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Mike Dunleavy Sr. talks return to coaching & future of Tulane hoops

Mike Dunleavy Sr. is taking over Tulane this season in his first college basketball coaching job after stints coaching several NBA teams, most recently the Los Angeles Clippers. Dunleavy discusses recruiting, how he plans to improve the Green Wave and more.

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With the 2016 college basketball coaching carousel finished, is checking in with all the major hires about their new gigs. These Q&As will be posted periodically throughout the summer. Next up is Mike Dunleavy Sr., who was hired by Tulane on March 28. This is his first college basketball coaching job. He previously coached the Los Angeles Clippers, from 2003 to '10. He replaces Ed Conroy, who was fired on March 14 after six seasons in New Orleans.

Sports Illustrated: You’ve done some radio and some NBATV spots, and you also joked that you were part of an ownership group that tried to buy the Hornets for “about 30 seconds.” What else have you been up to since you stopped coaching?

Mike Dunleavy: A couple things. Unfortunately, I was involved in a lawsuit with Donald Sterling and the Clippers, and that took about 18 months. And then I was with the ownership group that was trying to buy the Pelicans. In the meantime, I was doing the NBATV stuff and the Sirius Radio.

I spent a lot of time with my son Baker, who is the associate head coach up there at Villanova with Jay Wright, meeting their guys. Actually, it was one of the thing things that really inspired me to get into the college ranks. At this time in my life, I love to teach, and I know how to get guys to that next level. The fact is, I think I recognize talent at a very early age as far as who can get into the next level. I figured I would try to help kids out—to give them the best information and direction I could. I wanted to mentor them too.

From the academic side, I’m a big believer in trying to get kids in and give a good education. Again, trying to put all that together and create a program along the model of a Duke or a Villanova. I was looking for that opportunity, and I found it in Tulane. It’s kind of along the same profile—a great campus, great academics, a great basketball facility. We’re of course smaller than them, but we may eventually get good enough to play at the Pelicans’ arena, the Smoothie King Center. We have a place that’s an attractive place to come live. People like to play road games here, because it’s New Orleans and it’s a gift to their fans.

This is a great conference. We play on national TV. Four teams went to the NCAAs. And then we had SMU who sat out the year but was probably the top team in the conference. I had all these boxes, and I just started checking off boxes. I decided this was the spot.

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SI: How much time were you spending at Villanova?

MD: Baker and I speak a lot. I’ve known Jay for close to 15 years. Baker played there, went to Europe for a year, worked on Wall Street, did some Big East TV stuff, then went back there full time. I’ve been spending more time up there since he had his 2-year-old little girl. I’ve been around the program a lot. I know all their kids very well.

Darrun Hilliard last year was a guy I thought would make the NBA. I was making sure that they understood the things at the next level. I told people he’s a first-round pick at the draft last year, and it worked out well for him. He’ll continue to get better.

I was looking into college. I really didn’t understand how this game was played, as far as getting hired. It seems like so many schools are using search firms now. I didn’t really know that. So I made some rounds—in the last year and a half, I met with guys who run these searches, and I let them know I really want to do this. Along the way, I’ve been called on a couple different opportunities, but they weren’t the right places for me. The first thing was, it had to be a place I’d be willing to live for the next 10–15 years, and I passed on some opportunities. Again, I told them to please keep trying.

When this opportunity came up with New Orleans, I was interested. I know it well. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law went to school here a long time ago. The school is a gem as far as I’m concerned. All I needed to know was that the backing would be there from the athletic director, the board and the school. Did they really want this program to do well? When I met with everybody, the answer was yes. [Athletic director] Troy Dannen had just come in, and he’s been great. We’re off to a good start.

We have staff in place. We’re starting to recruit kids for the next couple years. A lot of guys I already knew. I’m in the New York City basketball Hall of Fame. I spent 15 years in Los Angeles. I know people all over the country; I’m just reacquainting myself with guys. When it was legal for NBA teams to draft players out of high school, I got to know a lot of guys well then. I drafted Shaun Livingston out of high school. Most people know who I am.

I had one AAU coach tell me, I bet you don’t remember this, but I went to your Lakers camp back in ’91. He told me he’d been to a lot of camps where the head coach comes in and basically says hello and then gets on a plane to Hawaii the next day, but you were there every day with the kids, working on their shooting. I didn’t remember it, but that’s who I am. I still shoot the ball pretty well, and I think the guys respect that.

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SI: I read that you’d reached out to Tulane through your brother-in-law, Miles Clements. Was he the first point of contact, or was the search firm?

MD: It was a combination of the two. My brother-in-law called me up and said there’s an opening here. And I said, “Great! I’d have interest.” He says, well, I’m going to call the athletic director, which he did. Then I happened to be on a call with [ESPN analyst] Fran Fraschilla. Fran went to my high school—Nazareth High School in Brooklyn. I was talking to him about another job I was interested in. He named a couple schools, and one of them was Tulane. I told him I was definitely interested.

