Once on hot seat, Stanford and Johnny Dawkins a hot team

March 27, 2014 § Leave a comment


After answering questions about speculation that had swirled over his tenuous job security, Johnny Dawkins walked out of Stanford’s empty dressing room Wednesday at the FedExForum with a reporter and asked, “Did you get everything you needed?”

Just three weeks removed from sitting squarely on the hot seat, Dawkins fielded delicate questions about his concern over being fired with such ease and coolness it was as if he was recounting his favorite memories as a Duke player.

“The word I would use for him is dignity,” said Jay Bilas, the ESPN analyst and close friend of Dawkins who played with him at Duke three decades ago. “He has a great deal of dignity.”

It is a disposition that has remained constant, both through his college and NBA playing career and also earlier this month, when the Cardinal suffered its third consecutive loss March 5 and faced the prospect of missing the NCAA tournament. Had Dawkins not stewarded Stanford into the NCAA tournament for the first time in his six-year tenure, no one would have been surprised if he had been fired.

Dawkins is the first person who acknowledges that his team “underperformed” last season and not only wanted — but needed — to make the NCAA tournament this season. That was the expectation that he established for himself after his team posted a winning conference record in only one of his first five seasons.

“Of course this year, I looked at this year like, ‘Hey, we have to be able to make it. We are good enough. I think we are competitive enough. We have to get it done.’ ” Dawkins told USA TODAY Sports. “So mostly all the pressure is on me. Any kind of pressure that anyone on the outside can put with their expectations would never be — trust me — higher than the expectations than what I have for myself and for my team.”Now Stanford, the No. 10 seed in the South Region, stands as one of the unlikeliest stories of the NCAA tournament. Players say the Cardinal’s success is a testament to resiliency for overcoming injuries to four players that decimated depth. But it’s also a testament to Dawkins’ tunnel vision, which this year established the tenor for Stanford’s season.

This year’s team, Dawkins said, has adopted the mantra of the New England Patriots: Ignore the Noise. As outside criticism mounted and rumors intensified, Dawkins remained in a cocoon. And so did his players. A lot of coaches say they block out negativity. But Dawkins literally hears nothing — good or bad — that is said or written about him.

“I don’t follow any of the press clippings,” he said. “I don’t read anything good or bad about myself. I am oblivious to all the stuff that goes on around me with that. I read about my players. I’m sure they may read about me and may have concerns. For me, it’s all about competing and preparations. All of those (stories) are distractions.”

Whenever Dawkins has been criticized at Stanford, Bilas said, Dawkins never allowed the criticism to filter down to the players. He never placed the blame on anyone but himself. Bilas, whose family has vacationed with Dawkins and his wife, said Dawkins reminds him of former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy in temperament.

“He prepares his team to play and he is there to guide them, but he lets them play,” Bilas said. “He is not one of those guys who will coach every dribble. … He is demanding without being demeaning. He does not act like a psycho like a lot of coaches do.”

And he has also made much-needed adjustments since taking his first head-coaching job after working under his former college coach, Mike Krzyzewski, at Duke. Dawkins first arrived at Stanford in April 2008 with a preconceived notion of how he wanted to play. He wanted his team to play full-court defense and incessantly pressure guards. Then came the realization that that was not the right system.

“I had to readjust as a coach, and I had to grow,” Dawkins said. “My growth was being able to listen and look at new things and say, ‘Okay, how do you devise a system that is going to maximize who these guys are?’ We started making adjustments.”

Adversity arrived on the injury front this season. Andy Brown (torn ACL) and Christian Sanders (hip) missed the entire season. Aaron Bright (dislocated right shoulder) played in the first seven games, and Rosco Allen (stress fracture) played seven minutes against Cal Poly on Dec. 29 before a setback.

Dawkins made adjustments because of his personnel, employing more of a triangle offense to accentuate the team’s strengths. Defensively, he played zone defense nearly 40% of the time this season.

“This thing is personnel driven,” Dawkins said. “You need to max out who they are.”

What Stanford lacks in depth — starters account for 87.3% of the team’s scoring — the team makes up for in size and heady play. Guard Chasson Randle has played all 80 minutes in two NCAA tournament games and committed only two fouls.

A significant development this season was the improvement seen by Stefan Nastic, a 6-foot-11 Canadian center who nearly tripled his minutes (19.7) and more than tripled his scoring average (7.2). He averages 3.3 fouls per game. But being able to play center allows 6-10 Dwight Powell to play power forward and 6-7 Josh Huestis to play small forward.

After playing a tough non-league schedule that included six of this year’s NCAA tournament teams, Stanford started 0-2 in Pac-12 play. The next game, an 82-80 victory at Oregon, served as a pivotal turning point.

“That was one of the moments that really defined us,” reserve guard Wade Morgan said. “You really show who you are when things aren’t going well. We have to really be our biggest advocates.”

Morgan said Dawkins never addressed his job security with the team. But almost every day coaches have emphasized tuning out the noise — both negative and positive. And as Dawkins stands one win away from an improbable Elite Eight berth, the 50-year-old coach maintains composure that has not wavered all season.

“He stays calm and cool,” said assistant Charles Payne, in his sixth season at Stanford. “He never gets too high and definitely never gets too low. That speaks to his experience as a high-level player. He didn’t have coaches who overreacted to the game when he was a player. And so he doesn’t overreact as a coach. That gives our players a sense of calmness.”


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