Danny Manning Relishing New Life, Challenge of Resurrecting Wake Forest

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagFebruary 6, 2015

Rob Kinnan/USA Today

WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina — The lopsided loss to North Carolina is less than 10 minutes old when Danny Manning enters the Wake Forest locker room.

Towels draped over their heads, players stare at the floor while assistants pore over stat sheets and grimace. A police officer stands guard near the door.

The 6'10" Manning—a former NBA All-Star and the Demon Deacons' first-year head coach—moves his eyes from player to player, glaring at each of them before beginning his rant on this January night.

"All we ask," he says, "is that you play hard. All we ask is that you compete! If you can't do that, then pack up your stuff and go."

Two weeks earlier, the Demon Deacons—who were picked to finish 12th in the ACC—trailed second-ranked Duke by just one point with less than four minutes remaining. They were within a single possession of No. 5 Louisville at the two-minute mark and also forced overtime on the road against tradition-rich Syracuse.

Even though Wake Forest lost each contest, the improvement and fight it showed in those games established the Demon Deacons as the fastest-rising team in the ACC and gave fans reason to feel good about the direction of the program. And, just as important, its new coach.

That's why the 87-71 debacle against North Carolina at home is so disheartening. Manning feels his players cowered in the face of adversity in a setback that dropped them to 9-10 overall and 1-5 in the ACC.

"The way we defended and fought the past two weeks...where was that?" he barks. "If you don't learn to play hard every possession, you're not going to like it here. You're not going to fit in. We'll weed you out."

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Manning tells the Demon Deacons to return the next morning for a 7:30 a.m. film session and then leaves the room. Just outside the door, in the players' lounge, he encounters a group of recruits and their families. Manning knows the importance of stopping to shake hands and say hello, but he doesn't mask his mood when one prospect asks how he's doing.

"Terrible," Manning says with a half-hearted chuckle. "Terrible."

Flanked by security, Manning exits the room and is headed to his postgame press conference when he comes face-to-face with Roy Williams. Now the head coach at North Carolina, Williams began his career at Kansas in 1988—just months after Manning, then a senior, led the Jayhawks to the NCAA title.

Even though he never played for him, Manning got to know Williams well during his 15-year NBA career, as his offseason home was in Lawrence.

Williams extends his hand.

"Remember, it's a process," Williams says. "You'll get there. But it's a process."

A short time later, in his private dressing room, Manning leans back in a leather chair and shrugs when asked about Williams' comment.

"He's right," Manning says. "It's definitely a process.

"But who says it has to be slow?"

Shortly before 9 p.m. the night after the loss to North Carolina, Danny Manning walks out the doors of Fratelli's, the popular steakhouse in Winston-Salem where he hosts his Thursday radio show.

Marty Lederhandler/Associated Press

Before he can make it to his 2015 white Chevy Tahoe, the coach is approached by Sean and Kat Ayres, a husband and wife who've driven 30 miles from Greensboro in hopes of scoring autographs from the No. 1 pick in the 1988 NBA draft.

Manning scribbles his name on two copies of Sports Illustrated, both of which are from Kansas' title season. Manning's picture is on the cover of each. One headline reads, "Oh, Danny Boy!" The other: "Danny and the Miracles."

Twenty-seven years later—and after an NBA stint that featured two All-Star Game appearances and a Sixth Man of the Year Award—Manning is still arguably best remembered for leading the Jayhawks to the national championship as a No. 6 seed.

Manning, who scored 31 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the title game against Oklahoma, said he's often asked if winning that trophy was the crowning achievement of his basketball career.

"It's one of them," he says.

For Manning, though, an even bigger source of pride was battling back from three ACL injuries that threatened to end his career. Manning was the first player in history to play in the NBA following three reconstructive surgeries on his knees.

"Part of it was because I had great doctors and coaches and teammates to push me," Manning says. "But a big part of it can be attributed to me just being stubborn and wanting to play."

Now 48, Manning hopes the same type of dogged determination will help him as he embarks on another daunting task.