He said, well I know the guy who is running the search firm. He’s a good friend of mine, and you should talk. We hit it off and had a deal done within a week. He and I talked about the situation, the job and my vision. I knew it pretty well already, and he says, Wow, I’m sold. I have to get you in front of the athletic director. So I had a call with Troy, then he flew to New York and met with me in New York during the Big East tournament.

We met and had a great deal, and the process just started moving and got done very quickly.


SI: A lot more coaches tend to make the move from colleges to the pros. Why do you think that is?

MD: The NBA is like graduate school. You play three times the amount of games. I’m not trying to demean anybody, but you’re playing against players on a nightly basis, and typically you’re playing against better coaches. There hasn’t been a lot of success going from the college level to the NBA level, and I think it’s going to get better, but there’s a learning curve.

It’s not because coaches aren’t smart enough to go from the college game to the NBA, there’s just a learning curve of players and systems. Typically, you’re getting hired by a team that’s probably pretty bad. They didn’t win games and you’re not in a great situation. The only thing fans know, generally, are wins and losses, and that’s how they judge you.

Obviously, every situation is different. Billy Donovan got into a situation where anybody could probably print 50–55 wins with that team, and it all comes down to the playoffs and how well your guys perform there. The odds are generally stacked against you, but I would tell most people, if you get the opportunity, you should do it. If you hire the right people around you and make it through the first couple years, you’ll grasp it. You’ll catch the wave and be O.K.

Obviously, coming this direction, it’s a little bit different. The recruiting is different. It’s a different mindset, and a minefield, regarding recruiting at this level. One of the things that’s interesting to me is that over the last 20 years, being involved in the NBA as a coach, I’ve interviewed a lot of players over the years. In part of those interviews, I would joke and ask, why are you coming to the NBA? You’re probably taking a pay cut to come play with me. And some of that was verified.

Certain programs, they do things. You just have to know who you are up against in certain situations and know when you’re wasting your time. There’s that edge to it and that side of it, and I don’t have an answer to it. Anybody who doesn’t know that it’s there, you’re just sticking your head in the sand.

I’m happy to be where I am, and I think I can bring value to my school. The people I’m trying to bring the most value to are the student-athletes.

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SI: How do you navigate that recruiting minefield?

MD: Money changing hands happens. I know it. I get it. That’s all on them. Some of those institutions change, and some don’t. I’m looking for the kids that aren’t going to go down that path. What I have is—I have the long-term money. That’s the way that I pitch it. You can take some short-term money now—maybe you need it. I don’t know the family situation. I get it. Some people need it.

From my standpoint, I have real long-term money for you. A Tulane education is going to get you paid a lot more than most schools. You’re a top-40 institution in the country. Kids are going to come here and go to school, and we’re going to help you get through it.

At the other end of it, from the standpoint of the coaching you’re going to get and the contacts I have for getting to the next level, that’s where it’s going to get made. I know what teams need here and in Europe as well. I think I’ll be more valuable than some bag of money that gets thrown at them.

SI: What have you come to know about the college game as you’ve gotten ready for this role?

MD: Well, I think there are certain difference for sure. One, I think that Villanova won the tournament on toughness. They did a great job there. Defensively, they were there every night. And they figured out a way to win at the end.

The difference is the shot clock, which is 30 seconds. You can’t advance the ball late in the game after a timeout. You’re doing more baseline out of bounds than sideline out of bounds. Those are the basic rules. To me, it lends itself to some more pressing opportunities, whether it’s full-court of three-quarters court. Sometimes you’re pressing for profit, where you think you can turn the team over. Sometimes you’re pressing for time, just trying to make someone use up some clock. To me those are the biggest areas that you focus in on.

And of course, the other part of it is that you can pack five guys in there and just sit in a zone. We play a zone at the next level as well, but it’s a little bit of a three-second zone. You can’t sit in the lane. But with the length and the athleticism we had, I have as good a zone defense as anyone in the NCAA, and I’m sure we’ll get to test it out.

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SI: You’ve been very optimistic, but Tulane hasn’t been to an NCAA tournament in more than 20 years. What makes you think you can win here?

MD: I didn’t even know that. But it didn’t matter to me. When I was sent out to evaluations, I was up in New York for Nike and UnderArmour, and I’ve been to Indianapolis. Our guys gave me a list of guys I should look at. I said, I don’t want to look at anybody’s list. I’ll know the guys I want. After the fact, I’ll compare them.

Paul Bianchardi, I was telling that to him. He looked at my book. I said I’ve circled guys and underlined guys that I’m interested in. He said, I’ve got some good news and some bad news: You really know the guys who are going to play, but they’re all going to Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina. But the part about who can play and not play, you’ve got that thing down. I said, those schools can’t get everybody. I’ll be able to fill up my roster.

I think that I have a good eye for talent. I’ve been told—I think that it’s accurate—that I’ve picked the most NBA All-Stars over the past 20 years. I’ve picked five. Maybe DeAndre Jordan will make it six. He’d probably make it more often if he wasn’t on the same team with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul. I think Shaun Livingston would have made it, too, if he hadn’t had that horrific knee injury. I think I know guys, and I think I know them early. Ultimately, we’re going to get players, and I think I know how to coach. We’ll do O.K.