Straightforward. Focused. Intense. Demanding. Passionate. Brilliant. A basketball savant.
Ask those who played for Mike Dunlap at Cal Lutheran in the early ’90s, and these are words that immediately come to mind to describe their coach.
So while basketball legend Michael Jordan and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets raised eyebrows around the sports world when they hired the little-known Dunlap as head coach last spring over such high-profile candidates as longtime Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, ex-Lakers player and assistant coach Brian Shaw and former Missouri coach Quin Snyder, don’t count his Kingsmen players among the doubters. They say he is the best-kept secret in basketball.
“My reaction was, ‘It’s about time,’” said Paul La Mott ’96, a member of Dunlap’s 1993-94 team that went 25-3 and reached the NCAA Division III Southern Sectional. “I mean, what took so long?”
As La Mott’s former teammate J.R. Woods put it: “Now the world’s going to experience what we’ve known all along.”
From 1989 to 1994, Dunlap’s teams came together, transforming a struggling NAIA program into an NCAA Division III powerhouse. Kingsmen basketball players from these years are still a tight group that gets together for reunions and continues to seek out its mentor’s advice.
According to Russell White ’94, the boys’ varsity basketball coach at Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, it’s no accident that so many of Dunlap’s former players became coaches at the high school, community college and college levels – about a dozen at last count.
“He had a major influence on me and a lot of the other guys,” White said. “The fact that so many of us have gotten into coaching is the ultimate compliment to him, don’t you think?”
Dunlap’s former players just aren’t coaching; they’re also winning. White’s high school teams have made the CIF-Southern Section playoffs six consecutive seasons, claimed a CIF-SS championship, and made three state championship appearances. Before arriving at La Verne University as an assistant coach, La Mott in 2011 guided Big Fork High School to the Montana State B semifinals.
Dunlap’s two successors at Division II Metropolitan State in Denver, as it turned out, had both played for him at CLU and then served as assistants – Brannon Hays and Derrick Clark ’95. Hays compiled a 98-27 record in four seasons (2006-10) at Metro State, before giving way to Clark, who has led the Roadrunners to a combined 47-15 record the past two seasons.
“Brannon and I have had big shoes to fill,” said Clark, who served under Dunlap a combined eight years in Australia and at Metro State. “You’re measured by the success Mike Dunlap had here at Metro State, but I welcome it.”
For Dunlap, getting to the top of the profession has been a winding, 32-year journey. In addition to head-coaching jobs at CLU and Metro State, stops along the way included assistant positions at Division I schools Arizona and Oregon and the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. He even had a three-year stint as head coach of the Adelaide 36ers in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Last year, Dunlap served as interim coach at Division I St. John’s University in New York, filling in for head coach Steve Lavin while he recovered from prostate cancer. Under difficult circumstances, Dunlap’s team performed admirably in the powerful Big East Conference, going 13-19 overall, and helping him gain an interview with the owner of the Bobcats, none other than Michael Jordan.
“When I sat down with Mike and I heard him explaining what he’s capable of doing,” Jordan told the Charlotte Observer, “I said, ‘I can play for this guy.’ I said ‘if that’s a guy I can play for, then that’s a guy everybody can play for.’
“He’s very fair. He’s very honest. He’s straightforward. There are no curveballs. He has a strong passion for the game and that’s hard to teach people,” Jordan continued. “I’m a strong believer if you have a passion for something, you’re going to figure it out. That’s the thing I saw in him more than anything else – his passion for coaching.”
This season, Dunlap faces a daunting task in Charlotte. The Bobcats had the worst record in NBA history last year at 7-59, with 23 losses coming in a row – another NBA record.
However, if his tenure at CLU is any indication, happier days are in store for Charlotte fans.
When Dunlap arrived on campus, the CLU basketball program had recorded just two winning seasons – 14-13 in 1979-80 and 16-14 in 1987-88 – in its 28-year history. In fact, during Dunlap’s first year in 1989-90, the Kingsmen went a dismal 5-21.
But over the next four seasons, Dunlap managed a turnaround for the program while guiding it successfully into NCAA Division III competition. The Kingsmen went 61-22 over his final three seasons with three straight Southern California Interscholastic Athletic Conference titles. His final team at CLU in 1993-94 was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point.
Sure, Dunlap had talented players. He had Jeff deLaveaga, CLU’s all-time leading scorer with 2,549 career points, and he recruited a pair of outstanding Australian players, Rupert Sapwell ’95 and Jason Smith, who both later enjoyed long pro careers in their country.
But, as La Mott pointed out, Dunlap “has an extraordinary ability to get the best out of his players. I thought I was a good player when I came to CLU, but after Mike Dunlap taught me, I became a good player.”
What sets Dunlap off from many of his colleagues, his players say, is his work ethic. “His drive to be successful is off the charts,” said White.
“You could not arrive for practice early enough or leave late enough,” La Mott remembered. “Coach was always there before you. He was like two people.”
Woods, who is district manager of ADP Payroll Services in Woodland Hills and the assistant boys’ basketball coach at Newbury Park High, said, “When I first came to Cal Lutheran, I thought, ‘This guy is crazy!’ I’d never been around someone who cared so much about details.”
As for Dunlap’s three-hour practice sessions, well, they weren’t for the weak-kneed or the thin-skinned. And not even the biggest stars or hardest working players could escape the wrath of their coach. White remembers getting kicked out of practice for not paying attention, and making a tearful apology that allowed him to return the next day.
Woods shared a story about the time he and teammate Bryan Cantwell ’94 were late for a team meeting. As punishment, Dunlap demanded they report at 5:30 the next morning to run the hills around the CLU campus. Woods and Cantwell got there on time, but Dunlap was nowhere to be found.
“We’re thinking, ‘What’s going on here?’” Woods said. Dunlap let them nervously cool their heels for three hours before finally showing up to lecture them on tardiness. Point made. Needless to say, Woods and Cantwell never were late for a team meeting again.
That’s Mike Dunlap, say La Mott, White and Woods. He’s no-nonsense, but he’s fair, holds no grudges and always has his players’ best interests at heart. All he demands is that they be punctual and play hard.
“It’s tough love, for sure,” said White, who models his coaching style and disciplinary approach after his mentor.
Dunlap’s CLU alumni say he brought much more to the program than winning ways. Woods’ years playing basketball for the Kingsmen “were the greatest of my life.” Twenty years later, Woods said he still keeps in close touch with a number of former teammates. That, he said, is an equally important legacy of Dunlap’s.
“They’re still my ‘go-to’ guys,” Woods said. “Coach instilled in us that a team is like family and that would never change over time. And he’s right.”