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Kornacki: Donlon Played Against, Now Coaching Alongside Beilein

May 11, 2016

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May 11, 2016

Billy Donlon
Billy Donlon settling into his new office at Michigan

By Steve Kornacki

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — There is a framed, color photograph located on a shelf behind Billy Donlon‘s desk in his new office at the University of Michigan, where he recently became an assistant men’s basketball coach. It’s of a grandson leaning in with his grandfather at an arena after a big win.

Donlon, the son of a longtime college and high school basketball coach who once worked for Rick Pitino, also is the grandson of Eddie Martin, who played basketball at St. John’s in 1935 and was a longtime New York City detective and bodyguard to the stars.

Today, there is plenty of irony to the joy expressed in that family photo because the team Billy, a scrappy point guard, helped the University of North Carolina-Wilmington beat on that day 18 years ago was the University of Richmond, coached by John Beilein, his new boss.

“That’s my grandfather,” Donlon said, leaning back to gaze at the photo. “He played basketball and baseball at St. John’s, and he played with Frank McGuire.”

McGuire went onto become a Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame coach, winning the 1957 NCAA title with North Carolina after taking St. John’s to the title game five years earlier.

“He did a lot and there are so many things you could write about my grandfather,” said Donlon, “But my favorite thing that I bragged about was that when he was off duty he tried to make a little extra money as a bodyguard.

“Elizabeth Taylor and Alfred Hitchcock would always call and request him. He had a picture with Alfred Hitchcock in the house at their apartment in Sunnyside in Queens, but I’ll never be able to release it because that was one of his wishes. He also had a photo body-guarding Elizabeth Taylor and was an incredible person.”

Hitchcock, known as the “Master of Suspense,” was the producer and director of riveting movies like “Psycho” (1960) and Taylor was the most glamorous starlet of her era, making films such as “Cleopatra” (1963).

“He passed away,” Donlon said of his colorful grandfather. “It’s funny, but that picture was taken on my 21st birthday, Feb. 10, 1998, and we just beat Richmond and Coach Beilein.

“That was not on purpose; I’ve always had that picture in my office from that game in Wilmington.”

Donlon, 39, most recently the head coach at Wright State in Dayton, Ohio, first caught Beilein’s eye as a player.

“I love his passion and IQ for the game,” said Beilein. “He has tremendous experience as a player, assistant and head coach at the Division I level. Improving our defense is a huge goal for us, and defense is one of Billy’s specialties. He is also excellent in skill development, and that has been a key to our success at Michigan. I am excited to have Billy join our staff.”

“It’s jaw-dropping the amount of energy and sincere passion he has every day, and not just for basketball, but for people.”
— Billy Donlon on John Beilein

Donlon said the “humility” and “ethics” displayed by Beilein had always impressed him. Beilein has won 740 games at schools such as Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and Michigan, where he reached the NCAA championship game in 2013.

“As an outsider you have a great respect for his ability as a tactician,” said Donlon. “Everybody always talks about his offense, but I remind them that he was the one who made the 1-3-1 defense a thing again at West Virginia. They made an Elite Eight run with that defense.

“Within three years, 50 people were trying to play the 1-3-1, and that was his renovation. He’s always been an innovator. I thought it was ingenious.”

Donlon explained that Beilein’s team was so difficult to prepare for because they played a defense nobody else did.

Will Donlon coordinate the defense at Michigan since Beilein pointed to Donlon’s skills in that area?

“I’m certainly going to be asked at different times to give him some different ideas defensively,” said Donlon. “But the defensive coordinator part and all of that is really a question more left up to him.”

Donlon’s hiring was announced May 4, and in that short time he’s been able to get a quick insider’s view of Beilein.

“He’s very similar to my father in this sense,” said Donlon. “I’ve never been around somebody … He’s 40 years into his profession and if he had more energy as a 23-year-old … It’s jaw-dropping the amount of energy and sincere passion he has every day, and not just for basketball, but for people.”

Donlon said he believed he will coach point guards and perimeter players, replacing LaVall Jordan, who became the head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Saddi Washington was hired to replace new University of Detroit Mercy coach Bacari Alexander the same day Donlon came aboard, and longtime assistant Jeff Meyer returns.

Beilein once considered Donlon for a position on his West Virginia staff, and Donlon remembered talking basketball with Beilein for more than an hour after job specifics were discussed.

“We’ve always had a great rapport,” said Donlon, “and I’m blessed for that.”

Donlon became an assistant coach at American University right after graduating from UNC-Wilmington in 1999 and then moved onto the coaching staff at Saint Peter’s before playing in Europe and returning as an assistant at his alma mater in 2002, coaching under the man who shaped him most outside of his family.

Brad Brownell, now the head coach at Clemson, coached Donlon at UNC-Wilmington as an assistant and hired him as an assistant in 2002 after becoming head coach. They won two Colonial Athletic Association tournaments and earned a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances together before Brownell was hired by Wright State and took Donlon with him as associate head coach. They won the Horizon League Tournament and got the NCAA bid in 2007, and Donlon replaced Brownell in 2010.

“If you did a poll of coaches around our country,” said Donlon, “and asked who has the most integrity, grace and ethics, Coach Beilein would probably be No. 1. Coach Brownell would not be far behind.

“What an experience I had under Brad, coaching with him for eight years, and in a lot of ways he was one of my closest friends.”

Donlon was 109-94 in six seasons as Wright State’s head coach, reaching the Horizon League Tournament championship games in 2013, 2014 and 2016. His Raiders tied the school record of 23 wins in 2013 and conference wins with 13 in 2016, and his father was his director of basketball operations there.

“I’m a coach’s kid,” said Donlon. “Dad was a high school coach in New York City and Massachusetts and then was an assistant coach at Providence for Joe Mullaney and Coach Pitino. He then coached for Bill Foster at Northwestern.”

Bill Donlon led the recruitment of current Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan to Providence, and they all went to the 1987 Final Four with Pitino’s miracle Friars.

“You’re around the gym all the time as a kid and I’d go to games with my dad,” said Donlon. “My mom had great passion for basketball and my oldest sister, Heather, played at Fordham.”

Heather set the NCAA single-season accuracy mark for three-pointers in 1990 by making 57 percent.

“I hit the lottery because I found something I was passionate about and I get to do it,” said Donlon. “That’s the lottery. A lot of people work a job that they like, but it’s not their passion. This is my passion.”

His late mother, Maryann, reportedly once said of Billy: “He was in the womb blowing the whistle.”

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