While the walls of its players' lounge are decorated with photos of famous alumni such as Tim Duncan, Chris Paul and Josh Howard, Wake Forest has hardly been a factor in recent years.

The team never finished higher than ninth in the ACC under previous coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was fired last spring after going 51-76 over four seasons. Not a single Demon Deacon has been drafted since 2010, and the program boasts just one NCAA tournament win since 2005.

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 13:  Head coach Danny Manning of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons reacts on the sidelines after a made basket against the Syracuse Orange during the second half at the Carrier Dome on January 13, 2015 in Syracuse, New York.  Syracuse d
Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Manning said the private school with approximately 8,000 students has higher admission standards than most of its competitors in the ACC, a conference whose depth is a challenge for even its elite basketball programs.

Four of the Hall of Fame's five active coaches (Williams, Rick Pitino, Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski) are in the ACC. Wake Forest played against each of them during a 17-day stretch in January. Less than a month later, the Demon Deacons find themselves at 3-7 in the conference and 11-12 overall. 

"I like all those guys," Manning said, "but I want to beat their ass when we're on the court. Just like they want to beat mine."

Indeed, Manning hardly seems intimidated.

Despite having had just two seasons of head coaching experience when he was hired away from Tulsa last spring, Manning believes he was well-prepared for the opportunity.

Whether sidelined with an injury during the prime of his NBA career—or stuck at the end of the bench toward the conclusion of it—Manning was known for paying close attention when he wasn't in the game and then giving teammates advice when they came off the court.

"Looking back on it now," Manning says, "I guess I've always known I wanted to be a coach."

Even if it meant starting at the bottom.

About a month after he was hired at Kansas in 2003, Bill Self flew to Detroit to see the Pistons compete in the NBA playoffs. But his main purpose wasn't to watch basketball.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 30:  (R-L) Head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks stands in front of assistant coach Danny Manning during practice prior to the 2012 Final Four of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Self was there on business.

A seldom-used reserve who jokes that he was a "walking insurance policy," Manning had appeared in only 13 contests since signing with the Pistons that February. Knowing that Manning was likely in his final NBA season, Self approached him after the game and asked if he'd consider joining his staff at Kansas.

Manning didn't need to give the offer much thought. A few weeks after the season, he summoned Self to his Lawrence home and told him he was ready to become a coach.

There was one issue.

"I didn't want to make him an assistant—not yet," Self said. "Danny had spent nearly two decades on the road, away from his wife and kids. He wasn't ready for all of the travel and other demands an assistant has.

"I mainly just wanted to encourage him to get involved at the administrative level so he could learn and see if coaching is really something he wanted to pursue. Plus, it was great for our players."

Manning agreed to join Kansas' staff as the director of student-athlete development/team manager in 2003-04.

"No job was above him," Self said.

Instead of retiring to enjoy the $57 million-plus he made during his NBA career, Manning spent the next four years breaking down tape, ordering shoes and ankle braces, booking hotel rooms and deciding whether to include Cheetos or Lay's with the team's postgame meal. Manning also counseled players—not just about basketball, but about life off the court, too.

Manning's initial contract paid him $50,000. He didn't even have his own office, instead sharing space with assistant Joe Dooley, who is now the head coach at Florida Gulf Coast.

"We called it the bullpen," Manning said. "I loved every minute of it. Seeing [Dooley] going over tape, listening as he talked to recruits, hearing conversations he had with different guys on the team...I learned so much just by observing. Not just from Joe, but from the entire staff. They were always willing to answer my questions."

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Self promoted Manning to full-time assistant prior to the 2007-08 campaign. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence that the Jayhawks won the NCAA title that same season, when Manning earned praise for the work he did with the forwards and centers on the squad such as Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and Cole Aldrich.

In fact, over the next four years, Kansas was often referred to as "Big Man U" thanks, in part, to Manning.

From 2003-12, with Manning on staff, only two Kansas post players (David Padgett and Christian Moody) who started at least 50 percent of the team's games in a single season failed to be picked in the NBA draft.

