Mike Dunlap returns to his roots at Loyola Marymount

Mike Dunlap has experience at nearly every level of basketball. (USATSI)
Mike Dunlap has experience at nearly every level of basketball. (USATSI)

William Husak, entering his 16th year as Loyola Marymount's athletic director, has had to make five coaching hires since 2000. Each time, the first phone call he's made regarding the position has been to one coach.

"Where he was in his career and where we were as a university and as a basketball program, it just wasn't a good match each time," Husak said.

Finally, on that fifth attempt, it worked out. Mike Dunlap said yes.

Dunlap has had just about every job that a coach could have since his graduation from Loyola Marymount in 1980. He's been a Division I assistant (including a five year stint at LMU to start his career), a high-major Division I head coach (as an interim at St. John's, when Steve Lavin was recovering from cancer treatments), a lower-level college coach (at Metro State and Cal-Lutheran), an NBA assistant, and an NBA head coach. He's even left the United States and coached in Australia's NBL. A veritable basketball nomad, Dunlap has traveled all over the world simply to learn more about the game he loves. Given that wealth of experience, you would think he would have high-major programs knocking down his door. After all, not many college coaches can sell that they have experience as a head man in the NBA.

So what in the world would make him choose to come to Loyola Marymount -- a school with a famous basketball tradition from the Paul Westhead years in the late 1980s, but one that has fallen on hard times with only three winning seasons in the past two decades?

"I wanted to take a program that hasn't been very good for a long time and flip it to see if we can get it going the other way," Dunlap said. "As an alum you can give your money, which I certainly will do over time, but you can also give your time and attention to something [that was] very special to you in your formative years. I know that sounds corny, but that's my goal."

After speaking with Dunlap, it legitimately seems like a return to LMU has always been in the cards for him. A California native, Dunlap feels much more at home on the west coast. He's looking forward to relaxing on the beach during the brief respites he gets from his effort to lead the program back to relevance.

But geography and lifestyle aren't the only things that are a far cry from his last job.

Of course, that last job was coach of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. It was considered a strange hire at the time given that Dunlap had only been the interim coach at St. John's. But he had some experience as an NBA assistant in Denver in the mid-2000s, and Charlotte president Rod Higgins really liked what Dunlap brought to the table as a teacher. 

"Being an NBA coach wasn't my dream, it just happened by circumstance," Dunlap said. "NBA guys were tracking [then-St. John's forward Maurice] Harkless, and he went [to the NBA] after his first year with us to Orlando. Anyway, throughout the year we had guys coming in to watch practices and I attracted the eye of Higgins. When the job opened that following year, Higgins called me for an interview and I said 'you mean to be an assistant?' He said 'No for the head job.'

"They interviewed 10 people and eventually it got down to Jerry Sloan, Brian Shaw, and Quin Snyder who were in contract talks. We parted ways, Higgins thanked me for coming in, and I thought that was it. A few days later, he called me and said he had made a mistake and asked me to come in for another interview. I had the interview, and got back on a plane to go to New York. By the time I landed, I had 75 texts. It had been leaked to ESPN that they'd offered me the job. I called my wife Molly and then my agent Leon [Rose], who told me that they had indeed offered." 

Dunlap only lasted in Charlotte for one season, despite leading the Bobcats to three times as many wins as they had the season before. The Bobcats had gone 7-59 in 2011-12, the worst winning percentage (.106) in NBA history. Under Dunlap, the team won their seventh game in their 12th contest of the season. While most would call this a successful season, Dunlap's style of play rubbed some in the organization the wrong way and he was let go. Even after being controversially dumped after one year, Dunlap doesn't hold any ill feelings. 

"[I was successful] according to the terms and targets that were laid out early," Dunlap said. "But obviously I didn't play well with somebody in the organization. Having said that, it was a transitional time, and I benefited on all fronts from the year. It was hard, I didn't like it and didn't want that outcome, but I accepted it and moved on. Now I'm where I want to be."

The reason Dunlap rubs some the wrong way is the style of basketball he employs. Using his 1-1-3 man/zone hybrid along with a press, the key to Dunlap's system is high pressure defense that forces ball-handlers into bad decisions and turnovers. While NBA players with agents behind them might not appreciate it, it's the perfect system at a level where he'll be able to recruit the type of player who will buy into his system.

"I don't want to be one of those guys who doesn't press," Dunlap said. "We're gonna press, that's it. That's the way we do it. They're probably all licking their chops saying 'You'll learn' but I won't. We're gonna press. That's how I'm built, that's where we're recruiting to, and that's our style.

"We're gonna play zone too. A lot of people say it's not fashionable to play zone with the way the 3-point line is. But it's not a typical zone, there's a lot of trapping, a lot of this and that. Some coaches don't want to put their team in harm's way with the trap and they're more conservative. I'm not known as a conservative dude as a coach. We're going to play hard and press and trap and run off of our misses."

It's clear that Dunlap wants to establish a culture at Loyola Marymount. That's one place where his ideology and that of Westhead -- the famous coach who employed his own "System" at Loyola Marymount -- run parallel. But that's where Dunlap wants the similarities to end. 

"I just want to have a higher standard of play, a higher standard of academics than they've had for a while here, and I want to have a higher standard of citizenship," Dunlap said. "You can go crazy thinking about the past. There have been good times here and a LOT of bad times, no matter what style it was. Even in the Westhead days they couldn't sustain their success.

"The mark of a great leader and program is that when you leave, they sustain it," Dunlap said. "Cal Lutheran sustained it, Metro State sustained it. I've been a part of that in a lot of turnarounds, and I want to be a part of that at LMU. But I think it's going to take time, and I'm OK with that."

Given that it's going to take time, where does Dunlap think that leaves LMU for this season?

"The conference is no joke, and in order for us to go climb the ladder I'm just after that next spot," Dunlap said. "For us, that means I just want to get out of last place. Maybe we get to 7th, 6th, 5th, 4th, but that's our goal. The bridge to great is good, not the bridge from bad is great. I could care less about great. I could care less what Gonzaga does, that's later in the process." 

Climbing that ladder is going to be a long process for the Lions, but one thing is known for sure going into this season:

With Mike Dunlap in charge, Loyola Marymount will have a much different look than it has over the past 20 years. 

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