HOUSTON — Baker Dunleavy could, theoretically, still be working on Wall Street, miles and miles away from this Final Four site.
In 2010, he had a good job working in institutional sales, first at Merrill Lynch then at Bank of America. He’d also done some broadcasting.
“But basketball was in his blood,” says Mike Dunleavy Sr., Baker’s father, longtime NBA coach and the new coach at Tulane. “The next thing I know he calls me up and says he's going to take a big pay cut, he's going to go back to Villanova and work for Jay (Wright).”
For two years, Wright had tried to talk Dunleavy, one of his former players, out of this idea. Wright had been proud of Dunleavy’s success in the business world. He’d bragged about him, and the path between Villanova’s business school and good-paying jobs on Wall Street.
But Dunleavy missed being part of a team, being part of something bigger than himself.
“There are a lot of former athletes in that business, because it does feed that need for competition — a little bit,” Dunleavy says. “But it's not quite the same as being involved in the game. … There was no decision for me. I missed this. I missed Villanova. It was important for me to get back in it, knowing that I wouldn't work at Villanova forever — but to learn under somebody that I trusted to teach me how to do it the right way. I was just waiting on that opportunity.”
The opportunity turned out to be a director of basketball operations gig, for Wright’s Villanova team before the 2010-11 season. Slowly, steadily, he moved up to his current role as associate head coach. His rise has coincided with Villanova’s recent surge; Dunleavy has helped a program that hit a low with a 13-19 season to one that’s hitting its peak right now. The Wildcats have won three Big East championships during this stretch, and they’re about to face Oklahoma on Saturday night in the Final Four. Two more wins, and Villanova will have its program’s second national championship.
“The best part is just seeing (Wright) as a coach over these years maintain the consistency in what he believes in, and not straying away from his core values and what meant so much to his former players,” Dunleavy says.
That’s a bridge Dunleavy can straddle fairly easily. As a former player himself — and a former walk-on at that — he can connect with any and all current players. Senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono jokes that Dunleavy can give them a heads up if something is going to bother the head coach so they're prepared. Junior Josh Hart says Dunleavy sometimes shields them from a talking-to.
“He really has a great temperament for coaching and a great way about him as far as for teaching,” Mike, his father, says. “He's got a heck of a mind regarding as far as just the game in general.”
Mike could see the love of basketball in all three of his sons at a young age; it’s been fun for him to watch each figure out how to keep it in their lives. Mike himself had a long playing career in the NBA before going on to coach four different NBA teams; he just this week accepted the head coaching job at Tulane, which will be his first college coaching gig. Mike Jr. currently plays for the Chicago Bulls. James is player agent. Baker’s ceiling as a coach is yet to be determined.
“(Baker Dunleavy) started as the operations guy and did an amazing job,” Wright said. “Billy Lange was our associate head coach. I knew Billy would get some NBA coaching job at some point, and I would say to him, ‘Is Baker ready?’ And he would just say, ‘Trust me, he is going to be a superstar.’ ”
Wright loves Dunleavy’s business background. So much of college basketball, he says, is not about actual basketball. Recruiting, fundraising, keeping up with players’ academics — the list goes on and on. “He’s invaluable,” Wright says.
Dunleavy has seen both the college and pro games up close. For now at least, he prefers college.
“I just enjoy working with a younger player who isn't quite a finished product,” Dunleavy said. “And, because Coach Wright is so involved in it, the non-basketball part. The life teaching, watching guys grow up and being a part of that. If you just want to be in the business of basketball only, the NBA is a great spot — Xs and Os, player development. Not to say that I'll never want to do that, but the part that I've really experienced first-hand and had the most joy with is watching Coach deal with our team at Villanova. I have a front-row seat to it here as a coach. I've enjoyed it so much I just can't imagine myself doing anything else.”
Particularly right now, as the Wildcats bask in the spotlight of the Final Four, their first trip back here since 2009. The furthest Dunleavy’s teams had gotten during his Villanova playing career was the Elite Eight (in 2006).
So, Dunleavy will savor this, the fruits of hard labor and one life-altering decision more than five years ago. His father will savor this, too.
“It's special,” says Mike, who is in Houston for the game. “I've been following him. I was at the Big East tournament, and I was in Louisville (for the South regional). This is great. I've been around his team a lot over the last couple years and I know the players extremely well. They're a great group of kids, and they have great work ethic. I just hope they have a chance, I hope they play to their highest level and let the chips fall where they may. When they're playing at that high level they're pretty darn good.”