Billy Donlon was driving back to Dayton from Chicago to say a goodbye that many of us think should not be happening.
Three years after he was named the Horizon League coach of the year and three days after he led his Wright State team to its third 20-plus wins season in four years, a tie for the most league wins by a WSU team and the third appearance in four years in the title game of the league tournament, Donlon was fired as the Raiders’ basketball coach.
WSU athletics director Bob Grant informed Donlon of his decision last Friday, but the news didn’t leak out until Wednesday afternoon.
Donlon had a sense the firing might happen as the year progressed. Grant rarely spoke to him anymore.
The school has refused to confirm the firing.
“There is nothing official to release,” Bob Noss, WSU’s sports information director, said.
But one current player confirmed Grant met with the team late Wednesday afternoon to deliver the news. In the process, the player said the AD had delivered a negative assessment not only of what the team had accomplished this season, but of the way he thought the program had diminished in recent years.
Donlon declined to discuss any of that Wednesday as he returned to WSU with his dad, Bill Donlon Sr., the Raiders’ director of basketball operations. He did, though, confirm his firing.
“I can’t comment publicly,” he said in a voice steeped in emotion. “I haven’t even met with my players. I’ve just got to get back and talk to them. I just didn’t want it to be this way.”
While he stayed mum, others in the basketball world did not.
“If the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) has any solidarity or sack, the Wright State job would be boycotted by every coach…Donlon 13-5 in Conf. & Champ Game 3 of last 4 years,” Dan Dakich, the ESPN sportscaster, Indianapolis radio host and former Bowling Green and Indiana coach wrote in a Twitter rant Wednesday.
“This is awful…no backstory, just a bad bad administration and awful AD,” Dakich wrote in another post. “AD told him before the year, win the Horizon or ur out! Didn’t talk to him. Went behind his back Bob Grant AD = worst.”
To qualify, Dakich does have some history with WSU. He was brought in for an interview for the Raiders job before Ed Schilling was hired in 1997. At the time, he and Grant, then an assistant AD, didn’t hit it off.
Dakich went on to coach Bowling Green for a decade and then serve as IU’s interim coach.
He is a broadcaster with national sway now, as is Paul Biancardi, the former WSU coach who was let go after three years and is now an ESPN commentator.
Biancardi was also critical of Donlon’s firing.
“When your athletic director doesn’t talk to you for months during the season, that’s a sign,” he wrote on Twitter. “Billy Donlon was tied for most wins ever in the Horizon League by a WSU coach with 13. When you win 22 games a contract extension is next.”
And then there was the parent of a player on this season’s team who said Donlon was great for his son: “I’d trust Billy with anything.”
Donlon stands out among many colleges for things you don’t see on the basketball tally sheet. He pushes academics. He looks out for his athletes’ welfare away from the court.
And he involves himself in human betterment issues like Coaches vs. Cancer, where each year he donates a trip for two – airfare, hotel, social functions, game tickets — to the Final Four that is auctioned off and makes several thousand dollars for the charity. He does it, in part, as a remembrance of his mom, who died from breast cancer.
As for his coaching resume, Donlon followed Brad Brownell to WSU, serving him as a Raiders assistant for four years, just as he had done before that at UNC-Wilmington, his alma mater.
Six years ago, when Brownell left for Clemson, Grant made the 33-year-old Donlon one of the youngest head coaches in NCAA Division I basketball.
In six seasons Donlon went 109-94. He had two losing seasons, though last year’s 11-20 mark was an aberration if you consider three starters were lost for most of the season to injuries.
This year’s 22-13 team gave Valparaiso, the 16-2 league champion, its only two losses in conference play. In the tournament, the Raiders won three straight games before falling to Green Bay, 78-69, in the final. The loss cost the Raiders a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The fact that WSU has made the NCAA Tournament only twice — in 1993 and 2007 — since becoming a Division I program in 1987 is a gnawing concern for some around WSU. And the fact that across town, the Dayton Flyers are now in their third straight NCAA Tournament — they play Syracuse here Friday — has made the issue more acute.
At least one big-time WSU donor who sits courtside has seen that failure as a reflection on Donlon and is said to have made it known to Grant.
The assessment is unfair if you consider some of the areas where the WSU program is lacking:
The assistant coaches are thought to be the lowest-paid in the Horizon League. WSU is one of three schools in the 10-school league that doesn’t have a full-time strength coach for basketball, and Donlon, unlike some of his predecessors, hasn’t been able to get the program to buy Division I games for the Nutter Center.
Conversely, Donlon’s teams have left home to play nine power conference teams on the road. This year, Kentucky and Xavier, last year Ohio State, and before that Cincinnati three times, Florida, OSU again, and Indiana.
Brownell, who is close to Grant and especially Donlon, gave his protégé some advice a few days before the firing:
“Get out of there.”
Donlon thought about it, but he’s had undying devotion to the school and has been one of its most vocal champions in public.
Grant saw that when he hired him and spoke about it that day in 2010 when he introduced Donlon as his new coach:
“He truly loves this university. I mean he’s passionate about it.”
That’s why Donlon wouldn’t speak out Wednesday. Why he just wanted to get back and talk to his players one last time.
“They’re great kids,” he said quietly. “I just didn’t want it to be this way.”