SALT LAKE CITY — Back in Utah for the bazillionth time since he lived here, Donny Daniels still sounds as he always does when he returns: happy to be here.
That’s not how Russell Westbrook would react, but it’s that way for Daniels. He coached at the University of Utah for 11 years as an assistant for Rick Majerus. After leaving for his first and only head coaching job — three years at Cal State Fullerton — he moved on to UCLA as an assistant for seven seasons.
Daniels settled in when he landed an assistant’s job at Gonzaga in 2010; he’s been there ever since. It’s no coincidence Utah and Gonzaga both reached the Final Four once and UCLA three times while he was on the bench. A lot of people must agree, because in May he’ll be inducted into the Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame.
“It just says I’m very blessed to be around great coaches, great players,” Daniels said on Wednesday.
With a No. 1 seed in the Salt Lake NCAA Tournament regional, the Bulldogs have a strong chance at returning.
Speaking of returns, Daniels has never entirely left Utah. He coached road games here with his Fullerton teams, and with his UCLA teams and his Gonzaga teams. Utah wasn’t a road trip, it was a stop by the homestead. He knows about Ruth’s Diner and Lagoon and haunted Devereaux and the mole poblano at Red Iguana. He’s absolutely certain that if someone wants to get in some extra practice reps, he can find a gym — at practically any church in the state.
Daniels also knows Utah is being cast as an undesirable place for minorities, thanks to the recent uproar involving Oklahoma City Thunder star Westbrook. Two Jazz fans have been banned for life after video showed them directing taunts at Westbrook.
While Daniels, who is African-American, says he was treated wonderfully by all Utahns, he also knows things can happen with individuals. Years ago, a late-night TV program in Salt Lake featured a guest who was asked why Daniels, who is African-American, hadn’t yet been made a head coach. The guest said he wasn’t sure how many African-Americans actually wanted to be head coaches.
Whether Daniels ever saw or heard about the TV program, he never brought it up. He has coached players from China, the South Pacific, Japan, France, Serbia, Canada and everywhere in America, and has been involved in games all around the country and at various international locations. That has given him a respectable worldview on race.
“It’s no different than anywhere else,” Daniels said.
He went on to say “there’s no place” for racial taunts and “none of that should be tolerated.”
But he said in his years in Utah he “went to many Jazz games and I have never, ever been involved in anything like that, walking around a store, anything.”
Meanwhile, he’s coaching a team that’s different than almost everywhere else. The Zags have reached the NCAA Tournament 21 consecutive years, the fourth-longest streak in the country. If the selection committee is on target, they will return to the Final Four this month.
Gonzaga, he points out, plays a schedule that includes teams such as Tennessee, Texas A&M and North Carolina, as well as most of the Pac-12 teams.
“We have Pac-12 (level) players,” he said. “We play a Pac-12 schedule.”
He says head coach Mark Few has built a legacy “that will go down with John Wooden.”6 comments on this story
“Everybody has their runs,” Daniels said, ticking off schools such as Massachusetts, George Mason and UNLV that have come and gone. “The most amazing thing about that is that we’ve been to the tournament the whole time. You can go up and down the quote-unquote mid-majors. What Mark (Few) has done here is that Gonzaga is a major program. He’s been driving the ship for a long time. Just to get from mid-major to a major program is unbelievable. ”
To get from Spokane to Salt Lake?
Entirely believable at this time of year.