The ACC was an eight-team league and Carl Tacy the head coach at Wake Forest when Danny Manning left a state championship squad at Greensboro Page High to seek his basketball fortune. Thirty-one years, eight new ACC members and six Wake coaches later, Manning says he has returned home to craft Deacons squads that “would play hard, would play unselfishly, responsible for our actions, with discipline, with sacrifice.”
Tall as most anyone on the court at 6-foot-10, Manning doesn’t need to shout to get his players’ attention. Instead, he relies on a stern demeanor, a quick hook for mental errors or lack of effort and a rich portfolio of success as a player at Kansas and in the pros.
“Nobody knows the game as well as him that I’ve met; if we listen to him, he’ll put us in the right position,” said Wake sophomore Miles Overton, a reserve guard whose father, Doug Overton, played 11 years in the NBA. “He’s not cocky or anything. He doesn’t really talk about his NBA career or anything, but we know what it is, of course.”
Manning moved to Lawrence, Kan., for his senior year in high school after his father, Ed Manning, was hired as an assistant by Jayhawks coach Larry Brown. Described as “Magic Johnson without the flashiness” by Mac Morris, his coach at Page, the slender forward was a three-time Big Eight player of the year at Kansas and twice a consensus first team All-American (1987, 1988). He was widely tabbed the 1988 national player of the year, the same season “Danny and the Miracles” won the NCAA championship.
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The top pick in the ’88 NBA draft – prior to the birth of everyone on Wake’s roster – Manning played for seven pro teams across 15 seasons. He was an NBA all-star in 1993 and 1994 and the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year in 1998.
“He’s unbelievable,” says an admiring Joe Dooley, an assistant with Manning for nine years under Bill Self at Kansas. “I think he’ll give (Wake Forest) an injection of toughness. He’s spare but he’s firm, and I think he’s got principles that he’s going to stick to.”
Still, what Manning brings to Wake’s struggling program is as much calculated gamble as guarantee. In his third year as a developing head coach, he’s susceptible to mistakes such as calling a timeout he didn’t have during a late score-and-foul rally against Iona in an 85-81 defeat two weeks ago. His team is 4-5, including a home loss to Delaware State, following its 78-65 defeat at N.C. State Saturday..
Manning inherited a roster short on front-rank ACC talent and proficiency. Last year’s 17-16 record was the first winning mark since 2010.
Wake’s most accomplished returnees, forward Devin Thomas and guard Codi Miller-McIntyre, are struggling to adapt to Manning’s altered imperatives. Until the meeting with the Wolfpack, the juniors were regularly yanked from the lineup for various transgressions as their coach reshaped games and attitudes. “We need to get better in all phases of the game,” Manning said after his team was outshot and outrebounded in an 84-69 home defeat by Minnesota in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Thomas remains a starter, yet played 20 or fewer minutes in four of five games prior to visiting N.C. State. Against Minnesota the emotional post player had 8 rebounds, but he took only four shots and incurred one of his two technical fouls this season. Miller-McIntyre, a strong driver but chronically inexact perimeter shooter, failed to make a 3-pointer in this season’s first eight games. In the loss to the Golden Golphers he didn’t try a long-range shot. He finally made a three against the Pack.
While Miller-McIntyre and Thomas adjust, opportunities open for hustling bench players such as forward Aaron Rountree III and Overton, who matched his entire season’s scoring output against Minnesota with a team-best 14 points.
Manning’s challenges are compounded by the reduced homecourt edge at Winston-Salem’s Joel Coliseum, now owned by Wake. Many fans disaffected during Jeff Bzdelik’s losing, four-year tenure have not returned – only against UNC Asheville in the season opener was the 14,665-seat arena as much as two-thirds full. Presumably Manning’s aggressive campus outreach will pay dividends in remedying the situation.
‘I can relate’
Another hurdle to surmount: ample precedent suggests performers of Manning’s caliber are ill-suited to managerial roles in sports and business. The thinking goes that stars can’t relate to less-gifted talents and lack the patience to explain things that came naturally to them.
Scan the ranks of managers and head coaches, pro and college, and great players are notably under-represented. The list of prominent athletes who became prominent coaching flops runs from basketball’s Isiah Thomas, Elgin Baylor and John Lucas to football’s Sammy Baugh and Bart Starr, baseball’s Maury Wills and Ted Williams to hockey’s Wayne Gretzky and Bryan Trottier.
This is not happenstance, according to psychologists.
“As you get better and better at what you do, your ability to communicate your understanding or to help others learn that skill often gets worse and worse,” wrote Sian Beilock, an author and psychology professor at the University of Chicago. “Skilled performers often have trouble putting their actions into words in the first place. That’s why those who perform at the highest levels should think twice about teaching their skills to others.”
Manning is aware he fits the profile of the achiever who can’t translate actions into accessible guidance. He’s not buying. “I can relate to everyone on the roster,” he says. “I can relate to a starter, I can relate to a sixth man, a role player, the guy who’s not in the rotation, the injured guy. I can relate to all of them because I’ve been there before.”
A coaching rarity
Dooley, now coach at Florida Gulf Coast, believes a playing career beset by multiple knee surgeries benefits Manning as a coach. “He had to become a thinking man’s player because of the injuries,” Dooley says. “He had a chance to evaluate, he had to redo his game so many times that it became a technique.”
Manning is unquestionably a coaching rarity. Consider that among men’s Naismith College Players of the Year, only he and Johnny Dawkins (Duke, 1986), currently at Stanford, have been successful college head coaches. The Naismith award has been given since 1969.
Only three All-Americans have served as ACC head coaches. Manning is the second at Wake, after alum Jack Murdock (second team in 1957, head coach in 1966). The other was Clemson’s Banks McFadden (1947-56). Three consensus All-Americans at Duke are college head coaches: Dawkins, Harvard’s Tommy Amaker (1987), and Buffalo’s Bobby Hurley (1993).
Manning also is among four ACC head coaches who played on an NCAA championship squad. The others were North Carolina’s Dean Smith (Kansas, 1952) and Matt Doherty (UNC, 1982), and N.C. State’s Sidney Lowe (N.C. State, 1983).
Manning’s first head coaching job was at Tulsa, a proving ground for predecessors Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith, Buzz Peterson, Steve Robinson and Self. The Golden Hurricanes posted winning records in each of Manning’s two seasons, with an NCAA bid in 2014. “He did a really good job here,” says Frank Haith, who followed Manning at the Conference-USA school. Now the task is to bring similar results to a laggard Wake program long accustomed to success.