Q&A with Mike Dunlap

Metropolitan State College of Denver

By Staff

Coaching Management, 11.2, March 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1102/qadunlap.htm

In 1997, Mike Dunlap took over a Metro State Menís Basketball team in decline. The Roadrunners had posted a 13-13 record the previous year, and players had turned against each other, bickering and blaming each other for their lack of success.

In a remarkable turn-around, Dunlap opened his first season as the schoolís Head Coach by leading the Roadrunners to 13 straight winsóa school record. Going into the 2002-03 season, Dunlap posted a 148-30 record, went to five straight NCAA Division II tournaments, and won national championships in 2000 and 2002, making Metro State the first college in Colorado to win a national basketball championship.

Heís been the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Coach of the Year twice, and the NABC named him its NCAA Division II National Coach of the Year in 2000 and 2002.

Prior to Metro State, Dunlap spent three seasons as Head Coach of the Adelaide 36ers, a professional team in Australia. Heís also been an assistant coach at the University of Southern California, Iowa, and his alma mater, Loyola Marymount and Head Coach
at California Lutheran.

We asked Dunlap about the ďold-schoolĒ label, early-morning practices, team discipline, and why he once ran a 100-mile marathon.

CM: Youíre often tagged as ďold school.Ē Is the label a media creation, or does it fit?

Dunlap: Iím pretty comfortable with that label. My mentors are much older than I am, and that has influenced my coaching philosophy. Ed Goorjian, who was the winningest high school coach percentage-wise in California, [and whom Dunlap met when Goorjian was an assistant coach at Loyola Marymount] brought me into this business when I was 21. Pete Newell and his son have had a tremendous influence on my coaching. John Wooden has been another of my mentors. I was a camper at his camp and spent time studying him.

And finally, Iíve spent years studying John Chaney at Temple. I donít think thereís a better teacher in the country and I know thereís not a better human being. I believe these men are doing it right, so Iíve emulated them. To me, being old school simply means that I agree with what those men taught me, so I carry that message forward to our own players.

What are the essential parts of the ďold schoolĒ message?

That there is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, whether itís academics, or the way you treat people, or coaching basketball. Itís a philosophy that focuses on the process rather than the outcome. In my experience, if you go through the process and donít worry about the win, youíre going to get the win. There is no replacement for having a clear vision of how to go from A to B and working hard to get there.

How do your players respond to that style of coaching?

I think they find it refreshing. You have to understand your playersí motivations before you can connect with them. If youíre direct with your players and you apply consequences for actions, and if youíre consistent, your relationship with them is going to be fine.

The one thing you canít cheat players on is time. ďQuality timeĒ is a concept for people who arenít willing to make time. You have to spend an inordinate amount of time with your players to have them understand how much you care about the whole mission of what youíre trying to achieve.

Does that mean time both on and off the court?

Absolutely. There are probably 20 categories of life skills that we touch on in a given year, from sex education to table manners. A lot of players come to us without these skills, and we use the opportunities that come up to teach them, whether itís at a banquet at the Elite Eight or at a preseason meal where we sit down and there are cloth napkins on the table. Kids get embarrassed in these situations; they know they donít know what to do. But thereís nothing wrong with sitting at the same table with your players and saying, ďOkay, hereís the setup.Ē

How do you encourage academic success?

We teach them everything, right down to where to sit in the classroom. When theyíre in the classroom, theyíre students, not athletes, so I donít let them go to class with Metro State basketball gear on. We check the classrooms for that.

Once your older guys buy in, they tell your younger guys, ďDonít play around with your attendance or with your notebookóCoach is going to look at the notes you take in class.Ē If the notes arenít there, the consequence is a two-mile run with a 15-pound medicine ball at 6 a.m. and Iíll run with him. Iíll take the ball for a lap and he takes it for a lap. And Iíll tell him, ďI donít care where you came from, youíre going to get your degree. I donít care if we have to crawl to your degree, this is the way itís going to happen.Ē I only have to do it once.

What do your players think of the 6 a.m. practices?

They eventually ask for them, because they like getting the heavy work done in the morning and having the rest of the day to deal with academics. We lift some weights in the afternoon and shoot, but the hard part of the day is already out of the way. Itís a great feeling for our guys.

Getting up at 4 a.m. teaches them to put themselves to bed at night, just as it would in the workforce. And itís a sacrifice. Most programs donít do it, so when itís crunch time, our players are more invested than the guys theyíre playing against, because theyíve put in more hard work on the front end.

