Baker Dunleavy: Quinnipiac's new prized possession

By Conor Roche

If the reports are true, then Quinnipiac’s men’s basketball’s new head coach is also the school’s highest-paid head coach…and he’s never been a head coach.

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However, Baker Dunleavy, 35, does have the background of a basketball head coach. His father, Mike Sr., played in the NBA for 11 years and was also an NBA head coach for 17 years, spending two of those years as the Los Angeles Lakers head coach. He’s now the head coach at Tulane University.

“I was going to (my dad’s) practices watching the players, watching their footwork, watching them go through drills and trying to play them one-on-one after practice,” Dunleavy said. “But I wasn’t watching the coaching, the teaching, the little things that right now I wish I had access to. But just being around it, I think was a privilege and helped me a ton."

Dunleavy’s brother, Mike Jr., is a 15-year NBA veteran that’s played for six teams.

Dunleavy was good enough to play basketball at the Division-I level. In fact, he played for Villanova University, one of the premier teams in college basketball from 2003-06. Even though he only played in 28 games in this three-year career, former teammate Mike Nardi realized the importance Dunleavy had to the team.

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“Within his role as one of the guys coming off the bench, (Dunleavy) always knew what we were doing as a team,” Nardi said. He always knew what the coaching staff was looking for. He did a great job at pushing guys at practice…He knew what we were doing. Really good guy off the court. Smart, intelligent and great locker room leadership.”

Dunleavy didn’t have the same talent that his father and brother had to make it into the NBA, so he left basketball after graduation to work at Merrill Lynch. That only lasted until 2010, when he returned to his alma mater to work for his college head coach, Jay Wright, as the program’s director of basketball operations. After working his way up the program’s totem pole for a few years, Dunleavy became Wright’s right-hand man in 2013 when he was named the team’s associate head coach.

“Just the way our staff is and what coach Wright wants us to be is everyone pretty much has their hands on everything,” Nardi, who is now in his third-year on the coaching staff at Villanova, said on Dunleavy’s rise in the program. “Honestly, (Dunleavy’s) pedigree and his basketball-mind, he’s just very intelligent and knows the game very well. He has a calm demeanor about him that I think a lot of time helped coach Wright. You need someone that’s managing the game and helping you and see where the players heads are at.”

In his four years as associate head coach, Dunleavy's Wildcats went 129-17 (.883) overall and 63-9 (.875) in Big East play. Dunleavy’s tenure as the Villanova associate head coach can be defined by one play. In 2016, the Wildcats won the national championship as Kris Jenkins made a three-pointer at the buzzer. The play is seen as one of the most iconic in college basketball history, if not sports history.

Dunleavy had a significant impact on the title, according to Nardi.

“I think (Dunleavy) was a great backbone for coach Wright and someone that he could always go to whether it be player relationships, recruiting, X’s and O’s, anything off the court with our guys,” Nardi said. “Baker was involved with everything, That’s why he's where’s he’s at today. He was very prepared for this opportunity and he’s ready for it.”

On March 7, Quinnipiac relieved its 10-year men’s basketball head coach Tom Moore after the team went 10-21 in the 2016-17 season. Some of the early candidates for the job were coaches that had Quinnipiac ties like Iona assistant coach Jared Grasso, who played and coached for the Bobcats, and Southern Connecticut State head coach Scott Burrell, who was an assistant coach for the Bobcats for eight years.

However, DHR International, the search firm hired by Quinnipiac for the hiring process, keyed in on Dunleavy a couple of weeks after the national search began.

“I’d never seen the school, but I knew it had a really good reputation in terms of facilities. And that’s certainly the case,” Dunleavy said. “I knew it was a really good academic school, an up-and-coming academic school that was exploding in the northeast.”

Over the next week, reports surfaced that Quinnipiac was willing to pay nearly $800,000 per year to its next head coach, which is a rare number for a mid-major program and a near $300,000 increase that Moore reportedly got. Within a few days of that report coming out, it was announced that Dunleavy, who had two interviews with the school, would be the school’s next men’s basketball head coach.

 

“It’s never one thing. Just like a player looking to commit to a school, coaching’s the same way. You want to find the right fit,” Dunleavy said. “The environment that I was used to was a really well-rounded place…I thought that on the surface was a fit. Came to school, saw the place and was blown away but what it looked like…then by far the most important thing meeting the athletic director Greg Amodio and meeting Dr. (John L.) Lahey the president, and then from there on and continuing to meet other coaches and administrators.”

Well-known college basketball analysts Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery as well as two-time NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni praised the hire.

And if Dunleavy’s as good as advertised, then Quinnipiac is lucky to have him as multiple other schools were looking to hire him, according to Nardi, who is also a close friend of his.

“I think we all knew that day was coming much sooner than later,” Nardi said. “He was just waiting for the right fit and waiting for a job that he thought he could thrive in and be successful…Not to say that those other programs weren’t good positions or spots, but Baker just didn’t feel that at the time that was the right move for him.”

Nardi didn’t specify which schools had interest in Dunleavy, but a February 2017 Sports Illustrated article reported that Dunleavy turned down multiple jobs in 2016 to stay at Villanova.

In his two interviews with the school, Dunleavy discussed how to run the program and how it can take the next step.

“Now that we’re here, the next step is establishing an identity,” Dunleavy said. “My eventual goal for this program is to be a perennial contender in the MAAC. That’s the end-goal. You can’t get there right away. My job right now is to establish a culture, an identity, a style of play, recruit and develop the players I have right now and make them the best they can be.”

In establishing the identity of his team, Dunleavy wants the Bobcats to do the simple things really well.

“We talk about playing really hard first and just being an effort team. I think every team in the country talks about that, but who commits to it? And we want to be a team that plays together,” Dunleavy said.

The men’s basketball team is coming off of its third-straight losing season in conference play. To add to this, the team lost its top-two scorers from last season in Mikey Dixon and Peter Kiss due to transfer after Dunleavy was hired as the head coach. The team also lost five other players due to graduation or transfer.

It’s clear that the school wants Dunleavy to make the NCAA Tournament after Moore failed to do it in his 10-years at Quinnipiac. But both sides aren’t expecting that result to come right away.

Only time will tell if Quinnipiac managed its wealth properly in the former Merrill Lynch employee.