Staff Interview: Donny Daniels

A longtime SoCal fixture, <b>Donny Daniels</b> brings great experience and recruiting connections to the position of assistant basketball coach. He talks about the importance of recruiting...

Donny Daniels, 48, was hired as a basketball assistant coach on April 18th.

BRO: First, give us a quick synopsis of your career to date...

Daniels: I played high school ball at Verbum Dei High School, class of '72. From there I went on to Scottsdale Community College, then L.A. Harbor, then I matriculated into Cal State Fullerton, where I played for Bobby Dye. I graduated in 1977. I started coaching two years later, as a volunteer, and then became a full-time assistant for one season, then back to Verbum Dei for one year. I then became a part-time assistant at Cal State Fullerton for George McQuarn for three seasons. I became the head coach at L.A. Harbor, returned to Cal State Fullerton in 1986 and had a three-year stint there as a full-time assistant coach. In1989, I left there to go to the University of Utah for 11 seasons.  In 2000, I went back to Cal State Fullerton as a head coach. In 2003, I was offered the position of assistant coach at UCLA.

BRO: So, you've been coaching for how many years total?

Daniels: Twenty-four.

BRO: Making that move from head coach at Cal State Fullerton to an assistant at UCLA, what were some of the considerations that went into the decision?

Daniels: A big factor was that the people I spoke to, whom I respect a great deal, not one among them said it was a bad move. Basically, it was more, 'How could you not do it?' So it was an opportunity at 48 years old that didn't present itself at 38. That's more or less why I made the move from a professional standpoint.  Taking over the Fullerton job after probation, it was difficult, but we got through it. Then we had success my third season. But when this opportunity presented itself as a professional option, you have to consider that. If and when we turn around the situation at UCLA, it would probably be better for me professionally.  But it was also because, well, it's UCLA. It was also an emotional decision. Being in Southern California pretty much all my life, growing up here, you dream about either playing here or going here as a student.  When I was in high school or college we always came up here to events and activities, because it wa! s the place to be.  So, I have to think that I'm blessed.

BRO: What is - and what's been - your relationship with Ben Howland?

Daniels: I knew Ben when he was at UC Santa Barbara.  I saw him on the road. We really didn't recruit against each other. We visited the same schools for different kinds of players. Then when I went to Utah, Ben then became the head coach at Northern Arizona University. He came up to Utah to see how we ran our program, and to watch Rick (Majerus).  Rick became very close with Ben. We had success there as a team and I had success there in recruiting. We had success in  recruiting players from Southern California. And then Ben went to Pittsburgh. We stayed in touch. We didn't exchange Christmas cards or anything like that. But it was more, 'Congratulations on this win,' those kind of things. So, he was very familiar with me. I'm assuming he thought that when he came to UCLA it was a good situation that I knew Southern California and was able to recruit the area. He ws always complementing all of my efforts in recruiting.

BRO: Being a head coach, how does that help you now as an assistant?

Daniels: I know the distractions that a head coach doesn't want to deal with on a daily basis. Basically as a head coach you want to coach your team, prepare your team for games, and take care of the general business.  There are other things that present themselves. I got very used to that at Utah, with Rick having his responsibilities there as a head coach, as Ben has here. Working for Coach Majerus, you really learn the ins and outs of being an assistant coach. So, being a head coach, combined with having been an assistant coach for a high level program, I really know how to be an assistant well.    In the recruiting process, it's really knowing how to get down to the nuts and bolts of recruiting, so the head coach knows exactly what to do and how to do it, and pretty much closes the deal when it comes to having that player say yes I want to be a Bruin. Ben has to be visible, no question about it. But we have to be able to put him in the positi! on to close the deal.

BRO: You've been on the job for a couple of months. What have been some of your initial impressions of UCLA?

Daniels: It's been pretty much as I expected, based on the perception you have coming into a job like this.  You know about the tradition of the program, you know about Pauley Pavilion, and  the academic standards.  Those things weren't surprising.  UCLA is always in transition, always building and improving. Dan Guerrero is very conscious of facility upgrades. But what I've been most impressed about is how they treat all the sports here.   Just take a look at the UCLA Hall of Fame with those 90 national championships. So, sports, all sports, are very  important here. 

