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Davidson basketball: ‘Underrated’ for a quarter of a century

By Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.
1108colsorensen_3
JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
Bob McKillop will begin his 25th season as Davidson basketball coach.

More Information

  • Davidson basketball: ‘Underrated’ for a quarter of a century
  • Bob McKillop File

    PERSONAL

    Born: July 13, 1950

    Birthplace: Queens, N.Y.

    Wife: Cathy

    Children: Kerrin, Matt and Brendan

    Grandchildren: Maggie and Claire

    Alma Mater: Hofstra ’72

    Degree: History

    PLAYING CAREER

    • 1968-69: East Carolina

    • 1970-72: Hofsta

    • 1972: Signed as free agent with NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers but did not make the team.

    COACHING HIGHLIGHTS

    • All-time winningest coach in Davidson and Southern Conference history with 452

    victories and 263 league wins.

    • Graduated 78 of 78 seniors

    • Davidson has a perfect APR (academic progress rate) score of 1,000 each year since the NCAA began tracking it

    in 2003.

    • 2008 NABC National Coach of the Year

    • 2008 Coach Clair Bee Award

    • Nine-time Southern Conference Coach of the Year

    • Postseason appearances: NCAA tournament – 1998, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2013. NIT – 1994, 1996, 2005, 2009. CBI - 2011


  • Most seasons with current Division I school

    38Jim BoeheimSyracuse1976-2013
    34Mike KrzyzewskiDuke1980-2013
    30Greg KampeOakland (Mich.)1984-2013
    28Rick BrydBelmont (Tenn.)1986-2013
    28Fang MitchellCoppin State1986-2013
    25Bob McKillopDavidson 1989-2013
    25Gregg NibertPresbyterian1989-2013
    24Dave LoosAustin Peay1990-2013
    23Ron CottrellHouston Baptist1991-2013
    19Tom IzzoMichigan State1995-2013
    19Phil Martelli Saint Joseph’s1995-2013
    19Fran O’HanlonLafayette1995-2013
    19Scott NagySouth Dakota State1995-2013


DAVIDSON Bob McKillop will begin his 25th season as basketball coach at Davidson on Friday night when his Wildcats play at Duke.

Most of those seasons McKillop, 63, works outside the spotlight, which is unfortunate because he loves the spotlight and looks good in it. If a white hair on his head is out of place, he probably makes it run a lap. One of the biggest surprises at a Davidson practice in Belk Arena last week was that McKillop didn’t wear a suit.

Older son Matt McKillop, who played for his father and is an assistant coach on his staff, says the senior McKillop tucks in his Davidson basketball shirt when he cuts the lawn and looks clean and neat when he works out.

McKillop says his son is exaggerating. Then he adds: “I’ve always believed sloppiness is a disease. Your desk, your appearance, your dress, the handwriting on the notes you send – neatness is contagious. And I think it’s a sign of respect.”

McKillop asks for five minutes after practice to change. Four minutes later he appears. Gone is the red Davidson T-shirt. He wears a sports jacket and crisp white shirt and looks as if he worked with a team of stylists, one of whom carried a wind machine.

You spent more than two hours running the court and running your team through a series of precise drills. You talk constantly, criticize and praise, always in bursts, never lecturing and never slowing practice down.

And you’re not even sweating.

“I showered before practice,” McKillop says.

Fan appreciation

After Davidson’s annual red-black intrasquad scrimmage, McKillop holds a news conference. Asking questions are real people, not reporters. Some fans appear to be in their 70s; some are not yet 10. Every player answers several questions.

But the master of ceremonies, and the holder of the microphone, is McKillop. This is his show.

After going 4-24, 10-19 and 11-17 his first three seasons, his Wildcats have posted only one sub-.500 record.

He’s gone to the NCAA tournament six times and in 2008, with the team that featured current Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, Davidson came within a jump shot of beating eventual champion Kansas and advancing to the Final Four.

When the news conference ends, McKillop and his players sign autographs.

I tell him the news conference is a great way to reduce the barrier between the team and the fans.

“There is no barrier,” McKillop says.

Joseph Pearlman was in his hospital room in late August when his phone rang.

“I was having a stent put in a blocked cardiac artery,” says Pearlman, a Davidson graduate and basketball regular. “He (McKillop) called me. He didn’t identify himself. He said he was busy and didn’t have time to be sitting Shiva (a Jewish term for visiting relatives of the recently deceased.)

