GLENDALE – Even if the confetti doesn’t shower him on Monday night amid a national championship celebration, Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels will have a legacy in the state of Arizona.
It lies 34 miles away, in the halls of Scottsdale Community College. Before he spent more than 30 years in the coaching profession, Daniels was a guard on a district-winning team with a notably fiery coach during the 1972-73 season.
Ivan Duncan, the coach at SCC at the time, brought with him a strength and passion that Daniels later adopted in his coaching career.
Duncan, whose career on the bench included stops in places such as UNLV and Long Beach State, also helped Daniels develop as a guard. Now, it is Daniels whose trademark is developing playmaking guards.
“Duncan was a hard-nosed guy,” Daniels said. “As a coach, I took some things from him as far as the discipline of the program and stuff like that. Coming from Long Beach State and (Jerry) Tarkanian, it was a little bit different. But it was different times.”
Daniels remembers his time at Scottsdale Community College well, due in part to the talent he had to face. He spent just one season in the Valley, but played against future NBA players in his first and final junior college games.
In his first game, he lined up against Ricky Sobers, who would go on to a 10-year NBA career that began with the Suns. In the final game, and SCC faced Dixie College, a team led by future Arizona State and NBA star Lionel Hollins.
“I got the front end and the back end, so it was good that way,” Daniels said. “Junior college was more prominent and people came to junior college (games) and pros came from junior college. I definitely remember those matchups.”
He loved his off-campus life as well. He lived at University Village near the Arizona State campus, and often found himself spending fall Saturdays at Sun Devil Stadium for ASU football games.
When Daniels and Gonzaga flew into Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on Wednesday afternoon, he saw a different place than the one he called his college home for a year. Even though he has visited his old school in the years since, he’s still amazed at the growth – especially when it comes to handling extreme weather.
“It’s crazy how advanced this thing is (now),” Daniels said. “When I was here, they didn’t have all the freeways in. They’d have monsoon rains and they would just flood the roads. The infrastructure has changed so much here.”
Daniels would eventually graduate from Cal State Fullerton, a place where he would become the head coach between assistant coaching stops at Utah and UCLA. Everywhere he went, he employed Duncan’s wisdom.
Daniels became a shoulder for head coaches to lean on with his experience. He’s now been a part of five Final Fours on three separate staffs, giving a key advantage to Gonzaga coach Mark Few. Few is in his first Final Four in his eighteenth season as the man in charge in Spokane. Daniels joined Few’s staff in 2010.
“The knowledge that he’s came about overall in the years in the business has been incredibly valuable not just for on-the-floor stuff, but just how to operate as a program and recruiting obviously and then just a real positive, positive person, It’s great to have positivity sometimes,” Few said. “I have a tendency to not be the most positive person you’ve ever been around during the season.”
He also employed an affinity for recruiting and developing guards. During his time with the Utes and the Bruins, Daniels helped to land and develop college stars such as Andre Miller, Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison and Jordan Farmar.
Now at Gonzaga, he has his next star guard: West Coast Conference Player of the Year and Wooden Award finalist Nigel Williams-Goss. After reaching the Final Four with both Miller and Westbrook – both of whom have gone on to successful NBA tenures — Daniels has taken to mentoring Williams-Goss.
“The biggest difference is, we’re sitting in Phoenix getting ready to play in the Final Four,” Daniels said. “(Gonzaga’s) had great guards here. But with the Andre Millers, the Russell Westbrooks, Darren Collisons, Jordan Farmars, those guards have something that you can’t measure. It’s just an inward DNA kind of thing, and they have the ability to make big plays that need to be made.”
Williams-Goss, a Washington transfer, said he constantly pesters Daniels about his former stars. What were they like on the floor? More importantly, what were they like in their work ethic off the floor?
“(Daniels) has been around a lot of great point guards, so mostly I ask him a lot of questions about how they moved day to day, how they practiced, their leadership habits and stuff like that,” Williams-Goss said. “I’ve been fortunate to pick his brain and talk about their consistency and work ethic day in and day out in practice.”
Daniels has a similarly close relationship with graduate-transfer guard Jordan Mathews, who graduated from Cal and decided to use his final year of eligibility at Gonzaga.
How close are they? Daniels was in the wedding when Mathews’ parents were married.
Jordan’s father, Phil, was a roommate of Daniels’ after the two graduated from college and were starting their coaching careers. Daniels and Mathews remained close.
“I knew his dad when he was at Valley High School in Santa Ana, California,” Daniels said. “We became really close, and stayed close throughout the years. I was in the wedding between (Jordan’s) parents back in the day. I remember the day Jordan was born and watched him grow, grow, grow.”
While a limit on available scholarships prevented Gonzaga from landing the younger Mathews out of high school, Daniels was quick to jump on him when he announced he would graduate and transfer. Daniels called Mathews a “major” part of the Bulldogs’ Final Four run.
“He’s like an uncle for me,” Mathews said. “I’ve known him my whole life, and the help he’s been able to give me in the time I’ve been here has been great. I can’t say enough of how much he’s helped me. (He taught me about) playing on two feet, playing with poise and patience. I’m growing my game and expanding it, and he’s been really helpful for me with that along the way.”