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Baker Dunleavy’s road to Quinnipiac

Photo Courtesy: Quinnipiac Athletics

By: Randy DelValle

The Villanova Wildcats were facing the North Carolina Tar Heels for the National Title. Villanova associate head coach Baker Dunleavy was on the sideline in Houston for the 2016 National Championship game. He watched Villanova forward Kris Jenkins inbound the ball to captain Ryan Arcidiacono. He watched Arcidiacono dribble down the court and then pass the ball back to Jenkins. He watched Jenkins take the game winning shot with 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock.

“I think we all assumed that Kris was going to make that shot, he’s our best shooter,” Dunleavy said. The ball went in the net as the buzzer sounded, Villanova had just won the 2016 National Championship. Dunleavy is with other assistants huddled around, hugging Villanova head coach Jay Wright as the confetti fell down.

Fast-forward to a year later, Dunleavy finds himself in a press conference on Lender Court at the TD Bank Sports Center. Quinnipiac Athletics Director Greg Amodio is introducing him to the Quinnipiac community as the seventh head coach for the Quinnipiac men’s basketball team and the third in its 19 years at the Division I level.

Dunleavy’s road to Quinnipiac has been nothing short of usual. With the men’s basketball team season underway, everything that’s happened in his life has brought him to this moment.

Dunleavy was born into a basketball family.

His father is none other than Mike Dunleavy Sr. who played 10 years in the NBA and was the head coach for four NBA teams including the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1990’s. He’s currently the men’s basketball coach at Tulane. His older brother, Mike Dunleavy Jr. played in the NBA for 15 years, last playing for the Atlanta Hawks.

Dunleavy went to practices and watched game film with his dad while he was coaching in the NBA. He was a coach’s son, basketball has always been in his blood. He played college basketball at Villanova for four years. His senior year, he was part of the first Villanova team to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The team ended up losing to Florida in the Elite Eight that year.

He graduated and earned his degree in finance in 2006. He then went on to play overseas for one year and realized playing in the NBA just wasn’t going to happen for him, Dunleavy decided to leave basketball and put his degree to use. He went to live in New York City to work for Merrill Lynch.

“I didn’t really think of myself as a coach when I was playing, I felt coaching was for coaches.” Dunleavy said of why he didn’t go into coaching immediately after graduating.

But after working on Wall Street for four years, Dunleavy couldn’t leave the game of basketball behind him. Growing up in the coaching world made Dunleavy give coaching “a shot,” even though he didn’t see himself as a coach a few years back.

“Three years in I was like what are you doing, I’m a coach. I’m a coach and I miss basketball, like anything when you know kind of your gut tells you and it was definitely a gut feeling,” Dunleavy said.

Wright hired Dunleavy in 2010 as Villanova’s director of basketball operations and then became an assistant coach for the Wildcats. In 2013, he was promoted to associate head coach.

In this role he assisted coach Wright in all aspects of the basketball program. This included on-court teaching, player development and recruiting. In his four seasons in the position, the Wildcats had a record of 129-17, including 63-9 in the Big East Conference, while also winning the coveted National Championship in 2016.

Even though he received interest from schools after the National Championship win, Dunleavy decided to stay put. He didn’t want to leave Villanova unless he found the perfect fit.

Villanova had another great year in the 2016-17 season, finishing 32-4 and earning the number one overall seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

Although the year didn’t end the way the team hoped.

Wisconsin upset Villanova lost in the second round of the tournament, ending the year earlier than the team expected. This allowed Quinnipiac to interview Dunleavy, a coach that was on top of its list to fill the vacant head coach position.

10 days later, Quinnipiac hired Dunleavy as its next men’s basketball coach replacing Tom Moore.

Dunleavy went from working in Wall Street to leading his own program.

“It was a little hectic before he got hired not knowing really who was going to be the coach, a lot of names were being thrown around,” Quinnipiac guard Andrew Robinson said of the hiring process.

“I never made my priorities based on anything except for finding the right fit, I could’ve coached at Villanova as an assistant for another 8-10 years,” Dunleavy said. “I felt amongst other choices (Quinnipiac) was an incredible fit for me, something that I saw that had long term potential and a place where the people really want to do it the way I want to do it.”

Dunleavy acknowledged that leaving a place like Villanova was hard, but knew that coaching at Quinnipiac presented him with a great opportunity.

“I think when you’re happy it’s hard to leave, but you have to differentiate between comfortable and happy,” Dunleavy said. “I thought it was probably getting to a point at Villanova where I was certainly happy and I was really comfortable, but I knew my goals and what I wanted to be.”

Whether it’s planning practices, making game plans, choosing what the team runs, or who the team recruits. The decisions he makes now falls entirely on him, something he didn’t have to do as an assistant.

It’s all part of the process for him to get out of his comfort zone as a coach.

“I didn’t want to rush into anything that wasn’t right, but at the same time I knew for my growth as a coach, I really wanted to kind of sharpen myself as a head coach. I wanted to get myself uncomfortable,” Dunleavy said.

Returning players such as Robinson needed to find out just what kind of coach the team was getting.

“When I first heard it was him, I immediately contacted some of my friends that go to Villanova to ask about him,” Robinson said. “They had nothing but great things to say about him.”

“That kind of eased my mind about it, when I heard that from those guys I was happy I know he’s a good guy, comes from a great program, a winning program so I didn’t have any worries,” Robinson said with a smile on his face.

Senior guard Greg Tarca said he’s looking forward for the new changes that are coming to the program in the coming years with Dunleavy in charge.

“I knew he was coming from a very well known program, a very successful program so I was excited,” Tarca said. “I didn’t know too much about him or what his system looked like, but I was definitely excited for a new young face to come in.”

If he’s successful and everything goes right, Dunleavy envisions being at Quinnipiac for a long time. It’s a place that you don’t want to leave if everything comes together, he said.

As Dunleavy is now amid his first year in Hamden, he is determined to make his mark on the program.

“(Baker) knows what he’s got on his plate and he’s determined to get there, he’s very motivated to make sure that he can bring this program to where it can be,” Tarca said.

“(Baker) doesn’t just care about the winning aspect, but he cares about his players on and off the court,” he said. “(Baker) cares about players coming through this program and leaving a better man than they were when they came in.”

“What we build here, what were going to build is something that our students, our fans, our faculty, our alums can be very proud of,” Dunleavy said. “Whether we win or los, when people come to a game they would be like you know what, I’m glad that’s my school. I’m glad that’s my school, that plays that way, so that’s the hope.”

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