How big of a focus is the NCAA tournament for you?

A lot of athletes look back at 55 or 60 years old and say, ďI never won the big one.Ē Well, I was never after the big one. Iíd love to get it, but itís not what drives me. I love being in practice and I love interacting with our players. I like seeing them succeed, and I like seeing them fail. I like seeing them fall on the floor sometimes when theyíre doing something goofyóit cracks me up. And I like it when they make fun of me. Itís a big cauldron of what family is supposed to be about.

There are better coaches and better programs that havenít won national championships. The two years we won the national championship and the year we vied for it and lost, we had won games during the season by one point. If those plays donít go your way, youíre not even talking about championships.

How do you avoid letting championships become the focus?

You canít change your behavior once you get to the top. You have to say, ďI was hungry three years ago, and Iím still hungry.Ē I box up stuff at the end of each year. I donít let my office have one extra item in it than when I started. There will be a time when I can take it out and reflect on it, but that will be after Iím done. Thatís what Iíve learned, and that was hard for me, because no one teaches you that.

Do you spend a lot of time on drills in practices?

I believe players have to understand the big picture before they can understand the connections between the parts, so I teach them out of the whole and then work back to the drills. If youíre constantly teaching out of drills, itís harder to make that connection once you get to the games.

Youíve averaged 16 starting line-ups every year at Metro State. Why all the juggling?

I played the drums in elementary school. We were ranked, even in elementary school, by our skill level. So I wondered, how is it that a college basketball player has an inalienable right to his spot once heís designated a starter if heís not working for his lunch, if even a second-grade drummer has to work to hold on to his chair?

We live by that creed. If someone competitively goes over the top of you, Iím going to tell you right then, and Iím going to move him into your chair. It makes for interesting practices. Thereís usually a top eight, and the musical chairs comes within the eight, but it can go on all year if I have one guy who canít hold down his chair each week.

How did you decide to come back from Australia?

It was a sudden decision. Weíd been there for three years, and there was a contract on the table to stay five more. My father passed away, and after his funeral, I called my wife. She was still over in Australia, and by that time we had three kids. I just said, ďItís time to come home.Ē She stayed for a couple more months to have the kids finish school and I got the job at Metro State.

Why did you decide to coach college ball versus looking for a job in the NBA?

I had an opportunity to be a scout for the Portland Trailblazers, but I recognized that my true love was college basketball. I had done the professional thing for three years, and I knew in my heart I enjoyed teaching and dealing with younger players.

Also, I had been in charge of player personnel, and being asked to release a player who had a family was something I found distasteful. It left an indelible mark on me. At least if those consequences happen in college, typically it doesnít involve children.

Youíve had Division I coaching opportunities, but youíve stayed with Metro State. How come?

If Iím going to leave a great job, Iím going to go to a great situation. I havenít found a situation where I was comfortable with the leadership or how they wanted to do their business of winning. I donít need a gazillion dollars, but if theyíve been doing their business wrong for 20 years, and theyíve blamed the last three coaches, Iím eventually going to be just like the last coach who left there.

When I get into an interview and they ask about my graduation rate, I look at them and say, ďWhat does that have to do with anything?Ē I can give you 10 examples of coaches who have been fired because they lost and had 100 percent graduation rates, and I canít give you one example of the reverse. Thereís a lot of duplicity in terms of interviews and the way relationships are started. Iíve seen too many guys who are dead by the side of the road because they bought into what their supposed leaders told them.

You have a reputation for supporting other teams and coaches on campus. Why is that important to you?

You canít talk to your players about team, and you canít ask other coaches to support your program if youíre not supporting theirs. Supporting other coaches can mean understanding that theyíre suffering because theyíve lost their fourth in a row. They slink into their office and donít want to see anybody. I know what that feels like. So you just stick your head in and tell them, ďSomewhere along the line, itís going to turn for you and youíre going to be fine. And if you want to grab lunch, letís go.Ē

It doesnít have to be a lot, but if you do those kinds of things, it blossoms into something thatís a lot better than getting into the Elite Eight. Itís the twinkle in their eyes, or how they grab your hand after you have a big win or when youíre suffering.

Why did you run a 100-mile ultra-marathon?

I did it on a lark. Somebody bet me I couldnít, so I did it. More importantly, I wanted to see what that felt like and if I could do it, because it stretches your criteria for what mental toughness is. It took me to a place Iíd never been before. That was the objective for me. I wanted to see if I had what it took. And I felt really, really good about it once I was done.