How Mark Daigneault rose from UConn manager to OKC Thunder head coach: 'Never bet against smart guys'
Mark Daigneault prepared a list of people he wanted to thank.
His wife, Ashley. His parents and his sister. Thunder general manager Sam Presti and chairman Clay Bennett. And then Daigneault got to his coaches.
He thanked Steve Dubzinski at Leominster High School. Jim Calhoun and George Blaney at Connecticut. Ralph Willard at Holy Cross. Lastly, Billy Donovan.
“When Sam called me and offered me the job the other day,” Daigneault said at his introductory press conference, “I was just so overwhelmed thinking about all the people that have had their fingerprints on my life and career.”
Each of those coaches, whom Daigneault recited in chronological order, marked a stop on his accelerated route to being named head coach of the Thunder on Wednesday. Daigneault, 35, was promoted after one season as an assistant.
“I’ve been with people that have definitely seen potential in me and definitely believe in me,” Daigneault said, “but they’ve given me these opportunities well before I’ve earned them. They’ve invested rather than rewarded.”
Daigneault has already proven worthy of the investment.
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Dubzinski had to keep quiet.
Now the principal at Leominster High School in Daigneault’s Massachusetts hometown, Dubzinski received a call from Daigneault early Wednesday morning before the news broke.
“I got teary-eyed,” Dubzinski said of learning that his former high school player was about to be named coach of the Thunder.
Then Dubzisnki watched Daigneault’s press conference, and Dubzinski heard his name lumped together with the likes of Calhoun and Donovan.
“Which one of these doesn't belong?” Dubzinski asked with a laugh. “Those guys are like on the Mount Rushmore of basketball, and I'm basically bringing up the next stone to be carved.”
Before serving as principal, Dubzinski was the basketball coach and guidance counselor at Leominster High School.
Leominster, pronounced Lemon-ster, sits 50 miles northwest of Boston and 25 miles west of Concord, where Presti is from. Daigneault’s parents still live in the town of 40,000, and news of their son’s promotion spread quickly.
“They're not all swept up in ‘My son's an NBA coach,’” Dubzinski said. “It's not about the fame and the name and the new paycheck. I said today, if Mark was in Leominster, Mass., coaching a fifth grade travel basketball team, he would put the same attention to detail, the same amount of effort and energy as he's going to in Oklahoma City.”
Billy McEvoy, who now lives in nearby Acton, Massachusetts, had to explain to his three young children why their NBA allegiances were suddenly shifting from the Celtics to the Thunder.
“They had a tough time grasping that,” said McEvoy, a childhood friend and high school teammate of Daigneault’s. “I have always loved the Celtics, but if you asked me who would I like to hold up that trophy, Brad Stevens or Mark Daigneault? I'm gonna go Mark Daigneault any day of the week.”
Dubzinski knew Daigneault was in the mix for the Thunder job, but the two-month search following Donovan’s departure was dragging on.
It was only right that Dubzinski was one of the first to find out Wednesday. Daigneault wasn’t Dubzinski’s most talented player at Leominster High School, but Daigneault instead relied on outsmarting opponents.
“He's always been a coach at heart,” McEvoy said. “You could see it from an early age.”
So many describe Daigneault as an old soul, to which McEvoy chuckles.
“You can only imagine the ribbing he took in high school,” McEvoy said. “An old soul is an understatement. Mature beyond his years, and he still is.”
If Dubzinski ever had to step out of practice, Daigneault was put in charge.
“Quite frankly I think they got better coaching,” Dubzinski said, joking that a new offense and trap defense would be installed by the time he returned.
As a sophomore or junior, Daigneault started to weigh his future. He could try to play small-time college basketball, or he could attend one of the top basketball schools in the country and try to latch on somehow with a program.
Daigneault remembers when he told Dubzinski that he wanted to coach. To which Dubzinski said, “you can absolutely coach.”
“When you hear that from somebody that you respect, when you’ve never heard it at that point in your life, it’s powerful,” Daigneault said. “It’s really powerful.”
Dubzinski soon organized a school-funded college trip to the University of Connecticut. Daigneault and about 10 other kids loaded into a van for the 70-mile drive.
While on campus, Daigneault walked into Blaney’s office. Blaney and Dubzinski knew each other, and Blaney was an assistant coach at UConn under Calhoun.
Blaney told Daigneault to come see him if he ended up enrolling at UConn.
On Daigneault’s first day of college in 2003, that’s exactly what he did.
Jim Calhoun might start a season with as many as 20 student managers, but it never took long for that number to shrink.
“The guys pick themselves after a while,” the hall of fame coach said. “Pretty soon instead of 20 there’s 15, and then they find out they have to get up at six in the morning.”
Unsurprisingly, Daigneault was one of the few who stuck around.
“I never bet against smart guys,” Calhoun said.
Daigneault was a manager for the Huskies from 2003 until he graduated in 2007.
UConn beat Georgia Tech to win the national championship in Daigneault’s freshman year. Six players from that team went on to play in the NBA, including Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon, the second and third picks in the 2004 NBA Draft.
“It was just such exposure,” Daigneault said of being around that team. “I had never seen anything like it.”
Daigneault didn’t have much of a role that season, but Blaney would later assign him important projects that exceeded the description of a traditional manager.
“Another person,” Daigneault said, “that when you’re at a vulnerable stage in your life is willing to go on a limb for you and use the weight of their authority or equity and reinvest it in people. George Blaney did that.”