The list of draftees who honed their skills under Manning includes Jackson, Kaun, Arthur, Aldrich, Wayne Simien, Julian Wright, Jeff Withey, Thomas Robinson and Marcus and Markieff Morris.

"He's the best big-man coach in the country," said Markieff Morris, now with the Phoenix Suns. "I owe most of my success to him."

Self said Manning's basketball IQ is "off the charts. It's as good as I've ever been around." Still, flourishing at the NBA level doesn't necessarily mean a player can transition into a high-caliber coach. In fact, Self says Manning's greatest teaching tool stems from the adversity—and not the success—he experienced as a pro.

"The fact that he had three ACL injuries benefits him," Self says. "Most pros are pros because they're better than everyone. It can be hard for them to adjust their coaching for less-talented guys because the way they played was so natural.

"But with Danny getting hurt all those times, he had to learn every shortcut in the book to stay in the league. I thought it made him a better teacher, because he wasn't as explosive or quick. His second jump wasn't as good. It made him more cerebral."

Manning landed his first head coaching job in the spring of 2012, when Tulsa hired him just days before he sat on the Jayhawks' bench one last time at the Final Four, where Kansas lost to Kentucky in the title game.

In just his second season, Manning guided the Golden Hurricane to both the Conference USA regular-season title and conference tournament championship—the latter of which earned Tulsa a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.

Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

Assistant coach Brett Ballard was charged with preparing the scouting report for the Golden Hurricane's first-round opponent, UCLA.

"Their talent just jumped off the screen," Ballard says. "I told [Manning], 'We got a tough draw. There are three definite pros on that team and they also have the Wear twins, who have a chance to be pros. And the game is in California, which is basically a home game for them.

"‘What do you think?'"

Ballard says Manning just shrugged his shoulders.

"I think we match up great against them," Manning said. "I think we can beat them."

Tulsa lost 76-59, but Manning's swagger made an impression on Ballard.

"No matter where or who he's coaching," Ballard says, "he has a confidence and a belief in his players. The guys can sense that."

Manning's belief in himself couldn't have been more evident last spring, when Wake Forest fired Bzdelik and offered him the job.

For Manning, the move seemed like a natural fit considering he grew up in nearby Greensboro and spent his childhood watching Demon Deacons stars such as Rod Griffin and Mike Helms.

Even though he moved to Lawrence for his senior year of high school, Manning says he's always felt attached to North Carolina.

"Everything has come full circle," Manning says. "I'm back to where it all started."

According to longtime booster Sonny Patterson, the majority of Wake Forest fans hoped the school would replace Bzdelik with VCU coach Shaka Smart. When it became evident Smart was staying put, Patterson said there was some uncertainty about Manning.

"We knew that big name would really help in recruiting," Patterson said. "But the ACC is such a tough conference, and he only had two years of experience as a head coach. It's not that anyone thought negatively of him. There was just some concern that it was 'too much, too fast.'"

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

Even Ballard, the Tulsa assistant who followed him to Winston-Salem, admitted the move felt a bit daunting, but Manning didn't flinch. If anything, the challenges of the job were what attracted him.

The pictures of Duncan and Paul he walks by regularly offer a reminder that the task of making Wake Forest relevant in the ACC and on a national scale isn't far-fetched. It was only six years ago that the school climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings. Manning's inaugural recruiting class of 2015 is ranked 21st by Rivals, and Harry Giles, the No. 2-ranked prospect in the class of 2016, has the program high on his list.

Ballard still remembers a remark Manning made during their first staff meeting after arriving in Winston-Salem.

"This is a whole new beast," Manning told his assistants. "I have to step up my game. I've got to take things to a new level."

For once, Manning wasn't talking about basketball.

Along with coaching, recruiting, scouting, fundraising and managing his staff, one of Manning's main duties at Wake Forest is answering questions.

Not just from the media.

But from fans.

