OKC Thunder: Mark Daigneault will face longtime mentor Billy Donovan in Bulls preseason game
Mark Daigneault drove to Gainesville, Florida, in 2010 without a job waiting for him.
Daigneault had been an assistant coach at Holy Cross for three seasons, but he wanted to go to grad school and continue coaching elsewhere after some shakeup on the staff. Daigneault assessed his options and settled on Florida. He had a mutual friend with Gators coach Billy Donovan, but Daigneault had never met Donovan.
It was a risk worth taking.
“It changed my life in a lot of ways,” Daigneault said of that drive.
Daigneault met his wife, Ashley, in grad school at Florida, and he landed a graduate assistant position on Donovan’s staff.
After working under Donovan for four years at Florida, and last season as a Thunder assistant, Daigneault and Donovan will face off as opposing NBA head coaches Wednesday night in a Thunder-Bulls preseason game in Oklahoma City.
“I would never be in this career position had it not been for my time at Florida,” said Daigneault, crediting the coaches and players he worked with in Gainesville.
At the time, Daigneault might have been overqualified for his position.
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“He was like my personal assistant,” Donovan told The Oklahoman. “Not like as a secretary, but as a basketball person.”
In 2011, after Daigneault’s first season, three assistant coaches left Donovan’s staff.
Rob Lanier went to Texas, Richard Pitino went to Louisville with his dad and Wyoming hired Larry Shyatt as head coach.
"So I had to hire three coaches, and as you can imagine, that doesn't happen overnight,” Donovan said. “It was just Mark and I in the office every day.”
Donovan described Daigneault as a utility staffer who could help the team with just about anything.
“I kind of gave him a runway to be creative and come up with different ideas and suggestions,” Donovan said. “He was really good with the players, and the guys really liked him. But he couldn't coach on the floor, he couldn't go on the floor, he couldn't do any of that stuff because of the way the (NCAA) rules were set up.”
Before Daigneault started traveling with the team, he would watch Florida’s games at Donovan’s house with players who had transferred or were ineligible to travel for other reasons.
"He wasn't necessarily in a coaching role,” Donovan said, “but he and I were close together.”
Their relationship grew in Oklahoma City.
Sam Presti lured Daigneault away from Gainesville in 2014 to coach the G League Blue, and Presti hired Donovan to coach the Thunder a year later.
Daigneault and Donovan regularly exchanged ideas with each other, and Daigneault said there was an open-door policy between the Blue and Thunder.
After five seasons with the Blue, Daigneault was elevated to Thunder assistant before last season. Daigneault was coaching under Donovan yet again.
“He's a guy that works hard to formulate his opinions and his thoughts,” Donovan said. “He has his beliefs, and as coaches you're not always going to agree on everything, but you have these heated discussions. And when I say heated, not yelling or screaming, but you're going back and forth trying to find ways to make the team better. I always enjoyed that part with him.”
Donovan, correctly forecasting the Thunder’s looming rebuild, parted ways with the organization in September. Donovan agreed to become head coach of the Bulls — a team putting the finishing touches on its rebuild after drafting in the top-10 three consecutive years.
Donovan said he thought the Thunder would look internally for his replacement. Sure enough, it did after a two-month search.
Daigneault was named Thunder head coach on Nov. 11. Much of Donovan’s staff stayed behind in Oklahoma City, but longtime Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks joined Donovan in Chicago — Cheeks’ hometown.
“I’m indebted to him,” Daigneault said of Cheeks, calling the hall-of-fame guard a hall-of-fame person. “I gained a lot of experience from him and I thought he really put me in a position of strength with the players in particular last year. It’s going to be exciting to see those guys.”
Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo played it tough before cracking a smile.
“Of course they’re gonna be on the other side this time,” Diallo said, “so there’s not gonna be too much love.”
The Thunder and Bulls will play at 7 p.m. Wednesday, and then again at 7 p.m. Friday to close out the preseason slate.
Wednesday will be the first time since March 3 that Donovan and Daigneault have coached at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
But now they’ll be on opposite benches.
“It was a really, really great relationship,” Donovan said, “that will continue on even though we're not working together.”