Archdeacon: Dayton’s Grant flattening the curve while towering above the college game

Dayton’s Anthony Grant smiles after a victory against La Salle on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, at Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton’s Anthony Grant smiles after a victory against La Salle on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, at Tom Gola Arena in Philadelphia. David Jablonski/Staff

He wouldn’t really talk about it, but his wife did.

So did his two coaching mentors and lifelong friends – Shakey Rodriguez and Don Donoher.

The question was simple: How does a guy go from being fired from one high-profile college coaching job to, just five years later, winning every national coach of the year award that is being handed out?

Anthony Grant is the talk of college basketball now after guiding the Dayton Flyers to a school-best 29-2 record this season, a No. 3 national ranking, a perfect and unprecedented 18-0 record in Atlantic 10 Conference and a nation’s best 20-game winning streak that likely would have kept going had Covid-19 virus not put the full-court press on our lives, turned out all the gym lights and sent everyone into their homes.

Grant, his wife and their four children may be hunkered down in Bellbrook, but the national awards are finding their way to his doorstep.

He's been named the coach of the year by the Associated Press, Sporting News, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and the National Association of Basketball Coaches. And just a few days ago he was named the especially prestigious Naismith Men's College Coach of the Year.

He’s only the third coach in the 34-year history of the award to win after being fired from a Division I job.

Grant’s last college job before UD was at Alabama, where he had five winning seasons in six years and had four teams play in the postseason. But because only one made the NCAA Tournament – never mind that only seven Tide teams in the past 25 years have done so – he was let go from his job in March of 2015.

»PHOTOS: Anthony Grant through the years

Within three months, he had joined his old friend and closest mentor – Billy Donovan – who brought him onto his staff with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. Prior to that Grant had coached with Donovan at Marshall and for 10 years at the University of Florida.

In the spring of 2017, UD’s athletic director Neil Sullivan hired Grant to take over the Flyers, for whom he had played under Donoher from 1983-87.

Not only did Grant prove you can come home again, but this season he – along with his assistants, the team’s highlight-reel star Obi Toppin and a solid supporting cast of players – brought national attention to the program like it’s never had before.

With all that in mind I asked Grant – by phone, of course – how it felt to have his lot change so dramatically in five years.

There was a momentary pause on his end of the line and I could almost envision him quickly pulling on his rubber gloves and mask and backing six feet away from the phone.

I tried to further develop my question, asking if it was him or the situation that had changed in that time and if he had been thrown for a loop back then, considering his career had been bathed in so much previous success at Florida and then as the rising-star head coach at VCU.

He finally offered that he “knows about the highs and lows” of the game, but also said “I understand your question, but I don’t think in those terms.”

Basically, he said he focuses on his present situation and doesn’t look back.

Chris Grant did share some thoughts on her husband’s five-year swing of fortunes when we met for breakfast six weeks ago as the Flyers were marching past one opponent after another.

Dayton’s Anthony Grant talks to Dwayne Cohill during a game against Massachusetts on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton’s Anthony Grant talks to Dwayne Cohill during a game against Massachusetts on Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

“I thought it was a great idea coming here to Dayton,” she said. “I really did, especially after leaving a program where he had some challenges at Alabama. Not all programs are the same. Dayton is a special place and God allowed this opportunity to help (Anthony) reaffirm his ability as a coach.”

Saturday, Donoher discussed why Grant’s time at Alabama and Dayton are now so different:

“Anthony is strong in his convictions. And the convictions and the personnel he had down at Alabama didn’t mix. He lost some key players along the way.

“But he is not going to sacrifice his principles. That’s Anthony Grant. That’s girded him from Day I and it goes all the way back to the way he was brought up.”

Rodriguez coached Grant as a teenager at Miami Senior High in Florida and then brought him into the prep coaching ranks as one of his assistant on the Stingarees’ staff.

Since then Rodriguez himself became a college coach at Florida International University, had success was later dismissed and now is back as a successful high school coach.

“Anthony is a brilliant coach and not only that, he’s a great person, too,” Rodriguez said. “He should never have been fired at Alabama That was a mistake.

“Mike Krzyzewski was on the brink of being fired at Duke and Dean Smith (at North Carolina) was hung in effigy at one point. And those are some of the greatest coaches of all time.

“Coaching is a very fickle profession and with some people you’re only as good as your last game.”

‘They’ll find you’

“Dayton made a brilliant hire with Anthony,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s a difficult place, too. He took over a job where the expectations were high and the focus of everyone up there is entirely on basketball.”

Grant remembers when Sullivan approached him about returning to his alma mater: “At the time I told him, ‘This has to be right for Dayton. I want what is best for Dayton. If you think I can help, that I can make a difference, then I’m all for it.’”

Dayton’s Obi Toppin talks to Anthony Grant during a game against Drake on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff
Dayton’s Obi Toppin talks to Anthony Grant during a game against Drake on Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019, at UD Arena. David Jablonski/Staff

He had been interested in the job before, back when Brian Gregory was hired to replace Oliver Purnell in 2003.

Grant was a Florida assistant then and UD wasn’t that interested. So instead he became the head coach at VCU in 2006, won 76 games over three seasons, took two teams to the NCAA Tournament, the other to the NIT and was considered one of the hottest new coaches in the business.

That led to Alabama and then the Thunder.

“I never knew what he wanted then, but once he got into the NBA you had to think he was just going to stay there,” Donoher said. “I’ve always said when you go into the NBA it’s hard to come back out.”

And Grant claims he wasn’t looking to leave:

“I’m one of those guys who believes you should be locked in where you’re at. Focus on the job you have. If you do a great job, opportunities will come. If it’s meant to be, they’ll find you.

“I just believe you should always be where your feet are.”

Shared vision

Donoher said Grant’s success at Dayton came because he put together a staff that shared his vision and then found players who bought in as well.

The biggest find, of course, was Toppin, the unheralded recruit out of Brooklyn by way of a Maryland prep school. He redshirted his first year at UD and beefed up not only his academics, but grew two inches – to 6-foot-9—and added 25 pounds of muscle.

After a solid freshman season, he had his glorious, breakout sophomore season – mixing smiles and dunks and game after game of dominance – and has become everyone’s college player of the year as he now awaits the NBA draft.

With the postseason cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the coach of the year praise has been a bit muted for Grant, who is abiding to the stay-at-home directive like the rest of us are.

He and Chris – with the help of UD – posted a video advising everyone to take the virus threat seriously and to follow the safety precautions.

Always humble and deflecting praise, Grant used the current situation to avoid talking about all his honors:

“This is surreal for everybody, but like I said from Day 1, you have to try to have some perspective and consider what’s going on in our country now and how we’re being asked as citizens to help flatten the curve. Trying to stay safe and keeping your loved ones safe is all that matters now.”

That said, he and Chris are at home with their children, two of whom are in college and are finishing their classwork online, as is their youngest son who’s still in high school.

Along with working on recruiting and meeting with his staff, all by phone and social media, Grant said he and Chris take walks – “with her it’s more of a run-walk,” he laughed – they have family game nights and much of the rest of the time he said the kids are “in their own cocoons” with their computers, iTunes and Netflix.

“When they smell food in the kitchen their mom has cooked they come out of their chambers,” he laughed.

Two of them also materialized at a very special moment the other day.

“I was doing a Skype deal with CBS and when they announced the (Naismith) award, the two kids were sitting there watching and they started cheering in the background,” he said quietly.

“That was pretty cool.”