Multiple times each season fans are invited to on-campus luncheons, where $12 buys a chicken breast, green beans, iced tea—and a chance to rub elbows with Wake Forest coaches. Each event ends with coaches standing behind a podium, fielding questions from audience members.

As luck would have it, one of the luncheons takes place Jan. 19, the day after the loss to North Carolina. Instead of appearing downtrodden or sluggish, Manning smiles as he struts toward the stage.

"After last night, our guys didn't know if the sun was going to come up this morning," Manning says. "So I made sure we were awake and watching film at 7:30 to see it come up."

1989-1990:  Forward Danny Manning of the Los Angeles Clippers in action during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell  /Allsport
Mike Powell/Getty Images

Manning winks as the 200 or so people in attendance begin to laugh.

"It was a good get-together," he says.

Manning's upbeat energy and his ability to work a crowd are traits the public rarely witnessed during his time as an assistant at Kansas and, to a lesser extent, throughout his NBA career.

As a player, Manning once joked that he purposefully gave boring answers to reporters in hopes they'd eventually seek out other teammates to interview. In Lawrence, word spread that Manning didn't enjoy being pestered for autographs in public, especially if he was at dinner with his wife or at one of his children's games.

Manning's desire for privacy certainly made sense. Since leading the Jayhawks to the 1988 title, Manning has been treated like one of the state's biggest celebrities each time he has returned to Kansas, a type of hero worship that surely became tiresome.

Still, even after he retired in 2003 and joined Self's coaching staff, Manning maintained his stoic nature outside of the Jayhawks' locker room.

"That's the only lifestyle I knew," Manning says. "And as a player and an assistant, I was in a position where I could pick and choose what I did as far as speaking and appearances or things like that.

"I turned down a lot of opportunities because of my family. Attend a media event or go to my son's basketball game? That was a no-brainer to me."

Chuck Burton/Associated Press

As his coaching career progressed, though, Manning recognized that relating to fans and developing relationships with boosters and media members would be vital if he ever became a head coach. To hone his skills, he began appearing on a weekly radio show and became a bit looser and more approachable at public functions.

"One of the main reasons Danny wanted to stay in the background in Lawrence was because he respected Bill Self," says Wake Forest Director of Basketball Operations Justin Bauman, who also worked with Manning at Kansas and Tulsa.

"The main thing people questioned when he became a head coach was whether he'd change how he dealt with people. But anyone who truly knew Danny wasn't worried. He spent 15 years in the NBA doing interviews and speaking at events. It was training for him. He's actually really good at it."

Anyone who observed Manning's question-and-answer session at Wake Forest's most recent luncheon would have a hard time arguing.

He cracks a joke or two, but Manning hardly comes across as cheesy or phony. In fact, it's Manning's honesty and candor that the crowd seems to appreciate the most.

When asked about his plans for that evening's practice—Wake Forest's first after the UNC loss—Manning says, "It's going to be tough. It has to be tough. I believe in tough love."

Manning then attempts to temper the enthusiasm of a fan who seems giddy about the play of newcomer Cornelius Hudson, whose talent is often overshadowed by a poor body language and a lack of focus.

"He's a freshman," Manning says, "and he behaves like a freshman."

When someone light-heartedly mentions that forward Devin Thomas has fewer technical fouls than he had last season, Manning makes sure the room knows the change wasn't coincidental.

"We've always loved Devin's enthusiasm," Manning says. "We just taught him how to channel that passion in a positive direction."

Nov 28, 2014; Winston-Salem, NC, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons head coach Danny Manning high fives forward Konstantinos Mitoglou (44) during the first half against the Delaware State Hornets at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit:

(Thomas later reveals that Manning instructs the Demon Deacons to foul him forcefully each time he touches the ball during practice. If Thomas responds violently or even hints that he's frustrated, Manning makes him run.

"Even if a guy nearly takes my head off, I can't say anything," Thomas says. "I've learned how to control my temper. I've never had a coach challenge me the way that he does.")

