May 11, 2016
ANN ARBOR — His two cell phones buzz often and those two large Tupperware boxes on his desk are still filled to the brim. It’s a good thing Billy Donlon’s new office chair swivels.
“I am nowhere near settled,” he said.
So much has changed for Donlon in the past two months. Fired as Wright State head coach in mid-March, the 39-year-old briefly walked in basketball’s man-eat-man job market before being hired as an assistant by Michigan head coach John Beilein last week.
Sitting in his office at U-M on Tuesday, Donlon embraced a moment of normalcy, saying, “There will be some adjustments, which are 100 percent my responsibility, but this is great.”
That may be the case, but it’s also all so new. Six years ago, Donlon was one of the youngest head coaches in Division I basketball at age 33. He was promoted to replace his old boss, current Clemson coach Brad Brownell, and took over a Wright State program that he’d worked at from 2006 through 2010.
Prior to that, Donlon worked for Brownell at UNC Wilmington, his alma mater, from 2001 to 2006.
Essentially, for 15 years, routine and regularity held sway.
That’s gone. Donlon is the new guy now. Last weekend, he left Ann Arbor on Friday night, packed his house in Ohio on Saturday, and returned to Ann Arbor on Sunday. He was back at work on Monday because, for the first time in a long time, Donlon has a head coach to answer to.
Beilein is the boss. Donlon is the assistant.
“I think it’ll be a little rough on him at first, to be honest,” said JT Yoto, Wright State’s top senior last season. “He’s so passionate and he likes calling the shots, but he’ll adapt.”
Like many who are at some time able to snag a coveted Division I head-coaching job, Donlon is sliding back over one seat on the bench. For as gratifying as it is to go from assistant to head coach, it can be equally humbling to go from the head position to an assistant. You’re no longer the face of the program. You no longer have the loudest voice. You no longer delegate duties.
In deciding his next step after being controversially let go at Wright State, Donlon had to decide whether the step back was something he could handle.
There were options. Before entering serious conversations with Beilein, Donlon looked around. There available head-coaching situations and other college opportunities, plus some NBA options.
But Michigan made sense. Donlon has known Beilein since the late 1990s. Back then, he played point guard at UNC Wilmington while Beilein coached at Richmond, a rival CAA program. Later, Donlon played overseas with Greg Stevenson, a former player for Beilein at Richmond, and stayed connected. When Donlon returned stateside, climbing from assistant coaching posts at American, St. Peter’s and UNC Wilmington, he and Beilein had conversations about a non-coaching staff positions at West Virginia. It didn’t work out, but the two stayed in contact.
The pieces fit this time. Beilein was among the first people to text message Donlon after news of his firing — a startling move that came after Wright State won over 20 games for the third time in four years and went 13-5 in the Horizon League.
“We weren’t that close, but it meant a lot to hear from him,” Donlon said of Beilein. “That’s just the type of person he is.”
Michigan lost two assistant coaches this offseason. LaVall Jordan scored the head gig at Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Bacari Alexander landed at Detroit Mercy. Donlon reached out to Beilein amid the staff restructuring and, once Alexander landed the UDM gig, talks turned serious.
Donlon put aside any reservations about returning to an assistant coaching role.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am because it’s Michigan and it’s coach Beilein,” he said Tuesday. “Whatever he wants me to do, I’m going to do and I’m going to do it with incredible enthusiasm and passion.”
Donlon was previously an assistant for 10 years. Most of the time was spent under Brownell, who called Beilein to recommend his former protégé.
“Billy will be outstanding,” Brownell said by phone Tuesday. “He knows the game. He knows how to teach and coach. I’m sure he will bring some ideas that might be some different thoughts for John and he’ll be committed to the program.”
Many of those attributes come from being a coach’s son. Bill Donlon Sr. was a longtime high school coach before working as an assistant at Providence (1982-87) and Northwestern (1987-94). He was working as dean of students at Lake Forest High School in Chicago in 2012 when his son hired him as director of basketball operations at Wright State.
Bill Donlon Sr. was among the staff members dismissed when Billy Donlon was fired. While dad retired, the younger Donlon has been left trying to land jobs for his ex-assistants. Two have landed jobs. One is unemployed.
“There’s been a lot of pressure,” Billy Donlon said of the last two months.
Those who know Donlon touch on three attributes: scouting, player development and defensive prowess.
At Wright State, Donlon primarily played a true pack line defense (a variation of man-to-man), while showing some 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones over the years. His team ranked in the top three in defensive efficiency in five of six years in the Horizon.
Over the last three seasons, Michigan has ranked 9th, 11th and 10th in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency.
“He has a great basketball mind in general, but the way he coaches defenses — that’s kind of his thing,” said AJ Pacher, a Wright State center during Donlon’s first four seasons. “He did a lot of film, and a lot scouting, and he’d implement a lot of against specific teams in specific games.”
As former players, Yoto and Pacher were each recruited and developed by Donlon. Both recall working out with different position groups on any given day to expand their skill sets. At 6-foot-6, Yoto ended up starting at all five positions over the course of his four years.
“He makes big guys work on ballhandling and makes bigger guards work on posting up,” Yoto said.
Brownell believes Donlon’s skill-development talents result from “his own development as a player.” As a player at UNC Wilmington, Donlon scraped his way through 118 games and finished his career as the school’s all-time assists leader.
“He was a self-made player,” said Brownell, a UNC Wilmington assistant at the time. “He wasn’t a tremendous athlete, but he worked at his craft.”
Pacher was a 6-foot-10 shooter when he arrived at Wright State in 2010. He finished as an all-league post player.
“When I came out of high school, I was very raw player,” said Pacher, now a pro player in Italy. “I was a good shooter, but I needed to learn the five. He taught me everything I know inside. I owe him everything.”
Which is why Pacher and others are still flustered over Donlon’s firing. According to numerous reports, the move stemmed from a soured relationship between he and Wright State athletic director Bob Grant.
“We were shocked and a lot of us were mad,” Yoto said. “It didn’t affect me because I’m graduating, but I really upset me to see him go. And the underclassmen are still a little bit salty about it.”
While that may be, there are no whiffs of bitterness or resentment around Donlon. He calls being hired at Michigan “a new life” and when asked about future head-coaching opportunities, he pivots to the here and now.
“You know, today is Andrew Dakich’s birthday,” he said of the U-M walk-on. “Let’s celebrate that.”
As Tuesday afternoon wrapped up, Donlon declined to answer if he’ll serve as a sort of pseudo-defensive coordinator at Michigan.
The assistant coach didn’t want to break chain of command.
At ease, Donlon noted, “That’s a better question for coach Beilein. I defer to him.”
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