Ron Sanchez, then an assistant men’s basketball coach at Virginia, was in Charlotte several years ago recruiting a Northside Christian player.
Sanchez was told to be at the Knights’ gym at 6 a.m. to see the player work out.
That’s pretty early, Sanchez thought.
When he got there, not only was the player on the court, but he was accompanied by Northside coach Byron Dinkins. Seeing Dinkins there for his player at that hour struck something in Sanchez, who is now the 49ers’ head coach.
“Any guy who gets up that early to give his kids exposure really cares about his players,” Sanchez said recently. “Even though that’s not a part of his job that he has to do.”
That first impression would one day draw Sanchez back to Dinkins.
In March, on Sanchez’s first day as Charlotte’s coach, he called Dinkins, a former 49ers standout who had since gone to Carmel Christian, where he continued his successful high school coaching career. The conversation ebbed and flowed, with Sanchez eventually asking Dinkins if he’d consider joining the 49ers’ staff.
After giving the offer several weeks worth of thought, Dinkins was named the 49ers’ director of player development, a non-coaching position that will nonetheless allow Dinkins to have a significant impact on a program for which he once starred.
“He’s fit in seamlessly,” Sanchez said of Dinkins. “For a lot of different reasons, you could tell he’s the right alum to be here now, at this point in our program. His experience at Charlotte speaks volumes for him coming here.”
For Dinkins, 50, the decision to leave Carmel was a difficult one. After coaching at Northside for four seasons, he’d been at Carmel for four seasons, taking the Cougars to a state championship only weeks before Sanchez’s phone call came.
“It was all about timing,” Dinkins said. “Everything lined up. I believed in what coach Sanchez’s vision is for 49ers basketball. It was a tough decision. But to be able to have a job where I’m coming back home was hard to turn down.”
Dinkins joins a staff that Sanchez is still methodically putting together. Sanchez hired two young assistants – Kotie Kimble and Vic Sfera - relatively quickly. Sanchez brought Dinkins aboard a month later.
But another key hire still needs to be made in a third assistant coach. Sanchez says he is close, and is looking for one that will have more experience at the college level, perhaps a former head coach.
As director of player development, Dinkins will not have any hands-on coaching duties. He will serve as a mentor to Charlotte’s players and a liaison to Sanchez and the assistant coaches. He can break down film and scout opponents. But he won’t be allowed to provide instruction at practice or recruit off campus.
NCAA rules also prohibit the 49ers from recruiting Carmel Christian players for two years. That rule was put in place to prevent schools from hiring high school coaches or parents to non-coaching positions in order to gain a recruiting advantage.
Dinkins also hopes to gain further experience for what he hopes will be a job some day as a college coach, whether it’s at Charlotte or elsewhere.
“I’ll be learning everything from the ground up, inside and out,” Dinkins said. “I didn’t go into this blind. I’m not being impatient about what’s next. It’s about the progression and where it goes.”
Said Sanchez: “This is a transition for Dink, as well. We had a lot of discussions about what’s good for him right now. This really fits him as a person, for what it can do for him professionally. He wants to grow and learn. He’s such a good coach. And he just wants to help us win.”
A sharp-shooting guard and ballhawk, Dinkins finished his career in 1989 as the 49ers’ fourth-leading all-time scorer (he’s now 10th) and had his jersey retired in 1997. A Charlotte native, he played at East Mecklenburg High and came to Charlotte in 1985 to join first-year coach Jeff Mullins, who, like Sanchez today, was hired to rebuild what was then a foundering Charlotte program.
Dinkins did his part. As a junior, he led the 49ers to the 1988 Sun Belt Conference regular-season and tournament championships (and being named MVP of both) and a berth in the NCAA tournament, the first since Charlotte’s Final Four run in 1977.
That began a 17-year stretch of success for the 49ers that included nine more trips to the NCAA tournament under Mullins and two coaches who succeeded him - Melvin Watkins and Bobby Lutz.
But the 49ers have fallen on rough times since 2005, with just one postseason trip (the National Invitation Tournament in 2013) since Lutz was fired in 2010. Alan Major and Mark Price tried and failed to bring them back. Now Sanchez will take his best shot and he hopes having Dinkins on staff can somehow help connect today’s program to the glory years.
“It’s been tough to see,” Dinkins said of the program’s slide. “Tough for a lot of alums, not just me. But knowing coach Sanchez and his vision, how hard he and the staff works, I can see it getting turned around and moving in the direction everyone wants to see. We’ve just got to be patient and trust the process.”
Sanchez said he’s making a priority of reconnecting with former players. There have been efforts made before: There’s an annual alumni game and Major had cookouts for former players. But this feels different, especially with Dinkins on the staff.
“This is great news for the program,” said Mullins. “It’s not something that really happened with (Major and Price). We’ve kind of lost the continuity with the past a little bit. Byron’s a wonderful link. He’s so respected by all the guys he played with and before and after. He’s going to help Ron build a tradition at Charlotte which has been missing.”
Sanchez says that’s the goal.
“I’ve said my intention was to connect the past to the present, and it’s one thing to say it and another to do it,” he said. “This is the first step. Our hopes are that the alumni feel more comfortable coming here. This is their program. I’m just assisting in steering it. I’d tell them, ‘It’s still your uniform. You sweated in it. You wore it. We want you to know it’s your program and you’re a part of it.”
David Scott: @davidscott14