Blaney retired from UConn in 2013. Calhoun, a three-time NCAA champion, retired a year earlier. At 78, Calhoun is back coaching at Division-III University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut.
“It’s a damn hard route,” Calhoun said of Daigneault’s coaching trajectory.
“He didn't have such things as being a college coach or even a college player or NBA player. He had just himself, which makes him, in my opinion, some ways more valuable because he's actually taking exactly what he is. Not his jump shot, not his legacy, not the guy he played for, but who he is.”
After Daigneault graduated from UConn with a degree in education, the well-connected Dubzinski once again facilitated Daigneault’s next step.
Dubzinski was working a basketball camp at Holy Cross with Ralph Willard, who coached the Crusaders from 1999-2009. A Holy Cross assistant had just resigned, and Dubzinski told Willard he had somebody for the job.
“They hadn’t publicly announced that the assistant left,” Daigneault said. “I literally had the information that the job was open before anybody. And I just went to practice every single day. I just sat there, and I watched practice. I learned so much anyway, but I was also hustling for the job.”
Holy Cross had an overseas trip that summer in 2007, and Daigneault found out where the team was staying.
“I sent them all these materials, which I’d probably be embarrassed to look at now,” Daigneault said. “I don’t even remember what the heck I thought was right back then, I was just sending them anything.”
“What 22-year-old kid even has the guts?” Dubzinski said. “Ralph Willard, George Blaney, Jim Calhoun. They're intimidating figures. But not for the 22-year-old who's a little bit different. Different in a good way.”
In September 2007, Holy Cross hired Daigneault as an assistant coach.
R.J. Evans played under Daigneault for two seasons at Holy Cross. A friend texted Evans on Wednesday, telling him to turn on ESPN. Evans saw the news scroll across the ticker.
“He’s the closest assistant coach I’ve ever been to,” Evans said of Daigneault. “He’s the reason I’m in college basketball.”
Evans now works as an assistant at Holy Cross, mentoring young players just as Daigneault mentored him.
“He really wants to see you develop as a player, and he puts the time in to make sure you know that,” Evans said. “My biggest struggle was outside shooting, and he helped me with that tremendously. I told him the other day, all those bad misses he rebounded for me finally paid off.”
Had the Holy Cross job not come open, Daigneault planned to stay at UConn for graduate school. When the Holy Cross staff was let go after Daigneault’s third season, he saw that as an opening to earn his master’s degree.
“But I also wanted to have my cake and eat it too, and keep my foot in the door,” Daigneault said.
He applied to Florida, knowing he had a mutual friend with Donovan as well as having a few connections with some of Donovan’s assistants in Gainesville.
“I kind of walked in the door and said, ‘Hey, I’m here, I’ll do anything you guys want me to do,’” Daigneault said.
Daigneault made a good first impression. Within two weeks, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley called Daigneault, telling him that he was picking up the bill for Daigneault’s graduate schooling.
Donovan didn’t have a coaching job to offer Daigneault, so Daigneault started as a volunteer in 2010. He was more of an assistant to Donovan rather than an assistant under Donovan.
“I really tried to give him a runway to be as creative as he could be inside of his job,” Donovan said.
Preston Greene, Florida’s director of strength and conditioning, roomed with Daigneault on the road for one season. Every morning they got up early, before the rest of the team, and walked to a coffee shop. Daigneault didn’t have a prominent role on the staff, which made Greene marvel at Daigneault’s work ethic.
“Finding some information or matchups that he could pass on to the staff and to Coach Donovan,” Greene said. “His preparation at that age and in that role, he was preparing that day as if he was the head coach.”
NBA scouts and front office executives would drop in on practices during Daigneault’s four years at Florida, especially during Bradley Beal’s freshman season in 2011-12.
When Presti was in town, Daigneault and Oliver Winterbone, a Florida video coordinator who would also go on to work for the Thunder, asked Presti if they could pick his brain.
“We just pulled these rolling chairs up next to him and sat down with him,” Daigneault said. “We were on that concourse with him into the night.
“I noticed the same things everyone notices about Sam when I interacted with him, that he was highly intelligent, highly curious and humble. The thing that really stuck with me more than anything is the time he was willing to give us. Blind. He didn’t know who we were then. And obviously a relationship blossomed from that.”
Presti hired Daigneault to coach the G League Oklahoma City Blue in August 2014. Daigneault was only 29.
The Blue went 143-107 in Daigneault’s five seasons as head coach. Donovan made the move from Gainesville to Oklahoma City in 2015, one year after Daigneault.
“When he was at the Blue, we would talk basketball,” Donovan said. “He'd send me clips and say, ‘Hey, watch this. Can you give me your ideas or thoughts?’ Or, ‘Hey, our team's struggling with this. Can you give me some ideas on this or that?’ And then vice versa, when their season finished up, I'd kind of do the same thing with him. We were always kind of exchanging ideas.”
Donovan, who was named head coach of the Bulls in September, was happy to see Daigneault as his successor in Oklahoma City.
“So many things can be transactional, and our relationship was never transactional,” Donovan said. “If we never talk basketball again the rest of our lives, it would still be a very, very close relationship.”
“I just have so many people like him in my life,” Daigneault said, “that have had that type of impact on me.”
From Dubzinski to Donovan, with several in between. They prepared Daigneault for the journey, believing in him at every turn.
“The best part of this, honestly,” Daigneault said, “is being able to share it.”