Bob McKillop, Davidson, And The Road Less Traveled

One of many veins running through the long and rich history of college basketball is the flow of New Yorkers into the South – not just the broader region, but the Carolinas in particular.

One could devote a larger article to the history of New Yorkers succeeding throughout the Southern United States. Such an article would chronicle Rick Pitino at Kentucky and Louisville. It would follow Billy Donovan to Florida. It would focus on the Georgia Tech portion of Bobby Cremins’s coaching career.

Yet, there’s a more specific history found in the pattern of New York natives finding a home coaching college basketball in North Carolina and South Carolina.

John Kresse became a local legend in Charleston, S.C., leading the College of Charleston. Cremins soon succeeded him and came within one win of making the NCAA tournament in the Southern Conference.

Al McGuire coached at little, out-of-the-way Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina before moving to Milwaukee to lead Marquette to the 1977 NCAA title.

Frank McGuire was one of the men who first carved out this pathway to the Carolinas, leading North Carolina to the 1957 national title; recruiting the heck out of New York for the Tar Heels; and doing one other thing that was remotely important as well: bringing aboard a man named Dean Edwards Smith as an assistant.

New Yorkers coming to the Carolinas — it’s one very significant part of college basketball’s vast and sprawling historical context.

Just before Championship Week and the upcoming NCAA tournament, another New Yorker is adding to his legacy in the Carolinas. This man, maybe not more than all of his predecessors but certainly more than many of them, has cast aside the bright lights for personal satisfaction and quality of life. It’s easy to wish that this man had aimed for a bigger job, but that’s not our right. We should all get to determine our course in life, and the subject of this piece is certainly feeling good about the road he’s taken.

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Bob McKillop could have climbed the coaching ladder as early as 2002. Davidson College, which made two Elite Eights under Lefty Driesell in the late 1960s, reached only one NCAA tournament in a 19-year stretch from 1971 through 1989. It was in 1989 that McKillop became the head coach in Davidson, N.C. After enduring some lean years at the start, McKillop reached NCAA tournaments in 1998 and 2002. His 2002 Davidson squad pushed Ohio State all the way in a 13-versus-4 game before losing by five in Albuquerque.

By then, McKillop’s coaching chops had become known on a larger scale. He might not have been able to get one of the 10 to 12 best jobs in the country, but he could have gained a high-major job in the next tier just below it. If McKillop was the coach many in the profession think he is, it could have been just three or four years before he would have been in position to take over at a top job.

If you’re that good, the culture has only one message for you: Grab. Accumulate. Rise. Have it all.

Bob McKillop thinks he has more than enough where he is, thank you very much.

He led Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008, within one made three-point basket of the Final Four. He coached Stephen Curry … and the completeness of Curry’s game is, in part, a testament to the guidance and preparation McKillop provided him. If there was still a window for McKillop to make the jump to an elite program, it existed after that 2008 season. To use a football example, Chris Petersen of Boise State – comfortable in an out-of-the-way setting for many years – finally scratched the itch and moved to a power conference at the University of Washington. McKillop could have done the same… but he’s stayed right where he is.

As a result, he’s about to do something – or rather things, plural – that are truly remarkable.

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If Davidson can avoid a stumble against Duquesne on Saturday, the Wildcats will earn a share of the Atlantic 10 title and get the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Davidson, for those unaware, had been toiling in the Southern Conference – a one-bid league – for decades. To make the move to the A-10 – generally a multi-bid league, often with three or four NCAA-caliber teams on an annual basis – and win it in the first season is quite the feat. Beating Duquesne would almost certainly ensure that Davidson will make the NCAAs as an at-large team for the first time in school history… unless, of course, the Wildcats win the A-10 tournament and thereby sweep the regular-season and tournament titles in their new home.

Yes, it’s all happening at Davidson, without Stephen Curry… but with Bob McKillop. It was easy to think the Wildcats needed at least a season or two to get used to their new digs in a far tougher conference, but that simply hasn’t happened. It’s all because a coach who could have climbed the ladder in a culture of high climbers has decided to let his team scale new heights.

Davidson is doing the climbing in the Atlantic 10 this year. As for its New York-born coach, Bob McKillop has his feet – and his heart – rooted firmly in the rich soil of the Carolinas, a fertile place where many great college basketball stories continue to be written.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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