HUNTINGTON — As John Mallett caught passes from Dan D’Antoni during Marshall men’s basketball practice 45 years ago, even then he had a feeling that D’Antoni’s relationship with the Thundering Herd would extend beyond his playing days.
“I always thought in the back of my mind that, sometime, Danny would be the head basketball coach at Marshall,” Mallett said Thursday afternoon.
A few decades — and stops in the high school and NBA ranks — later, Mallett’s hunch proved right.
Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick announced Thursday that D’Antoni — an MU Hall of Fame point guard and an assistant on younger brother Mike D’Antoni’s Los Angeles Lakers staff — would take over as the Thundering Herd’s basketball coach. He replaces Tom Herrion, who resigned March 14 after four seasons and a 67-67 record.
Marshall has scheduled a 2 p.m. press conference today to introduce D’Antoni.
Dan D’Antoni wasn’t the only member of the family involved in Marshall’s coaching search, but ultimately became Hamrick’s choice. The Charleston Daily Mail reported Tuesday night that Mike D’Antoni’s contractual obligations with the Lakers — he has one year left on a deal paying him $4 million next season — knocked him out of the running. On the search’s 40th day, he informed Hamrick he wasn’t in a position to return to his alma mater.
Dan D’Antoni was ready, and when his older sister Kathy talked to him after he was hired, she could tell how ready he was.
“He saw my name (on the phone) and he said, ‘Bring on the Herd,’” said Kathy D’Antoni, an associate superintendent with the state Department of Education. “He’s already watched a lot of the film that Marshall has. He’s looked at music for warm-ups before games. He takes it down to every level and makes it fun for the fans and the players.”
Dan D’Antoni, a 1990 inductee into the Marshall Athletics Hall of Fame, led the Herd with 17.5 points per game in the 1968-69 season and is one of 49 1,000-point scorers in program history, finishing with 1,109. He played for Marshall in both the 1967 and 1968 NITs, helped the Herd reach the 1967 NIT semifinals and led that tournament in assists.
D’Antoni has worked since 2005 as an assistant to his younger brother Mike with the Phoenix Suns (2005-08), New York Knicks (2008-12) and Los Angeles Lakers (2012-14). While this is his first foray into college basketball as a head coach — he spent 1970-71 as a Herd assistant — he spent 30 years as the head coach of Socastee High School in Myrtle Beach, S.C. He won more than 500 games at Socastee and founded the Beach Ball Classic high school basketball tournament.
The Mullens native is the son of Lewis D’Antoni, who won 450 games as a high school coach in West Virginia and Ohio and is a member of the West Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
That combination of talent and lineage is why Mallett — Dan D’Antoni’s former college roommate and fraternity brother in Sigma Phi Epsilon — feels his old teammate can thrive as Marshall’s new head coach.
“You watch TV and you always hear them talk about coaches’ sons,” said Mallett, who spent 28 years as a teacher and assistant coach at Wheeling Park High School. “His headiness, he was a very heady player, played very good defense and ran the show. There’s no doubt who was running the show.”
Dan D’Antoni will try to pull the Herd basketball program out of a dire spot. Marshall lost 41 games over the past two seasons, a program worst. It’s 22 losses last year tied Dwight Freeman’s 1991-92 team and Ron Jirsa’s 2004-05 team for the most losses in a single season.
There’s also a chance he’ll walk into the job as Marshall’s top player from last season is walking out. Kareem Canty, a Conference USA all-freshman team and all-conference third-team choice last season, has been granted a release from his scholarship, already visited Auburn and is scheduled to visit the University of South Florida.
Kathy D’Antoni said her brother has never backed away from a challenge. It was an attitude he owned growing up in Mullens when his growth spurt came later than the other boys in town.
“That fight has always been in him,” she said. “He, in his mind, would go out there and work and work until he could find a way to beat you. And he did.”
Those quoted in Marshall’s news release all lauded Dan D’Antoni’s abilities in player development, with a number of NBA players mentioning how invaluable his instruction was.
“Dan coached me for two years in New York and taught me a lot about the game of basketball,” said Golden State Warriors forward and two-time NBA All-Star David Lee. “He made me a better person and a leader. He has the experience, knowledge and integrity to create a winning atmosphere and develop players on and off the court.”
Two sitting Division I head coaches, Stephen F. Austin’s Brad Underwood and Eastern Kentucky’s Jeff Neubauer, interviewed and were considered finalists for the Marshall job. Underwood reportedly withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday, while Neubauer reportedly told his players Thursday he wasn’t taking the job.
Huntington Prep coach Rob Fulford, himself a Marshall graduate and Mullens native, said Dan D’Antoni’s hire provides a spark in town that many of the other candidates wouldn’t have.
“Danny played here,” said Fulford. “He’s from here. You need ties to it. It’s not an easy job and not an easy place to get players to. A coach like him can sell it a lot better than someone without ties to the school. These are exciting times for Marshall.”
Fulford added that, “my main focus is on Huntington Prep, but as a Marshall grad, I would certainly listen,” if Dan D’Antoni contacted him about a potential assistant’s job.
The excitement at Marshall is shared by Dan D’Antoni and the rest of the family, Kathy D’Antoni said. As prosperous as his playing days were, he relishes the chance to make his coaching days the same.
“The D’Antoni family bleeds green,” she said. “Always has, always will. For Danny to be able to come back home where he was so successful is just fantastic.”
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.