When the late Maryann Donlon was asked whether she thought her son, Billy, was destined to be a coach, she always had a simple retort.
‘He was in the womb blowing the whistle,’ she’d say.
Not without reason. To be a Donlon was to be breathe the game of basketball.
Bill Donlon spent 12 years on the college sidelines, serving as assistant to Rick Pitino at Providence during the Friars’ Final Four run, and then moving on to Northwestern.
Older sister, Heather, played at Fordham and remains the NCAA record-holder for 3-point field goal percentage in a single season (she swished 57 percent in 1990). Even Maryann got involved, serving on the board of directors for a Chicago hoops-based after-school program run by Vince Carter.
But it is one thing to be immersed in basketball and another to be handed its keys.
That day came for Billy Donlon on April 14.
One day after his boss and mentor, Brad Brownell, jumped to Clemson, Wright State athletic director Bob Grant called Donlon in for a breakfast meeting. Not sure what to expect, Donlon brought a notebook and paper, figuring he’d help sketch out the Raiders’ immediate future.
“Bob took my phone and called my dad and said, ‘We’re naming your son the next head coach,’’’ Donlon recalled.
And while the keys Grant handed him aren’t exactly Carolina Cadillac, they are pretty sweet. Wright State has spun together four consecutive 20-win seasons, going 80-45 in the process.
When the 33-year-old Donlon coaches his first game, the youngest coach in the Horizon League (yes, there is someone younger than Brad Stevens) will welcome four seniors to the floor from a team that finished 20-12 last season. Among them is Vaughn Duggins, the Raiders’ leading scorer.
And those four in particular are rather anxious to play. The one catch in all of those 20-win seasons is that all that winning has only resulted in just one postseason berth, an NCAA bid in 2007.
The Raiders’ roadblock the past two seasons came in the form of a juggernaut by the name of Butler. The Bulldogs beat Wright State in last season’s Horizon League title game and in the semifinals the season before.
“There’s no doubt our seniors want to go,’’ Donlon said. “I really believe the hardest thing, not just at the non-BCS level but everywhere, is to get into the NCAA tournament. It’s easier to win once you’re in it. Getting there has to be the focus.’’
And getting there, of course, means getting by Butler. Or at least until the Horizon League is afforded more respect from the Selection Committee.
Donlon, like most everyone else in his conference, hopes that Butler’s success not only challenges other teams to get better but also opens outsider’s eyes to the quality of the competition.
“The thing is, the BCS schools are never going to play us here,’’ Donlon said. “That’s not going to change, so what has to change is the Selection Committee has to say we’re going to take a 23-9 Horizon League team instead of a fifth-place BCS finisher. Do I think they should take a closer look? Yeah, I do.’’
But heeding the sage advice of his father, Donlon also is sticking to the old adage: control what you can.
Sage advice from his dad, in fact, is a constant in Donlon’s life. Bill Donlon always has led his son down the right path, even when the right path looked dicey. Growing up, he challenged his son to play on the tougher playgrounds, where the games were harder but the results truer.
“My dad always said that basketball transcends everything and it’s so true,’’ Donlon said. “If you could prove you could play, you commanded respect. That’s what I’ve always appreciated about the game. If you play hard, play unselfish, people respect you.’’
It’s that lesson that Donlon is bringing to his players. He admits that growing up knee deep in the game has perhaps robbed him of some patience. He knows how things ought to be done and doesn’t have a lot of tolerance when they aren’t done that way.
“I try to be a little more understanding of what my players are going through in terms of the totality of the college experience -- school, social life, all of that,’’ he said. “But I have little patience for a lack of worth ethic. You can make mistakes. You can dribble the ball off your foot, but you have to compete and work hard.’’
That’s the way it was if you were a Donlon.