Bob McKillop’s 25 years “helping the helper” is a testament to the practice of time and love.
His first Division I win in his first season came in February against the University of Central Florida in Orlando, in front of 417 people. His parents were there—his mother, who was a homemaker, and his father, who was a New York City cop. When Bob McKillop walked outside that gym, the warm air on his face felt like relief.
He won four games that year, 1989-90, the other three coming against non-Division I competition, and then 10 the next, and then 11 the year after that. In his fifth season, though, in 1994, he and his team played for the Southern Conference championship. In 1996 they did it again. In 1998 they won it. They won it in 2002. They won it in 2006. They won it in 2007 and 2008. They won it in 2012 and 2013.
Now, in his 25th season, after a quarter century of teaching basketball at Davidson College, McKillop, 63, is the school’s most successful coach ever. He is the conference’s most successful coach ever.
His teams have beaten Clemson and Miami and Mississippi and Missouri and Vanderbilt and West Virginia and Arizona State and North Carolina State and South Carolina and North Carolina and Kansas. His teams have won so much in the Southern Conference that the school is leaving it for the Atlantic 10.
This past fall, at the Main Street restaurant Toast, he talked about “the education” he’s gotten at Davidson.
“It has taught me,” he said, “the two greatest gifts I can give are time and love.”
Both of which coursed through the team bus one night last season along a dark Interstate 85 during maybe the most remarkable ride home in Davidson basketball history.
Time and Love
In all of major college basketball there is nothing like what McKillop has built at Davidson. That’s not rah-rah go-team alumni-mag hyperbole. There is no other place with fewer than 2,000 students that ranks among the nation’s finest liberal arts colleges that not only plays at the highest level of the sport but earns with such regularity prized berths in the postseason tournament. No other place.
Davidson people think this is great.
But basketball people? They think it’s astounding.
Even McKillop came to Davidson to go somewhere else. He came to win, to win big and to win fast, so he could leave—leave for a bigger, better, more lucrative job. The wonder looking back is that he didn’t leave for that—he stayed for it.
“Unless your efforts here at Davidson College are fueled by passion for Davidson College—that’s a key, key, key thing—unless your efforts are fueled by your passion for Davidson, no matter how hard you work, no matter how much energy you have in your stop, you’ll never succeed,” he said. “I worked my tail off my first three years here but it wasn’t fueled by my love for Davidson. It was fueled by my ego. And I learned that I had to fuel it with Davidson emotion.”
His daughter, Kerrin, graduated from Davidson in 2002; his son, Matt, graduated from Davidson in 2006; his son, Brendan, graduated from Davidson in 2011. Matt and Brendan, of course, played for him, too. Davidson became his home as it became his family’s home.
His time at Davidson is now the eighth-longest tenure among Division I basketball coaches.
With that longevity has come consistency.
Davidson basketball under the guidance of McKillop starts with three words—trust, commitment, care—and focuses on seven keys. Act. See. Talk. Flesh. Balance. Details. Finish.
Little things, little things, little things, he stresses—because little things are not little things, he believes.
“Saving that loose ball might make the difference of one point at the end of the game,” senior Chris Czerapowicz said this fall after a workout at Belk Arena. “These types of things add up,” senior Tom Droney said. When you’re running to the corner, senior De’Mon Brooks explained, run to the corner. Not near it. To it. “The spot is the spot,” he said.
McKillop’s practices are fast-paced and minute-to-minute planned, charted on legal pad pages, tweaks made with Wite-Out, drills slotted meticulously—3:37-3:41, 3:41-3:43, 3:43-3:45—student managers bringing water bottles to players because waiting around a water cooler is wasted time.
In games, he breaks the 40 minutes into 10 four-minute rounds. Win the rounds, win the game.
The line is thin, he tells them, so work for every advantage. Don’t guard yourself.
Attack the attacker. Attack the attacker means push all the time but push the hardest right after the opponent has done something good. Don’t dwell.
Help the helper. Help the helper means, in essence, play team defense. It means one five beats five ones.
