In March of 2016, Athletic Director Danny White announced that Johnny Dawkins would become the school’s seventh men’s basketball head coach. His impressive resume made it an easy decision.
Dawkins spent eight years at Stanford University, where he led the Cardinals to five postseason appearances. Before that, he coached for 10 years under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University. With Dawkins on the coaching staff, the Blue Devils won a national championship in 2001, and in four consecutive seasons (1999-2002), the team ranked No. 1 in both national polls for the first time in college basketball history.
As a player, Dawkins became one of the most decorated players at Duke during his stint from 1983-86 and was the school’s all-time leading scorer until 2006. Dawkins played in the NBA for nine seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons.
While he didn’t know much about UCF when he received the call from White, Dawkins knew about the reputation his new boss had when it came to supporting the students.
“I knew of his commitment to wanting student athletes to have an amazing experience,” Dawkins says. “It was a new beginning, another opportunity for me to be able to continue to share my experience with these student athletes.”
Being a Mentor
Dawkins has loved basketball as long as he can remember, but what he takes most from the sport is the privilege of mentoring young men.
“When I picked up a basketball, my dreams were to be the best player I could be in this game,” Dawkins says. “Now my dream is to make sure I give back to a game that was great to me. This game has afforded me everything that I have pretty much in life, so this is an opportunity for me to pay it forward, to give back to the young student athletes just like my coach and mentor did for me.”
During his time working under his mentor, Coach K, Dawkins learned lessons that he wants to instill in his own team. He says that family comes first – family meaning the team. Next comes valuing academics then basketball.
He often remembers a mantra from Coach K: “Duke is bigger than all of us.” In the same way, Dawkins believes that UCF is bigger than himself and the team. He says that when you are part of something bigger than yourself, you can give more of yourself for the betterment of those around you.
“It’s my job to impart those lessons to these young people so going forward they have a strong foundation to be successful when the ball stops bouncing for them,” he says.
Goals for Year One
During the 2016-17 season, the top priority for Dawkins has been to create and cultivate a specific culture – one in which the players take ownership in the team.
“We want to understand where we started,” Dawkins says. “We want to keep track and see if we’re on course to accomplish our goals, and our goals are to be a relevant program.”
As of press time, the UCF men’s basketball team was ranked number two in the American Athletic Conference with a 6-1 record. Dawkins credits this to the players’ efforts in building consistency, playing to their strengths and understanding the team’s identity, which is defense. He stresses the importance of sharing in communication and energy on both sides of the basketball, whether it’s offensively or defensively.
While the players have been conditioned to do things a certain way under different leadership, Dawkins says they’re adjusting well to his style. However, he notes that it’s like starting over for them, likening it to trying to learn a new language in a five-month timeframe.
“The buy in is there,” Dawkins says. “Now it’s the function of just going out there every day and being diligent about what we want and our standards.”
Many in the basketball world see UCF going far this season, but Dawkins prefers his team have a one-game-at-a-time mentality. “I don’t want them thinking about finishing No. 1 in the conference or postseason play,” he says. “I want them thinking about our next opponent.”
Supporting the Home Team
Community support is key for the UCF basketball team. Dawkins notes that, traditionally, the success of top teams begins at home. Creating an environment where the fans energize the players makes it hard to lose on the home court because it builds an intimidating atmosphere for the opposing team.
“For us to do what we want to do, it’s going to take that,” Dawkins says. “It’s going to take our community rallying behind us and giving us that push. We won’t be able to do it by ourselves.”
Just as he has a do-it-together mentality with his team, Dawkins believes UCF is going to need everybody to make this season special. And with a student body of more than 60,000 students, he believes the team’s strength is in the numbers.
“There’s an interest there, there’s a buzz,” Dawkins says. “But we need to turn that buzz and that interest into a commitment to coming out and really rallying behind the team.”