Emotional return for D’Antoni

CHIP ELLIS | Saturday Gazette-Mail
New basketball coach Dan D’Antoni became very emotional, saying that coming back to Marshall is the culmination of a lifelong dream.

HUNTINGTON — At one point in his reintroduction to Marshall basketball, Dan D’Antoni’s boundless energy gave way to barely restrained emotion.

“There’s a special group that’s not with us anymore, that I date back to,” said D’Antoni, introduced Friday as the new coach of the Thundering Herd. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about it. But I know they’d be smiling if they heard, ‘Bring on the Herd.’ ”

That was the crowd’s opening cheer in the era of the D’Antoni brothers at the old Memorial Field House, and it could be extremely loud.

D’Antoni continued his nostalgia trip: “There was a guy named Ray ‘Doc’ Hagley, and his wife, Shirley, who started the Big Green Club. They were just another parent for me while I was here.

“His dream, his dream was for me to coach the Herd. [Long pause] And he always said, ‘Danny, you’re going to be the head coach of the Herd.’ Well, here I am, Doc, I’m finally here!”

By that point, his voice was nearly squeaking and he was moved to tears. The reason: Some time after that prophetic statement, the Hagleys were on the ill-fated flight carrying most members of the 1970 football team and other boosters.

D’Antoni had started his coaching career on the bench as an MU assistant, as his younger brother Mike ran the point. That 1970-71 team had an overwhelming task, as players had to overcome their emotions and provide entertainment for a grieving community. As a much-welcomed bonus, that team laid a foundation for its 23-4 campaign of 1971-72.

Fast-forward 42 years, as D’Antoni accepted his kelly green blazer as the Herd’s 28th head coach, the 14th since his last playing season of 1968-69. A roomful of his friends, family and contemporaries in the MU community, plus Herd football legend Chad Pennington, welcomed him warmly.

D’Antoni was as comfortable telling stories about playing Scrabble with roommate George Stone as he was talking about his vision for Marshall basketball and addressing criticism of his unconventional hiring.

He is coming to MU after nine seasons as an NBA assistant coach, which followed 30 seasons in the high school ranks in South Carolina. That this is his first head job at the college level brings out all kinds of questions.

The biggest one, put to any head coach with any background: Can he recruit?

He founded the prestigious Beach Ball Classic in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and he had to recruit big-time schools to play in it. He also ran an AAU team that included Raymond Felton at one point.

And there is this: “I just came from the L.A. Lakers. [Draws much laughter] If you can’t recruit, you don’t go to the NBA. Free agency is a big recruiting issue.”

Can he relate to today’s college players?

“That one really mystifies me,” he said. “First of all, I have a 16-year-old daughter, and she’ll tell you I communicate real clearly with her.

“The other thing is, when I went to the NBA they said, ‘You’re not going to be able to relate to the older veterans here. So we’re going to put you with the young players and let you develop them.’ So I don’t know which way to go — I can’t talk to young people, I can’t talk to old people; I don’t know where I am.

“But I do think Just call one of my players I worked with and see if I speak their language. And I think, to a man, they will all tell you that I helped them in their career as NBA players.”

Can he coach in the Division I college game, with all the nuances?

He does get to hire a staff, and promises one “wisened” in the college game. He’ll bring his ideas, though, and he’ll almost certainly bring a faster style. The history, both in his playing and coaching career, almost guarantees it.

Look for the Herd to press often and run hard, when the personnel is there.

“I like the fact that they put 94 feet out there, and we’re going to guard every inch of it,” D’Antoni said. “And we’re going to make them fight for the ground all the way to their basket. And then when we get them to turn it over or they take a tough shot, we’re going to put it back in the other basket as quick as we can.

“And I think it makes for an entertaining style.”

Will he accept the cut in pay? NBA assistants get paid well, too.

“I don’t need money; I’m fine,” he said. “I don’t need the check, I’m not looking to see what kind of contract I’m getting. I don’t need to know what it is. I have no clue.

“I’m probably the only guy who has negotiated a contract with my brother.”

If you’re wondering, he hasn’t signed a contract yet. Not that he’s worried about it.

Is he too old at 67, er, 66?

He looks too young to be offering that correction.

“I spent four days with Mike and Danny in L.A.,” Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said. “I was at every meeting, every practice, every game. I watched how they ran the basketball program, and the more I watched this guy work with some of those young players, the more I sat in on film sessions and meetings, I saw the energy that this person had, I said, ‘Wow!’ ”

Later, Hamrick confessed, “I’ve been with him since 7:30 this morning, and he’s worn me out. As soon as this press conference is over, I’m going home and taking a nap.”

You can bet D’Antoni stayed awake, as he began doing something he wanted to do four-plus decades ago.

Bringing on the Herd.

Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, dougsmock@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.

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