“It cracked me up,” says Pearlman. “But at the same time I felt gratified that he took time to call me, not exactly a big-money booster. It shows the kind of man he is. After I figured out who it was he told me about the team’s August trip to Italy.

“He was appalled when he saw that another (U.S. college) team had eaten at a McDonald’s over there. Bob would never allow his team to do that. He wants his players to take advantage of cultural opportunities, to grow intellectually and spiritually as well as athletically.”

Widespread respect

John Kilgo, the longtime journalist who on Friday begins his 14th season as Davidson’s radio play-by-play analyst, says McKillop wouldn’t alter a practice if legendary coaches John Wooden, Dean Smith and Mike Krzyewski were watching from courtside.

When McKillop walks into Cameron Indoor Stadium Friday, he will not accept that he is the lesser coach or Davidson is the lesser team.

I say this all the time,” says Duke’s Krzyzewski. “Bob is one of the best coaches in college basketball.”

I tell McKillop he and Krzyzewski must have a great relationship.

“We never beat him is the reason we have a great relationship,” says McKillop.

McKillop is 0-17 against the Blue Devils. Why not ease into the season?

“I like the idea of being challenged,” he says. “Whether it’s the first game of the season or the third game or in the middle of the year, I don’t know if it makes any difference. Duke is just a breathtaking environment. You can either accept it as a challenge or run from it.

“It goes back to your neighborhood. You didn’t go to the local park that had no action. You wanted to be pushed and challenged. This is a little bit of New York speaking. The park teaches life lessons. You have to fight to stay on the court.”

Prospect Park is in a working-class neighborhood on Long Island. McKillop and his best friend Kevin Joyce, a fellow guard and a former South Carolina star, would each dribble a ball to the park from their houses. Sometimes a tall and talented sixth-grader would show up.

The kid was Matt Doherty, who would win a national championship as a player at North Carolina and later coach there.

Doherty was the first freshman to make McKillop’s varsity at Long Island Holy Trinity High and eventually was an assistant under McKillop at Davidson. Doherty talks about the games he played at Prospect Park.

“He’s dreaming if he says he played with us,” says McKillop. “We let him shoot between games. Then we’d send him to the deli.”

Doherty, now a scout for the Indianapolis Pacers, lives in Mooresville. He had breakfast with McKillop last week.

“I think only coaches realize what a good coach Bob is,” says Doherty. “I don’t think people realize how hard it is to get a kid into Davidson. It’s equivalent to an Ivy League school, but is not in the Ivy League. And here they are (in ‘08) within a shot of the Final Four. He’s evolved from a very good high school coach to a great college coach, and that’s not easy.”

Coaching education

McKillop’s resume: cut from Chaminade of the New York City high school Catholic league in ninth, 10th and 11th grades; makes varsity as senior; receives scholarship to East Carolina; transfers to Hofstra and becomes a star (although McKillop denies it); tries out for Philadelphia 76ers but is cut two days before first exhibition; coaches basketball and teaches history at Holy Trinity High six seasons; accepts job as assistant coach under Eddie Biedenbach at Davidson in 1978.

Also on the staff are Jeff Bzdelik, now the coach at Wake Forest, and Rick Barnes, who became head coach at Clemson and is now at Texas.

Texas and Davidson play a scrimmage behind closed doors every season in Austin, Texas., including this one. Barnes sits courtside at a Davidson practice last week, taking notes on a legal-sized yellow pad. He’s on his way back from seeing family in Hickory, where he grew up.

“I think he’s the best coach in North Carolina,” Barnes says of McKillop.

I tell Barnes the tape recorder is whirring.

“I’ve said all along I think he’s one of the best coaches in the country,” says Barnes. “I think he’s the most underrated coach in North Carolina. There is no question he’s one of the most underrated, and as we know this state has produced some great coaches. I think that in the history of this state, Bob McKillop is the most underrated coach every year.”

McKillop and Barnes laugh about the old days. When McKillop returned late from a recruiting trip, he’d pull into the driveway of the house Barnes rented, honk his horn and flash his bright lights. Whatever Barnes had been doing, he probably wasn’t doing anymore.

It’s tough to imagine the dignified and urbane McKillop engaging in such a kid-like practice. But when he did, every hair undoubtedly was in place.

