Q&A with Mike Dunlap
Mike Dunlap ’80 is in his second season as head coach of the LMU men’s basketball team. A native of Fairbanks, Alaska, he has been head coach of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats and the Adelaide 36ers, an Australian professional club. As a college assistant coach, he worked at Iowa, Arizona, USC and St. John’s. He won two national Division II titles as head coach of Metropolitan State University in Denver. He was interviewed by Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.
You are in the second year of a building process. What are the classic challenges facing any coach in his or her second year?
Your second year frequently is your first, because you’re putting things in place. Some players decide they don’t want play with the changed standards. So the challenge is to make sure you get the right people in the right seat on the bus.
What are the particular challenges that make that job unique here at LMU?
It’s a challenge to get kids to select your school who are high-end, talent-wise, because the image is, over time, of a program that has not lived up to billing. That’s the No. 1 challenge. The second is to make sure that once they get here they acclimate in an appropriate way to the university academically and that they plug in to all the institution has to offer.
As coach, you’re competing not only to win games on the court but in a recruiting battle as well. How do you describe the recruiting competition?
First, we’re trying to get a player who not only fits the university in terms of what the university has to offer but, second, also fits our system. That means he has to be athletic, and he has to have foot speed and be quick. We can take one player per year, or one every two years, who is slow of foot but is really big. But if he’s a point guard or an off-guard, he has to be superior athletically. Third, he has to be a winner: a winner in the classroom and a guy who has won 20-25 games a year in high school. I don’t want to recruit from losing programs and get a player who has potential, because his only understanding is losing, not winning. Whereas if you get someone who has won 60 games in his high school career, there is an implication there that he’s had to do things that maybe he didn’t want to do but he had to in order to win. I tell my assistants, “The winning is in the picking.”
Each coach has a system of some sort — call it a philosophy, a roadmap, a strategy. Is there anyone coaching today who is putting in place a system that is innovative?
Brad Stevens, who is now with the Boston Celtics, did some things with less when he was at Butler University that I thought were tremendous. Bob McKillop, at Davidson College, is another. They take the basics and tweak them. In basketball terms, they’re letting their players play in what’s called a “flow” offense. The offensive players understand the offense’s concept and make choices within it while they’re on the court. For example, in the pick-and-roll, a play has come in offensively during the past five to 10 years, they spread the floor and let their players create and make sure all the other players are spaced on the court and ready to shoot or drive. They tell the player with the ball to be ready to attack. That is very creative, innovative and free-flowing, thus the name “flow” offense. They’re giving more autonomy to the player.
Defensively, they teach the basics and try to protect players who may not be great athletes by doing things like switching on defense while letting the players make those calls as they happen on the court. They empower the players by letting them make those decisions.
Fans come to games to support their team and enjoy wins. But they also want to be entertained. What will LMU fans find entertaining about their team this year?
We pressure the opponent and play an up-tempo game. An example is the two games we’ve played so far. We opened it up, to our peril, against UC Irvine (a 77-53 loss) but to our strength against Cal State Fullerton (a 79-74 win). When we get steals, a turnover or force a bad shot, we run and attack the rim quickly. It’s an open style and visually pleasing.
The LMU women’s soccer team made it to the NCAA tournament. They won their first two games and have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen. What lesson do you draw from that?
There are always lessons, whether you’re talking about our baseball team, which has a culture of winning, or women’s soccer, track or water polo. If you look at what the women’s team has done from one year to the next, you see that if you stay the course and remain optimistic about your chances, you can do some remarkable things. The women’s soccer team represents that. I see their coaches at work every Sunday morning. They are relentless in their work ethic, and they have a vision of what they want to do. When I see the women’s soccer team, I think all things are possible.
Follow Coach Dunlap @CoachMikeDunlap.