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June 10, 2008Ask Stanford senior forward Lawrence Hill for his first impressions of his new coach, Johnny Dawkins, and it sounds as if he is talking about someone taking over his third or fourth program, not his first.
"He came across as a very strong and very focused individual," Hill said, "someone who speaks his mind and knows what he is doing."
Many certainly wondered what Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby was doing when previous coach Trent Johnson abruptly took the LSU job and was replaced by a rookie coach with deep roots on the East Coast.
On the other side of the San Francisco Bay area, rival California hired the most experienced coach on the market - Mike Montgomery. The former Stanford head man spent 18 of his 26 years as a head coach with the Cardinal and turned a program that was barely relevant into a national power.
But Hill doesn't sound jealous. He says Dawkins' pedigree, combined with his confident demeanor, quickly won over his new players. Dawkins, 44, spent all 11 years of his coaching career as an assistant at Duke. During that time, the Blue Devils racked up a combined 11 ACC regular-season and tournament titles and captured a national title in 2001.
"If there is something I have learned about this university, it is that they choose the best to represent their teams," Hill said. "Having no coaching experience is nothing compared to the mountain of things he has to offer. If you look, he was primed and ready to make that next step."
Although schools had shown interest in the past, Dawkins never interviewed for another job even though four former Duke assistants took head-coaching jobs during his time at the school.
Dawkins, who was the first elite recruit for Mike Krzyzewski, has been referred to as the "most important player in Duke history" by former teammate and current TV analyst Jay Bilas. Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski called Dawkins "the godfather" of the program. But when Coach K mentioned that Stanford called inquiring about his availability, Dawkins' interest was piqued. He felt it was one of the few schools that could compare to Duke.
"No one expected me to take this, of course," said Dawkins, a native of the Washington, D.C., area. "I've had other opportunities, but never felt like it was the right fit. It was a difficult decision. You are always going to have mixed emotions. I loved my experience at Duke and I will miss a lot of people there and they will miss me. But I think everyone understood that I was preparing to be a head coach someday. That was always the dream.
"I can't think of a better institution to do that than Stanford. I really love the standard of excellence they have here. Their combination of athletics and academics is one of the best in the country. Just look at their teams and the type of students they have graduated."
When it comes to producing "student-athletes," nobody is on Stanford's level. The school has won 13 consecutive NACDA Directors Cups (formerly known as the Sears Directors Cup), awarded annually to the college with the most overall success in athletics.
Despite all the attention devoted to its athletic programs, Stanford has kept its status as one of the nation's top educational institutions. It was ranked No. 4 among the United States universities by U.S. News & World Report in 2008; Duke was eighth.
Dawkins says that even though all he has known as a college player and coach is Duke, he won't be preaching to his players about the Blue Devil way. In fact, in his first meeting with Stanford player, he told them he won't be mentioning Duke again.
"I told the team I don't want this to be about where I came from," Dawkins said. "This is about where I am now. I said, 'From this time on, this is the last time you will hear me reference where I've been.' "
That doesn't mean Dawkins' teams won't emulate the ones for which he played and coached. That is one of Dawkins' greatest hopes and one of the reasons he hired Mike Schrage, who had been Duke's basketball director of operations for nine seasons, to be his third assistant.
"I'm very comfortable with the system that we had (at Duke)," Dawkins said. "We had a fun style. I would like to see us play somewhat similar to that. Obviously, I realize that personnel dictates that."
Dawkins inherits a team that was similar to the ones Duke fielded the past two seasons: plenty of experience and production returning on the perimeter but little depth and many question marks on the interior.
"We had to shift a lot of focus to revolve around the twins," Hill said. "They were what made us go. But they didn't do everything. We have a great core group of upperclassmen who, now that they are given the opportunity, want to prove they can be good leaders, too."
That includes senior guards Mitch Johnson and Anthony Goods, veterans who will make up one of the nation's most experienced backcourts in 2008-09. Johnson solidified the point-guard spot this past season by averaging 5.2 assists and posting a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. In the Cardinal's second-round NCAA Tournament victory over Marquette, he dished out a school-record 16 assists while committing just one turnover in the overtime game.
Dawkins may be relying on a resurgence of sorts from Hill, another senior, more than anything else next season. An inside-outside scoring threat, Hill was a second-team All-Pac-10 performer as a sophomore, when he averaged a team-high 15.7 points and 6.0 rebounds. But he was asked to come off the bench at the start of last season and struggled. He finished the season averaging 8.6 points and 4.6 rebounds.
"I didn't put up the numbers a lot of people expected," said Hill, who suffered a broken finger in the Sweet 16 loss to Texas. "I'm always going to be a team player, but I should be aiming for those numbers next year. I lost a little bit of my edge and I'm working real hard on getting that back."
Hill is particularly confident that reserve guard Landry Fields (4.1 ppg) and little-used big man Josh Owens (a former top-150 prospect) can handle bigger roles. "Those two are like basketball robots," Hill said. "They both were given great bodies, and they never stop working hard."
Stanford's long-term success will depend largely on Dawkins' ability to recruit. That is perhaps the biggest area of concern because of his lack of West Coast connections. Hiring former Loyola Marymount coach Rodney Tention appears to be a move toward changing that. Tention was on Lute Olson's staff at Arizona from 1997-2005.
"He brings a wealth of experience," Dawkins said. "He is a proven recruiter, but the main thing I think he will provide is good teaching."
Pac-10 fans are more curious to know what Dawkins will provide. What kind of coach will he be? What kind of offense and defense will he run? Is he ready to be a head coach at this level?
Even Dawkins isn't sure of those answers. But he does know what not to expect ? an imitation of his former boss.
"The biggest piece of advice Mike gave me was to be myself," he said. "Don't try to be him."
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.