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Oct. 25, 2010
By Bill Hass
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The reality of coaching in the ACC began to sink in on Steve Donahue last week at Operation Basketball, the league's annual preseason gathering of coaches, players and media.
"I'm kind of looking around here like I should grab a pen and paper and take some notes," said Donahue, the first-year coach at Boston College. He was sitting in a room where veteran ACC coaches like Roy Williams, Gary Williams and Paul Hewitt were conducting interviews.
This is the first time in league history there have been three new basketball coaches in the same season. Besides Donahue, the others are Jeff Bzdelik at Wake Forest and Brad Brownell at Clemson. All were exposed to a full day - starting at 6 a.m. - in front of TV cameras, doing radio interviews and talking to columnists, beat writers and bloggers.
While there is a daunting side to their new jobs, make no mistake about the three new guys on the block. All are successful, confident in their abilities and eager to join in the ACC basketball fray. If they weren't, as several of the established coaches pointed out, they wouldn't be where they are now.
Bzdelik came to Wake from Colorado. He also coached at Air Force and has an extensive background in the NBA as a scout, assistant coach and head coach. He seemed the most matter-of-fact about the task at hand.
"(It's) nothing out of the ordinary, to be honest with you," he said. "No matter where I'm at, it's exciting starting a new year and I'm looking forward to it.
"One great thing about the ACC in my mind is that it is the number one basketball conference and to me it's a championship-caliber conference. You have championship coaches, you have championship teams, and as someone who just loves the competition, what better stage than to compete against the very best?"
Brownell has the most familiarity with the ACC, having watched it for 12 years at UNC Wilmington, first as an assistant and then as a head coach. He moved from there to Wright State before being hired by Clemson. Those UNCW teams played several games against ACC opponents, including a memorable NCAA Tournament game against Maryland that was the 500th career win for Terps coach Gary Williams.
"Drew Nicholas made a one-legged runner with about one second left from 35 feet," Brownell recalled with a grimace. "That was probably the most difficult loss by far."
Having coached in many of the ACC arenas, Brownell has an idea of what to expect.
"Hopefully my team will be prepared well," he said. "Winning on the road at this level is very difficult; not very many teams get many road wins. But it will be exciting and fun to go see all the different venues."
Just walking into some of those places still thrills a veteran coach like Miami's Frank Haith, now in his seventh season.
"The atmospheres when you go on the road are tremendous," Haith said, "and the knowledge of the fan bases is tremendous from a basketball standpoint. I grew up in it. I love it.
"It's a dream come true for me to walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium and see the Cameron Crazies and have an appreciation for who they are and what they stand for. And going into the Dean Dome and seeing the jerseys from the rafters."
That's part of the experience the new guys will be dealing with. Another is the caliber of competition from top to bottom.
"It's an unforgiving league," said Virginia's Tony Bennett, who was the new guy last season and at one point endured a nine-game losing streak. "The difference between the bottom of the league and the middle and near the top is sometimes not as big as you think. As you're establishing your program, you're never that far away from being good or not so good, and that's humbling.
"Year in and year out, at worst the ACC is gong to be a very, very good league. At best it's the premier conference in the country. It doesn't have a cycle where it just falls off the table and isn't good. To me, that's what a good league is."
That's one of the things that stands out to Donahue. During his 10-year stint at Cornell, capped by taking the Big Red to the Sweet 16 last season, five national champions came from the ACC.
"I don't think there's (another) league in the country that can say no program is down," he said. "Everybody has been to the NCAA tournament since 2006. I grew up loving basketball as a fan first and I've always thought of the ACC as the purest league.
"The ACC tournament was one of my first recollections of any sporting event. The thing about the ACC is it's a national league, it always has been since I started following it in the 70s with David Thompson and the North Carolina State teams and Phil Ford and Dean Smith at North Carolina. That captivated the whole country."
Each new coach will try, as much as possible, to mold his team to his philosophy. The challenges are quite different. At Wake Forest, five of Bzdelik's 10 scholarship players are freshmen and two more are sophomores.
"We have some nice young talent, we do," he said. "But I also know the beast we're up against on every single night. All I want my players to do is play with great passion, great energy in a collective way, to get better every single day, to be fearless, to play through mistakes and you know what, when the smoke clears we'll see what happens. I really believe the young men will respond. They're anxious to play, they're excited about it and I'm excited about coaching them." Brownell will bring a style to Clemson that involves less full-court defensive pressure and more offensive freedom.
"Our guys are hungry, they're excited, they want to be coached, and I'm really enjoying working with the group that way," Brownell said. "Because of the new philosophy and way of doing things it's probably going to take us a little while longer to get ourselves going in the right direction.
"But interest in the program is really high, season tickets are already as high as they've ever been, so those are all good things. We just want to put together a good program with good kids, good product on the floor, play hard, play together, be unselfish and compete. Hopefully we can begin to take the next step and have some success, not only in the ACC but hopefully in the NCAA tournament as well."
At Boston College, Donahue inherits a roster with five ACC-toughened, experienced players but very little depth. He may not be able to fully implement his system until he can recruit players to it.
"I think I have a fairly unique style," he said. "This group was recruited under another system and played three years under it. My job is to play well within their strengths and what I'm trying to accomplish in the long run. To be honest, it's a battle every day to decide what is going to help us win now and what is going to build the future."
That style revolves around every player being able to shoot the 3-pointer, even the big men.
"We don't have your typical power forward or center," Donahue said. "Mostly we have five guys out there that can pass, dribble and shoot, more like a European style. I hope you see some real smart, intelligent basketball, unselfish basketball, not that that's unique but hopefully it's something that we do."
Boston College and Clemson each play a league game in December while Wake Forest does not. Full indoctrination into the world of ACC basketball begins in January and continues through the league tournament in March.
So, what words of wisdom do the veteran coaches have for what faces the new guys?
"I would just let them know that every game out will be a dogfight," said Florida State's Leonard Hamilton. "The only way you prepare yourselves for the games is to take a one-day-at-a-time approach with your team and make sure that you're playing at your very best in practices."
Bennett's advice was "lace them up tight. And I tell myself that, too."
Haith laughed and said, "it's not easy."
Gary Williams, tongue planted firmly in cheek, said he wouldn't say anything to help the new guys. Then he added this: "I'd say just be yourself. Whatever got you here must have been pretty good so don't change the way you coach. Just be you, whatever that is."
Mixing with all the veteran coaches on the same day was a fun outing for the new guys. But when the games begin in earnest, all three know they will not be granted any favors.
"That's the thing at this level," Brownell. "We're all smiles today but when it's game night guys are trying to take your heart out. You know that going in, but it should be a great year and a lot of fun."
And next year's October's Operation Basketball, none of the three will feel they need to take notes.
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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