Nothing, though, has surprised me. People here are definitely great to work with. I would say the one thing that might be surprising is that there is no on-campus football stadium. That would probably be the most surprising, even though in college athletics it might not be that big of a deal.  But they are always in the process of improving facilities. You walk through campus and there is always someone knocking out a wall or digging something up. New facilities seem to be going up here all the time.  I've come up here almost every year for some reason or another for many years and the facilities have drastically changed. The athletic offices have gotten bigger and better.   It's a fun atmosphere. You know that they take it seriously and you have someone's attention. It makes it easier on me, when kids at night put their head down on their pillow wishing they could come to UCLA.

BRO: So, are you going to get that on-campus football stadium built?

Daniels: At this point, I'm just trying to find the right key to open Pauley.

BRO: In regards to recruiting, how do you think it's gone so far since you've been here? What are your initial impressions of recruiting for UCLA, and what are your goals for UCLA in recruiting overall and in the 2004 high school class?

Daniels: When we recruit for UCLA, we have to put academics first and foremost. It's going to be very important that we find young men that not only qualify by the NCAA, but are admissable into UCLA. UCLA takes pride in the fact that it gets athletes that are also very good academically. It's almost a 70% graduation rate among the athletes here, which is a testament to the kind of student-athletes that come to UCLAt. Secondly, being at UCLA, you have everyone's attention. No longer do I have to think that it may be too far for a kid from New Jersey, Florida or Ohio.  We have a legitimate chance at any individual from around the country. That's huge.

Recruiting so far has gone well. We're trying to get continuity, to identify younger players, stay consistent in recruiting younger players, and hopefully we'll be in a position as they get older to get commitments from them. I think the earlier we get involved with the younger players, we can be in an overall better position. We can discuss with their coaches what kind of academics they'll need, so they'll be prepared to get admitted to UCLA. So, being UCLA it enables you to get on kids earlier, and that's huge for us. The days of recruiting a kid when he's a senior are over, especially with the new academic reforms and how much tougher it is for recruits to qualify.  You have to be on top of these young men at an earlier age and make them understand just how important academics are.

BRO: So, a goal is, once you become successful on the court, to get it rolling in recruiting and get a steady pipeline by getting on kids earlier?

Daniels: I think the main goal is to attract the best student athlete. Being in Southern California and having millions of people in the area, it's a definite benefit. We just have to do our due-dilligence and put ourselves in a position to be involved with the best student athletes early.  The pipeline would definitely be Southern California.  We want to be in a position to keep the kids from Southern California who are in our own backyard home. That's our primary focus. To recruit Southern California thoroughly, recognize the best student athletes early, and do our best with it.

BRO: Do you think it's more critical now in today's recruiting landscape to get on a kid earlier and let him know that you're interested?

Daniels: It's critical. Kids are very impressionable. For a young man to say, 'Hey, the first letter I ever received was from UCLA,' if that gives us an advantage, that's great. The biggest thing for us here is identifying and getting on kids early and hopefully make an impression on them about their academics.  You want to make sure they're taking the right classes, opting to go to summer school possibly rather than playing some summer to improve their academic situation. Because if there are kids who are gifted enough to play here but can't because of academics, it's a shame that they'll miss out on the opportunities that UCLA could give them in life. The resources, the people you meet here, the name recognition, the degree. The impact it would make on a kid's life. You can come away from UCLA and be able to write your own ticket after college.  So, to identify them early, when they're impressionable, and making an impression upon them about the pos! sible opportunity they could have in coming to UCLA is really important.

Kids, with the Internet, also have so much knowledge and information now earlier than they ever have. It's incredible. As we're talking about this, we're trying to identify and get on very young kids, like 8th graders going into the ninth grade. Kids are playing competitively much earlier now, scouting services are identifying them at a much younger age, and we can't stand by and not acknowledge it. We have to be proactive, get on the bandwagon, embrace it and be a part of it. We have to get on them early.

BRO: The high school class of 2004 will be your first class. How important is it?