The most basic rhythms and movements of a Davidson game have become familiar. Rosters change. Core philosophies don’t. The players that play for him today do things in so many of the same ways the players who played for him 10 years ago did, and 20 years ago, and 25 years ago. Brooks, scheduled to graduate in 2014, runs the court like Jake Cohen ’13, like Thomas Sander ’08, like Ian Johnson ’06, like Chris Pearson ’02, like Landry Kosmalski ’00, like Ben Ebong ’99, like Quinn Harwood ’96. Same thing at point guard. Same thing on the wings. They run because of where others have run. None of them run alone.
“Everything that I know about coaching, or 95 percent or more, I learned through my experience as an assistant for him,” said Matt Matheny ’93, who used to work for McKillop at Davidson and is now the head coach at Elon University.
“There’s something every day that I use that comes from Coach McKillop and Davidson basketball,” said Jason Zimmerman ’94, a former assistant, too, who is now the head coach at Emory University in Atlanta.
“Here’s what I think is really special,” Zimmerman said. “You got guys like Detlef Musch, Janko Narat, Brandon Williams, Chris Alpert”—Classes of ’93, ’94, ’96, ’96—“we come back to Davidson and we see our coach. We’re all connected. I feel a part of that. Because the same guy who taught me how to play basketball at Davidson College is teaching guys in 2013.”
And for those who are still playing, from Stephen Curry for the NBA’s Golden State Warriors to any of the grads playing in professional leagues all over the world—and for the many who are not, or never did—the lessons still apply.
Help the helper isn’t just a basketball thing.
In the Zone
So that bus trip? It happened last Feb. 27 on the way back from Elon.
The team had beaten Matheny’s team, always a tense, difficult game, because even though Matheny’s Elon’s coach he’s still a Davidson man, and this one was particularly stressful because Elon’s good now. Matheny’s made them good. McKillop’s Davidson team won a division championship last year. So did Matheny’s Elon team. The score that night, though, was 69-63, the Wildcats’ 13th straight win, and they boarded the bus in a triumphant mood.
Then they started to get text messages. They saw some chatter on Twitter. A little more than 500 miles to the north, in midtown Manhattan at Madison Square Garden, Curry had 27 points at halftime in his game against the New York Knicks.
The TVs on the bus flipped to ESPN.
And there was Curry—no, Stephen—Stephen doing what he had done in college now as a pro, against the most athletic, tallest, best basketball players in the world, those feather-soft floaters, those high, lofted layups, those threes from the corner, those threes off ball fakes, those threes slipped through slivers of space, his release so impossibly quick, his feet plants so lickety-split, from full bore to full stop to three points. In the fourth quarter, he dribbled the ball behind his back, near the arena logo on the floor, some 35 feet from the basket, and up it went—just far enough away from the other point guard, just over the hand of a rushing 7-foot-tall defender, the ball going so high that for a while it wasn’t even on the screen, then coming back down and dropping through the hoop, touching not one iota of the rim. “WOW!” the ESPN announcer yelled. On that bus, on that night, those Davidson players watching that Davidson player—they erupted in cheers.
“The bus was rocking,” assistant coach Jim Fox said.
“No one had headphones on, no one was on the phone with their girlfriend, no one was texting,” said Matt McKillop, now an assistant coach, too.
The older McKillop stopped watching film of the just-finished game against Elon, shut his laptop and started watching his former player, one of the many, certainly the most known. “It was a great feeling of joy,” he said. “As our players sat on the bus and watched Stephen he was one of us. Here was a Davidson guy. Here was the pinnacle of success for what a Davidson guy is accomplishing. Each dribble, each move, each shot—it was as if they were sitting on the bench in Madison Square Garden in the same uniform as Stephen.”
At the Garden in New York, and on the screens in the bus, Curry picked up a loose ball and raced up the court, braking at the top of the key, preparing to let the ball go from behind the three-point line, and that building sounded the way it sounded when he and Davidson had played there back in 2008—the anticipatory, expectant buzz, the briefest held breath, then the whoosh of aaaaaaaaaaah, open mouths, hands on heads. Stephen of Davidson had his 47th, 48th and 49th points of the game, on his way to 54, joining names like LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain while representing others. Cohen and Brooks. Sander and Kosmalski and Harwood. Alpert and Williams. Zimmerman and Matheny. McKillop.
“He is in a zone, right now,” the announcer said, “all by himself!”
Everybody on the rollicking bus on I-85 knew that wasn’t true.