Legendary assistant Donny Daniels returns to Utah basketball, ‘the only program I ever would have done this for'

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donny Daniels is back on the Ute basketball staff. Tuesday, July 2, 2019.

With one glimpse of his father in Ute apparel, Eric Daniels instantly was transported back to the 1990s.

“I felt like I was 10 years old again,” he said, remembering his childhood as the son of Utah’s longtime assistant basketball coach, who is now back with the staff.

On a July morning, Donny Daniels surveyed the Salt Lake Valley from the balcony of the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility. He looked at the adjacent, 50-year-old Huntsman Center and marveled, “I was here when it turned 25.”

Daniels will be 65 in August, having retired from full-time coaching — just before becoming a charter member of the Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame in May, following his nine successful seasons with Gonzaga. Yet he’s energized about his new job, describing Utah as “the only program I ever would have done this for.”

Daniels would have been “very comfortable not doing anything for six months,” he said. If someone asked him about doing something, “That was going to be my favorite word: 'No.' ”

He said yes to the Utes.

He’s the director of player development, a newly created position with a title that means exactly the opposite of what you may picture, in a basketball sense.

Due to NCAA rules limiting the size of coaching staffs, Daniels is not allowed to work with players on basketball skills. He can observe and mentor them away from the court and advise the coaches. That’s his game, anyway. Gonzaga insiders credit Daniels as a calming influence and a strong voice, counseling players and consulting with coach Mark Few and the other staff members.

Eric Daniels, 34, is entering his fifth year as an Utah Valley University assistant coach, having been retained in the transition from Mark Pope to Mark Madsen. He attests to his father’s knack for giving good advice, continually asking him about dilemmas in the profession: “How should I handle this?”

That’s largely what Donny Daniels will do for coach Larry Krystkowiak, with athletic director Mark Harlan having authorized the staff addition in a trend of Harlan’s first year on the job. Daniels is reunited with former Ute players Tommy Connor and Chris Jones. Connor, now Utah’s associate head coach, also worked with Daniels on the staff of the late Rick Majerus; Jones is Utah’s director of basketball operations.

In April, Connor gauged Daniels’ interest in replacing assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum, who moved to UNLV. Daniels didn’t want another full-time coaching job with off-campus recruiting duties (Henry Martinez filled that vacancy), so Krystkowiak proposed another position. As they discussed a possible return, “Larry was all gung-ho and stuff,” Daniels said. “He was excited, and that got me excited.”

Daniels was immersed in Utah's most glorious era, with each of his last six seasons (1994-2000) producing at least one NCAA Tournament victory. Utah is in a building stage, with a roster of scholarship players that includes eight freshmen and three sophomores, with upperclassmen Jayce Johnson and Donnie Tillman transferring. Krystkowiak's program has not appeared in the tournament for three years.

“He's got good, young talent here,” Daniel said, having watched the players' workouts in June.

Daniels’ homecoming is not quite like Andy Ludwig’s with Ute football. Ludwig is back as Utah’s offensive coordinator, the second-most important job in the program, after a 10-year absence. As he said in January, “What I’m not looking for is a trip down memory lane. There’s a lot of work to do right now.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Utah head coach Rick Majerus, and assistant coaches Donny Daniels and Jeff Judkins on the Huntsman Center sideline during a victory over Rice in 1997.

Daniels, having returned after nearly 20 years away, can approach his job differently. He'll invoke the names of Keith Van Horn and Andre Miller from the '90s and instruct Utah's players about “what it means to be a Ute.”

Miller led Utah’s run to the first of three NCAA championship games for Daniels, followed by his appearances with UCLA and Gonzaga. He went to two other Final Fours with UCLA and made 12 runs to the Sweet 16 or beyond, with those three schools. Even without winning a national title, Daniels said, “I couldn’t ask for a better career. … How blessed do you have to be?”

And now, approaching 65, he felt relieved this summer when the Ute coaches went on recruiting trips and he stayed behind. “There’s a shelf life” in coaching, Daniels said. “You don’t think you’re ever going to hit that shelf life, and guess what? Boom, it hits you.”

Discussing the wear and tear of 40 years in the profession, Daniels paused. “All that being said, I've never worked a day in my life,” he clarified. “So let's get that squared away.”

And he clearly has more to give the Utes.


The charter class of inductees into the Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame in May, with their most recent employers in men's and women's college basketball:

Chris Dailey (UConn)

Donny Daniels (Gonzaga)

Mickie DeMoss (Vanderbilt)

Arthur Howell (Emmanuel College)

Tom Jessee (Augustana College)

Stan Jones (Florida State)

Carol Owens (Notre Dame)

Steve Robinson (North Carolina)

Dan Shardo (Findlay)

Dwayne Stephens (Michigan State)

Amy Tucker (Stanford)

C White (Bentley)