Daniels: It's important from the standpoint of credibility for a new staff. Not only for ourselves, but for the university and the community, to show that UCLA has a good reputation again, that kids have a good impression of it, and they want to be involved in UCLA. We know we're in a fishbowl being here and people are watching what we do, and watching our first recruiting class. But  I feel, and always have felt, that UCLA has so many benefits that it has the potential to be the #1 basketball program in the country. The tradition here has nothing to do with this staff.  We've added nothing to the tradition. We're basically living off of it. But in order for us to be succcesful we realize that we have to work extremely hard, and let everyone know that we'll work extremely hard, and not take anything for granted. That's what I think this first recruiting class will do for us.

BRO: Being from Verbum Dei and then Cal State Fullerton, how will those long-held SoCal connections benefit you?

Daniels: Just with Verbum Dei alone, there's quite a bit. The tradition there, of feeding players to UCLA from Verbum Dei has been huge. There was David Greenwood, Kenny Fields, Cliff Pruitt, Roy Hamilton, and a slew of guys that came here from Verbum Dei.  At one time, Verbum Dei was the pipeline to UCLA. But your connections really only get you so far.  At Utah we were very fortunate to get Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller, but I don't think we could have gotten them to Cal State Fullerton.  I'm going to definitely use my connections to my advantage. But I'll definitely use the four letters I'll be wearing on my chest to the biggest advantage. I'm going to wear them proudly. And with that behind me, with the connections and resources, I'm excited about going out this summer and talking about UCLA.

BRO: With the new staff, how has the atmosphere been, and what kind of strengths do you think each staff member brings to the table?

Daniels: With Kerry and myself, we're learning about Ben as we go. Ernie and Chris Carlson have had the opportunity to work with Ben.  So, we're learning as we go. The one thing about the staff is that we're very energetic and enthusiastic, to get out and recruit and try and get the best players.  It's definitely given me a shot in the arm. Knowing that we'll be out there recruiting for UCLA can do that for you. Kerry's  younger than I am, and has a great deal of energy. He's raring to go. I think that's good.  We meet on a weekly basis about recruiting.  It's not a situation where we feel we can lay back and recruits are going to come because it's UCLA. This staff is definitely not like that. We have to work as hard as Duke, Stanford and Cal. We have to get out there and make an impression across the country.  We're very eager to do that.  The west coast, midwest and east coast is covered. That doesn't necessarily mean that we'll b! e successful in those areas, but it does mean that we know about certain individuals and have contacts in those areas.  That's what Ben tried to do when he put together this staff. He keeps saying that this is the best staff in the country.  It's a great compliment. And I appreciate his confidence in us. But we have to go out there and prove it not only to him, but to the university and to the rest of college basketball.

BRO: You had a reputation for developing big men in Utah. How do you conceive of UCLA's future front court? When it comes to depth, the type of players you're looking for, etc.

Daniels: I think that goes back to recruiting. You have to find a very talented individual for his position. We're no different than any other program. We want to try to find a center with size and hands. We try to find a four man in our situation that can step out on the floor and do some things on the perimeter. We try to find wing players that are athletic, have size, and have length in their arms. We want players that play hard, that want to play. And a point guard that is very savvy. Those assessments are probably the same as every program in the country.

BRO: Have you talked to Ben about what specifics he looks for in a player or a recruit?

Daniels: Yes, in our meetings, the topic of toughness has been big. It's a major factor.  I think Ben wants a good student that is a good player and a good person. That's what everyone wants, too, but he wants toughness and size. When I say size I don't necessarily mean height but girth. You want a guy who has the ability to put on some pounds.  You want a physically-natured kid who doesn't mind to bump and bang and get over picks.  Toughness is so important to him, because when you get to the tournament you have to have that. You have to have someone who wants to play tough. And guys just can't suddenly turn it on. You need guys with that mentality.  That mentality is well-suited to play for Coach Howland.

BRO: What are your goals for the UCLA program and the staff?

Daniels: I will echo Ben's comments when he was on ESPN the other day. We want to be in a consistent position to win the Pac-10 championship. It's great to get to the NCAA tournament, but they take the top five in this conference. A big thing is to be consistent in our conference, and win some Pac-10 championships. That will then give you a good seed in the tournament, and then as Coach Howland said, you just have to win six games.  I've been very fortunate to have been involved in a championship game, and  several Sweet 16s and Elite 8 games. I think that's the goal here. That's Coach Howland's goal. To be consistent in the Pac-10, and then try to win a national championship. In order to do that you need some luck. But more importantly, you need good players to do it. So, recruiting is everything.

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