Scott Fowler

Davidson basketball: Bob McKillop’s masterpiece

It’s been a sweet season for Davidson coach Bob McKillop, reacting here during the Wildcats dominant victory over VCU last week.
It’s been a sweet season for Davidson coach Bob McKillop, reacting here during the Wildcats dominant victory over VCU last week. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

In 26 years at Davidson College, head basketball coach Bob McKillop has won 495 games, made the NCAA tournament seven times and shepherded a small, lightly recruited Charlottean on a path toward NBA stardom.

But the team McKillop has constructed this season may be his greatest masterpiece of all.

Picked to finish 12th in its first year in the Atlantic 10, Davidson instead shocked even its most diehard fans by finishing first.

“I’m shocked, too,” McKillop said this week as we talked in his office – which is so close to his house across the street from Davidson’s campus that he frequently walks to work. “I’m shocked by the consistency of success the players have had.”

McKillop returns home to his native New York this weekend for Davidson’s first A-10 tournament. Seeded No. 1, Davidson plays a quarterfinal game Friday at noon in Brooklyn. The Wildcats would need to win that game and two more to add the A-10 tournament title to their regular-season championship.

But even if they lose early in the tournament, most college basketball experts believe the Wildcats (23-6) have already had a good enough season to make the 68-team NCAA field when it is announced Sunday. They do not have a Stephen Curry this time around. But they do have three guards who can score and a coach considered by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and many others in the field to be one of the best in the game – even though McKillop never left tiny Davidson for greener pastures.

“People say, ‘Well, the grass looks greener over there,’” McKillop said. “Well, you get over there and you know what you see? Crabgrass.”

McKillop’s New York accent has softened after 26 years in North Carolina, but it’s never entirely gone. He still greets people with a “How ya doin’?”

New York’s influence on McKillop was seminal. His father was a city cop in Queens. McKillop grew up in both Queens and Long Island and graduated from Hofstra (having transferred back home from East Carolina because he got homesick).

Once McKillop dreamed of being a U.S. senator from New York. And although that dream faded, the coach still looks the part with his dark suits and a full of white, perfectly coiffed hair.

As a kid, McKillop went to games at Madison Square Garden and to musicals on Broadway. One of his favorites was “Camelot,” a term he now uses to describe what he found at Davidson.

McKillop’s most famous player ever was Curry, who is a serious candidate for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player this season with Golden State and who led Davidson to the Elite Eight in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

“Coach McKillop did a great job of just instilling confidence in me and a belief that I could be great from Day One,” Curry said this week. “He challenged me like I had probably never been challenged before. He helps you on and off the court. That’s why I think our group is so tight as we venture off into the world outside of Davidson. We still have that bond and that shared belief that if you do things the right way, things will work out for you.”

Letting go of the controls

Many times these days, college basketball slows to a crawl. Games with scores in the 50s and 60s are common.

Davidson doesn’t play like that. The Wildcats score 80.6 points a game – fourth highest in the country out of 351 teams. McKillop tells his players what he wants them to do in practice and then purposely tries not to micromanage in games. Davidson’s offense is a whirlwind of screens, cuts, handoffs and three-pointers (Davidson makes 10.9 three-pointers per game, second-best in America).

“Davidson is one of the great stories in the game, and it has really been undervalued,” said Jay Bilas, the ESPN announcer and former Duke player who lives in Charlotte. “Basketball right now is insanely over-coached. Bob teaches his team how to play, and then he lets them play. Davidson is well-taught, but not over-coached. And I would not want to guard that offense.”

McKillop, 64, brims with intensity. But he has learned how to let go.

He was a high school coach for 16 years in New York before he became a head college coach, making that leap in 1989. During his final high school job at Long Island Lutheran in New York, he attempted to control everything for 10 years, he said.

“I was a joysticker,” McKillop said. “I tried to control every movement of every player like I had a joystick for all of them. I came to Davidson with that same belief, and it didn’t work. There was this arrogance. You think you have the magical potion, the play that looks great on a piece of paper. But then when it comes to the actual execution and the other team can stop it because they may be better, or at least better prepared. So what do you do? You’re stuck.”

Principles, not plays

Actually, you’re not stuck if your players change things up on the fly. McKillop figured that out at some point after going 4-24, 10-19 and 11-17 in his first three Davidson seasons.

“Principles, not plays,” said sophomore guard Jack Gibbs, one of the three Davidson guards who combine to average 46 points per game and co-captain the team. “That’s what we do, because that makes it a lot harder to guard.”

So Davidson players – especially Gibbs, Brian Sullivan and Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Tyler Kalinoski – make decisions based on what they see. They freelance inside McKillop’s system. McKillop establishes the principles and then lets the players decide how best to play with them. It has worked just as well in the A-10 this season as it did against smaller, less athletic Southern Conference players for decades.

