second-leading all-time scorer with 2,556 points and is a 10-year NBA veteran.
He was a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons and is also known for his time serving as assistant/associate coach under one of the most esteemed head coaches in all of basketball, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, for a solid decade. Following his time under “Coach K,” Dawkins spent the next eight seasons in the Pac-12 as Stanford’s head coach, leading the team to two Sweet 16 appearances (2014) and two NIT championships (2012, 2015).
Dawkins, the 6-foot-2 former Naismith College Player of the Year, believes that he possesses all the intangibles that will make him a hand-to-glove fit with the team and the right man for turning around the UCF basketball program.
“I wasn’t always with a team that started at the top,” Dawkins said. “I was with teams that grew and build to that level [and] that always exited me. And this affords me an opportunity to do those things at a great program that has unlimited potential, in my opinion.”
His philosophy on the offensive end will be focused on ball movement and pushing the tempo, but Dawkins didn’t deny the prospect of centering the offense around the proverbial elephant in the room, freshman Tacko Fall, who possibly stands as the Knights greatest asset.
“We want to make sure that we utilize our strengths,” Dawkins said. “I haven’t watched our personnel as much, but Tacko [Fall] is 7-foot-6, he should be a force around the basket. I think we need to make sure we utilize that. You need to utilize guys with that type of size [and] that type of ability. He’s still a young player developing, but with that will come more confidence. And actually I played with not only Manute Bol at 7-foot-6, but I played with Shawn Bradley at 7-foot-6 as well. So I’m probably the only guy to play with two 7-foot-6 players and now to coach one, so that’s pretty exciting for me.”
Dawkins has a history of getting his teams to utilize their strengths and form an identity, while simultaneously getting them to gel just in time for March.
In 2014, he led his No. 10-seeded Stanford Cardinal team to the tournament, ultimately landing in the Sweet 16 after upsetting the second-seeded Kansas Jayhawks in stunning fashion.
Stanford alumna Chasson Randle, the team’s all-time leader in scoring, was a part of that Stanford team that made that Sweet 16 run in 2014, and he believes that coach Dawkins’ ability to get his teams to commit and respect the game is part of what makes him a great coach.
“Commitment was a big thing,” Randle said. “You had to commit yourself to the game and respect it … he taught me about respecting the game. We wanted to be the toughest team every time we stepped out there. Not necessarily the team trying to beat the other team down physically, but mentally. We committed to each other, committed to the game, and we brought toughness.”
Randle, who currently plays overseas for Nymburk Basketball out of the Czech Republic, believes that Dawkins’ hunger for the game will help him connect and bring out the full potential of his new team.
“They are getting someone who’s super passionate about the game,” Randle said. “I think anytime you have a coach like that, you know he’s going to bring a lot of information to you and be able to help you in ways that you didn’t even imagine. Whether it’s watching film or actually getting out there at his age still showing you some things that you didn’t think a man at his age could do … they’re going to get somebody who’s going to develop them into a spectacular basketball player if they’re willing to put the work in.”
Josh Huestis, Stanford’s former two-time Pac-12 defensive team selectee and current Oklahoma City Thunder forward, added that if you “put the work in,” then coach Dawkins will help expand repertoire on the hardwood.
“When I was coming in, I pretty much just played the five position growing up, and he gave me the opportunity to expand my game and work on things that would help make me a better player,” Huestis said. “He was willing to take that time and do what was best for me, believe in me and help make me a better player.”
Lakers forward Anthony Brown expressed how coach Dawkins is a player’s coach who wants to win on and off the court. Randle, Brown, Powell and Huestis were largely responsible for upsetting Kansas en route to the Sweet 16 in 2014. They were led by coach Dawkins, whose competitive drive, Huestis recalled, was “infectious.”
“They’re [UCF] getting someone who’s played in the NBA and college at the highest level,” Brown said. “He’s definitely going to let the players play, he’s going to let them make mistakes,[and] let them showcase their talents. He’s going to be very due-diligent. He loves paying attention to the details. He’s a great man — he’s one of the nicest guys I’ve met in the coaching business.”
Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell is also eager to see Dawkins take the reins at UCF.
“Coach Dawkins has a contagious love and respect for the game of basketball,” Dallas Mavericks forward Dwight Powell said. “He’s passionate about winning and helping young men grown on and off the court. I'm excited to watch the program at Central Florida grow under his leadership. I think he will do a great job.”
Coming to UCF, giving the players a clean slate, but he also recognizes that for this team to be a contender, they must establish an identity on the offensive and defensive ends of the basketball court.
“In a nutshell, they have to have a few things that are very important for the program. One, they have to have an identity,” Dawkins said. “Every team that I’ve seen be successful has had unique identity. You can picture it, this team does this, this team does that – same thing applies for what we want to do. I think our identity has to be two things; one, I don’t think you can do anything without being a very sound defensive team; two, when you watch us play, I want you to see the heart of our players.”
Christopher Davis is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future.