Manning ends his session with the fans by thanking them for their support. Rarely breaking stride, he shakes a few hands on his way out the door and returns to his office, where replicas of the 1988 and 2008 national championship trophies he helped win at Kansas are displayed prominently.

A manager stops by with a box of chicken strips from Bojangles'—Manning consumed little at the luncheon—as Manning prepares for practice and a game at Clemson in less than 48 hours.

At Kansas, Self once labeled Manning as a "neat freak" because he was so organized and meticulous. Those characteristics are obvious when glancing at an itinerary that will be distributed prior to the four-hour road trip. On the sheet of paper is a diagram of the bus that includes seating assignments for each player and staff member. Manning even maps out where various drink coolers should be placed.

"Team Bus Etiquette: Silence to and From Games," reads the itinerary, which also includes the cab fare ($34.19) from the team hotel to Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum.

"If a player misses the bus," Bauman said, "they'll know how much money they'll need in their pocket."

On occasion, prominent alumni and boosters are allowed to accompany the Demon Deacons on road trips. Even for them, the vibe is completely different than it was under the previous staff.

"You're pretty much told not to talk on the plane, except to the person you're sitting next to," Patterson says. "You don't speak or socialize with the players, and instead of riding on the bus, they take us around in SUVs.

Nov 26, 2014; Winston-Salem, NC, USA; Wake Forest Demon Deacons head coach Danny Manning calls out instructions during the second half against the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Wake defeated Mount Saint Mary's

"At first it kind of bothered me, but now I like it. I understand. This is a business and his job is to keep a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids as focused as possible. He's doing a great job of it."

While set in his ways in some areas of his job, Manning continues to evolve in others. At Kansas—and even during his first year at Tulsa—Ballard said he was mild-tempered at practice and in the locker room. But at Wake Forest he's coming down harder on his team.

"I'm sure it's not fun for him, especially as a former player who has been on the other side of it," Ballard says. "But he's not just some guy out there yelling with no purpose. He makes good points, and our guys listen because they respect him and what he's accomplished."

If Manning happens to curse while chewing out a player, no problem. If his brutal honesty hurts someone's feelings, so be it.

"Not one of you is good enough to carry this team," Manning said in the locker room after the North Carolina loss. "Not one of you is good enough to win a game on his own. There are no stars in here. The only way to get something done is to do it together."

Other tweaks in Manning's philosophy may come from studying one of the many playbooks he kept during an NBA career in which he suited up for seven teams. Ballard, though, said he believes about 90 percent of Manning's approach is based on what he learned as an assistant under Self and a player under Basketball Hall of Famer Larry Brown, who coached the '88 title team.

Richard Sheinwald/Associated Press

"I was fortunate and blessed to have the experiences in basketball that I had," Manning said. "Now I get a chance to share what I've learned with these young men. A lot of them aspire to get to that next level.

"To know the road ahead, you've got to talk to those on their way back."

And therein lies the reason Manning has chosen to take the buses and answer the questions and suffer the losses—for those moments when "the light comes on" for a freshman adapting to the college level or when a player takes something he's learned at practice and applies it during a game.

In September the Morris twins, his protégés at Kansas, called to tell him they'd received long-term contract extensions from the Phoenix Suns. He said he takes just as much joy in seeing a guy like former Jayhawk Tyrel Reed earn various postgraduate degrees.

Manning seems happiest, though, when winning. And while narrow losses against highly ranked opponents may be enough to pacify fans for a year or two, they aren't doing much for Manning.

"Playing Duke and Louisville close doesn't mean anything to me," Manning says. "Coaches get fired for moral victories. A lot of coaches out there have great graduation rates and a lot of moral victories—but at the end of the day, they don't have jobs."

That's why Manning will continue to get up for 7:30 a.m. film sessions. It's why he'll spend his summers traversing the country to recruit when he could be sitting at home, basking in his NBA riches. It's why he'll continue to read playbooks and seek advice from mentors.

Just like he was after all of those knee injuries, Manning is determined to conquer his newest challenge.

And too stubborn to fail.

"This is my passion," Manning says. "No one can take that away."

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.


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