It’s not a free-for-all. The Wildcats do have plays, too, and they run them in late-game situations. It’s also not unprecedented. In 1957, Frank McGuire coached a 32-0 North Carolina team to the national championship. The UNC players from that team swear McGuire only had two in-bounds plays and let them come up with everything else.

But in this day and age, it is very unusual.

“McKillop is not just an absolutely phenomenal teacher,” Bilas said. “He recruits to his system. He gets smart players who can shoot and make quick decisions. He’s getting guys who athletically and size-wise may be at a little bit of a disadvantage in the A-10. Let’s face it: LeBron James is not coming to Davidson. But the guys he gets are really good basketball players and they all play together. It’s very hard to deal with.”

“Coach McKillop has done a terrific job, but that’s nothing new,” said Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart, whose team was the unanimous choice to win the Atlantic 10 in the preseason poll of media members and league coaches. “He’s done a terrific job for years. In terms of Davidson being picked 12th in the preseason, I think that was more a function of them being new to the league and a lot of people really underestimating them.”

McKillop said he borrowed Davidson’s offense from all sorts of places, including two New York high school coaches named Jack Curran and Frank Morris, as well as the Fordham and New York Knick teams of his youth.

“I was able to watch, to observe, to develop, to steal and to craft a few ideas of my own,” McKillop said, “to give my teams a New York mentality.”

’Baby-faced and quiet’

Born in 1950, McKillop went to an all-boys Catholic high school in New York. In his homeroom every year sat a guy named Bill O’Reilly, who would later become a celebrity TV host on Fox News.

“I think what you see today with Bill is what you saw in high school,” McKillop said. “Everyone knew him.”

And what was McKillop like?

“I was the youngest kid in school in my class,” said the coach, who skipped a grade in elementary school and graduated high school at 16. “I was baby-faced and quiet and really felt out of place. I started one game in my high school basketball career. I was cut three times. Didn’t even make the team until my senior year.”

McKillop was a late basketball bloomer who became a star at Hofstra. He was invited to the Philadelphia 76ers training camp but got cut. That team went 9-73, which remains the fewest games won in the NBA’s standard 82-game season.

“So I was cut from the worst team in NBA history,” McKillop likes to joke.

He took a job in 1972 in New York teaching history and coaching high school basketball. McKillop turned out to be good enough at coaching that Davidson hired him as an assistant in 1978. But he stayed for only a year before going back to coach a different New York high school – doubling his salary to $34,000 – for 10 more seasons.

Former Virginia coach Terry Holland was instrumental in hiring McKillop as head coach in 1989. Holland was in the process of becoming Davidson’s athletic director at the time. McKillop by then was married to Cathy, who he gives credit for much of his success.

“Being a coach’s wife isn’t easy,” McKillop said. “Without her, this would never have happened.”

The McKillops have three children, all of whom went to Davidson. Their two sons, Matt and Brendan, both played basketball for their father and Matt is now an assistant coach at Davidson.

Confidence and humility

McKillop knows that this isn’t Davidson’s first run at major basketball success. Lefty Driesell had a top 10 team at Davidson in the late 1960s. McKillop has kept a copy of a 1968 Sports Illustrated in his office for the last 20 years that featured former Davidson star Mike Maloy on the cover.

“Davidson was in the national rankings, OK?” said McKillop, thumbing through the magazine. His own team is ranked No. 24 this week by the Associated Press – its first ranking since the 2008-09 season when Curry was still playing. “This is a reminder to me that Davidson accomplished excellence well before I got here.”

It is happening again, with McKillop’s masterpiece about to take the stage in New York. He has tried to prepare his players all season for this moment, including with a speech he gave them in January.

“In January, we met in our film room,” McKillop said. “There’s a big floor lamp, and I picked it up and stuck it near a guy’s face and said, ‘That’s a spotlight.’ I left it there for a minute and said, ‘How’s it feel?’ He said, ‘Pretty hot.’

“Then I said, ‘Well, let’s move the spotlight around.’ I waved it around the room. Now it’s not so hot. Everyone’s in the spotlight, for a little bit. I told them that’s what basketball is. And that’s what life is. You need the confidence to hold the spotlight. But you need the humility to spread the spotlight around.”

So where did he get that idea?

“Oh, I stole it from somebody, I’m sure,” McKillop said. “I’m dumb as dirt.”

We all know that’s not true. McKillop was smart enough to find his “Camelot” at Davidson and then to keep his castle there. Now he is about to bring his small-town show back on the road to his big hometown.

“I always likened us to being an off-Broadway production when we were in the Southern Conference,” McKillop said. “And now, finally, we are on Broadway.”

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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