After a year as an assistant, McKillop left to become basketball coach and assistant headmaster at Long Island Lutheran, where he doubled his salary to $34,000. He also became a scout for the NBA’s Utah Jazz. And then he became interim headmaster.

That had to be an education.

And then the school ran out of money.

“In my third or fourth year there the school was ready to close its doors because of financial problems,” McKillop says. “And three weeks after I started we didn’t have the money to pay the faculty. And these were all private school Christian educators, and they lived by their paycheck to pay their gas, their food, their bills. And I had to walk into a staff meeting on a Friday afternoon and tell them they weren’t getting paid for the last two weeks of work.

“You talk about getting educated. Then we started raising money. I was the first to give (offer his own money). And I learned a great lesson. I learned that when you give it’s a lot easier to ask others to give.

“We got through it, we raised money, I got a lot of support from Lutheran pastors and the school is now thriving.”

Rock bottom

McKillop lost more games in his first three seasons at Davidson than in the 17 years he coached high school basketball. The lowest moment came March 5, 1992, in his third season. Davidson, which was about to re-join the Southern Conference, had lost to Campbell in the Big South Conference tournament in Anderson, S.C.

The game was in the afternoon and McKillop attended an alumni function.

“Six people showed up and those six people are still friends of mine,” he says. “I thought I was at a wake at a funeral home, and I could have been the one in the casket.

“I have (wife) Cathy and (daughter) Kerrin and (sons) Matt and Brendan. And that night I have to go recruiting at maybe Anderson Junior College. And its pouring rain and I drop the kids and Cathy off at this Godforsaken hotel in the middle of nowhere in the dark of night and leave to go watch this game.

“And as I walk up the steps and there’s this college coach. And he said to me, ‘How’d you guys do today?’ and I said, ‘We lost.’ And he said, ‘And you guys are going into the Southern Conference next year? Man, they have athletes in the Southern Conference. You’d better be saying your prayers.’ “

As McKillop drove back to the hotel – the player he recruited didn’t go to Davidson – the windshield wipers are tapping out a beat and he’s gazing through them thinking, “What am I doing here? That was – phoomph – the bottom.”

It was until a friend called and began humming the theme to the Campbell’s Soup commercial.

Remember the evening?

“It was the low point,” says Cathy McKillop. “I will never forget that moment.”

Were you ready to give up?

“Nope,” she says. “I believed in him. I knew he was confident and capable and could make things happen.”

Mentality change

Bob McKillop would come home on game day at 4 p.m., hide in his office and go over details large and small. Outside Matt would shoot in the driveway. McKillop could hear the ball come off the rim and bounce off the surface. But he couldn’t join his son. He had to get everything right.

“I was tight as a drum when I walked into the locker room door,” says McKillop. “I was tight with my players and neglecting my family. Then all of a sudden I began to trust myself and not get uptight.

“So I’d come home at 4 and play with my son and get to the gym a little earlier and sit in the training room and ask the guys how their families were. And they’d say, ‘Man, he’s really relaxed today, what happened?’ And all of a sudden they’d play relaxed.

“It’s an incredible dynamic that occurred simply because of a change of attitude where I took the focus off me and put the focus on the program. And that was the arrogant, abrasive New Yorker that had to be eradicated. I had to be brought to my knees.”

The next season, 1992-93, the Wildcats went 14-14, and the season after that they went 22-8. McKillop credits Matt Matheny, now the coach at Elon, who worked for McKillop 16 years. A walk-on point guard, Matheny didn’t start. But he roomed with starting center Detlef Musch.

Matheny’s role was to praise Musch when he was good and lift him when he was not. Matheny embraced it.

Matheny, who was a captain, graduated from Davidson in 1992 and became an assistant coach at Davidson in 1993. That was the 22-victory season, the first winning season under McKillop.

Matheny told McKillop that Davidson won because he coached.

McKillop told Matheny that Davidson won because Matheny no longer played.

The next challenge

In Nov. 2014 the Wildcats will leave the Southern Conference, which was theirs, and join the Atlantic 10, which might not be. The much more competitive A-10 sent five teams to the NCAA tournament last season.

“I really believe it is a home run in terms of national exposure, admissions, recruiting,” says McKillop. “It’s that park mentality. To make yourself as good as you can be, the competition has to become better.

“The temptation will be to take more risks (with recruits). But what’s that saying? You dance with the girl you came with. It’s a different dance, and the music is a little faster, but we’ll stay similar to what we’ve done.”

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