For Anthony Grant, a first impression has lasted a lifetime.
In March of 1983, Grant was a 16-year-old basketball player in Miami, Fla. who was being recruited by the Dayton Flyers. He knew little about the team and even less about the school and the town.
Dan Hipsher, an assistant on Don Donoher’s staff back then, had become friends with Grant’s high school coach, Shakey Rodriguez, who lobbied him about his hard-working, 6-foot-5 senior.
Hipsher then convinced Donoher to bring the kid in for a visit.
“I came and watched Dayton play DePaul and Dayton got the win that night,” Grant recalled. “Seeing the atmosphere in the Arena and the (Roosevelt Chapman led) team Coach Donoher put on the floor, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of.
“I’m eternally grateful to Coach Donoher and Coach Hipsher for taking a chance on me.”
From 1983-87 Grant played 106 games for the Flyers, went to two NCAA tournaments and one NIT and finished with a career average of 11.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Now, 33 years later – still fit and impeccably dressed on the sidelines, though his suit jacket does come off for the second half — he’s back coaching the No. 7 ranked Flyers, who are 17-2 and 6-0 in the Atlantic 10 Conference going into Saturday’s game at Richmond.
This is the highest national ranking the team has had in 53 years and the town – like it was in Grant’s freshman season when UD made the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight – is abuzz.
But the euphoria this year has swirled since just before Thanksgiving when the Flyers – and especially their high-flying dunk-master Obi Toppin – had a national coming-out party at the Maui Invitational.
Grant took a few minutes to talk with me about all that as he sat in his office the other morning, less than 12 hours after his Flyers had routed St. Bonaventure, 86-60, at the Arena.
By the time I arrived, he was well into putting a plan together for Richmond. But along with those game to game Xs and Os, he has to guide his team through the headiness that comes from the sudden national attention and the annual — and this year over-amped — local embrace.
“We have an extremely passionate fan base that loves Flyers basketball,” he said. “They’ve been there through great years and even some low years. They love the Flyers and I’m not gonna sit here and say, ‘Hey, don’t be happy! Don’t celebrate!’ They’ve earned that right.
“This isn’t Anthony Grant’s team or the university’s team, it’s Dayton’s team.
“But I also hope everybody here understands the big picture. This is a team trying to win an A- 10 championship and make some noise come March.
“So when you’re dealing with 18 to 22 year olds, you can’t have them thinking they’re something they’re not just six games into this. But I also understand it’s the world we live in – with all the media and social media and everything getting overhyped and sensationalized.
“I’ve got to give them some perspective and say, ‘Here’s what real. And this is what we need to do for it to continue.’”
UD assistant coach Ricardo Greer said Grant does a good job of that with the players:
“He gets them to understand the most important thing for you is your brother to your left and your brother to the right. That’s the environment he’s created here.
“He’s a great role model for these guys. He holds them to a high standard, but he’s also gonna love on ‘em, too.”
‘It helps to have some luck’
Although he was a longtime assistant for Billy Donovan at Florida and the head coach at both VCU and Alabama, Grant never forgot his UD roots.
He had been interested in the Dayton job in 2003 when Oliver Purnell left, but wasn’t brought in for an interview. And in the years that followed he said he always kept an eye on the Flyers.
“The place was always special to me because I played here and was a graduate. I’d always check ESPN for their scores.”
He was an Oklahoma City Thunder assistant when he was hired to replace Archie Miller, who left for Indiana.
“With the first team, we had a roster that I just wasn’t familiar with after spending two years in the NBA,” Grant said. “I just hadn’t been around college basketball.”
He said the first thing he did was try “to salvage” the recruiting class. He kept three of Miller’s recruits — that trio has since left — but lost two incoming players.
Forced to find replacements quickly and late in the recruiting cycle, he could not have fared better.
The pair of last-minute pickups?
Jalen Crutcher and Obi Toppin.
“It helps to have some luck,” Grant smiled.
Crutcher was available because he had de-committed from Chattanooga when coach Matt McCall left. And Toppin was a mostly unheralded player at a Maryland prep school.
» CHASING HISTORY: Five ways Dayton can join the list of A-10’s greatest teams
Grant’s other major score was putting together a solid coaching staff that features veteran Anthony Solomon – who had been the head coach at St. Bonaventure and an assistant at several schools, including UD under Brian Gregory and Notre Dame – as well as the charismatic Greer, who was recommended by another vet on that initial staff, Donnie Jones, who’s since become the Stetson head coach.
Grant also added Darren Hertz, James Kane (now at Iowa State) and Andy Farrell to that first staff. All had worked with him previously, knew his philosophy and were loyal.
The team has got better in each of the group’s three seasons and was especially bolstered by a trio of transfers this year: Ibi Watson, Rodney Chatman and Jordy Tshimanga.
Crutcher has turned into an unflappable standout and the effervescent Toppin has become a national darling who is projected to be a first round NBA draft pick should he leave UD early
The real key though may be two unsung players, seniors Ryan Mikesell and Trey Landers, both holdovers from the Miller days who have grown immensely with Grant.
“They’re two of the older guys and they bought into what we’re doing,” Greer said. “They weren’t our guys, but now they are. They’re our guys more than ever because and they’re our phenomenal leaders.”
A nod to the past
Since Grant has taken over, several former UD plyers have reached out to the program.
UD Hall of Famer Sedric Toney – a Flyer teammate of Grant’s who played seven years in the NBA and is now an ESPN commentator – was at the St, Bonaventure game and spoke to the team in the dressing room afterward.
“They met Roosevelt (Chapman) when we were in Chicago,” Grant said. “Brian Roberts has come by practice and spoke to them. Don Hughes is coming to our game in Richmond.
“Dan Christie’s here in town and Damon (Goodwin) stays in contact. Rory (Dahlinghaus) is on campus and Kevin Conrad texts me before and after each game. Steve Smith and Eric Mathews have reached out, too.
“And when Chris Wright was here for the Hall of Fame, I didn’t get a chance to talk to him afterward, but I’d love for him to say a few words to the team.
“Our guys should know who laid the foundation for everything they have now. There were a lot of great teams, a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches here before them and our guys have a responsibility to represent them.”
» MARCH FORECAST: Where Dayton stands in NCAA tournament picture
Yet, the other morning Grant said he couldn’t really say he was “having fun” this season:
“I wish I could step away from it, but I’m caught in the heat of the moment. I’m dialed in, trying to maximize the opportunity we have.”
But that “no fun” claim isn’t entirely true.
After Crutcher’s last second, three-point shot at the buzzer lifted the Flyers past St. Louis in overtime last Friday night, Grant joined his celebrating players in the locker room and managed a few old school dance moves that left his players tittering.
“Yeah, I’m gonna have to help him with that,” Greer laughed. “But the kids loved it.”
Grant said he heard the same reviews from his wife and four kids, two of whom go to UD.
“They told me I need some lessons,” he laughed. “You can tell I don’t spend a whole lot of my time on the dance floor.”
But come mid-March — and the Big Dance — he and a lot of other folks here hope that will change.
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