Bob McKillop commands respect for the job he’s done on the court. He’s been to the Elite Eight. He currently sits three wins away from 500 in his career. He’s won 12 conference championships. So with that success, in the last 27 years at the helm of the men’s basketball program at Davidson, McKillop has been able to spread his roots.
“That’s one of the great things about this situation here at Davidson,” McKillop said, sitting on the couch in his beautiful, brand new office, earned in part through so many years of dedication to Davidson. “It allows you to build your army. And our army has expanded.”
That army begins with the assistant coaches that have gone on to head other teams. Over McKillop’s career, 10 of his former assistant coaches have gone on to head coaching positions, with the latest being Jim Fox’s appointment at Appalachian State in 2014.
But equally important to that army is the group of ex-student managers that are staying in the game of basketball. Under the tutelage of the legendary coach, managers in the Davidson basketball program have experienced tremendous post-graduation success in recent years. That comes in part from the culture McKillop has created within the team.
“The managers here have been welcomed as members of the team,” McKillop said. “They feel like they’re part of the team. They have the same sense of satisfaction of success as the team has. They work as hard as the team. And they’re held accountable just like the team. I think it’s a great training experience for leadership.”
Two former managers from the class of 2014 currently work in the NBA. Miles Abbett recently was promoted to be the Basketball Analytics Coordinator with the Chicago Bulls, where he has an office right across from the head coach and general manager. Back at Davidson, Abbett was crucial in the founding of ‘Cats Stats, the analytics program that has taken on national fame.
Another manager from that year with a math background, Ford Higgins, began with the Philadelphia 76ers organization a year ago as an analytics intern. In addition to helping out with the D-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers, Higgins helped with player scouting for the NBA Draft. Higgins has since moved to working with the Dallas Mavericks in an analytical role.
“When you see the merger, the marriage, the collaboration between academics and athletics here,” said McKillop, “[Abbett and Higgins] are shining examples of that.”
Billy Thom, who stayed on after his managerial days to work as Director of Operations for Davidson, has since moved to coaching and teaching at the high school level. At the helm of the program at the Millbrook School in upstate New York, Thom regales his players and students with stories of the magical run to the Elite 8 back in 2008. It is the lessons learned then during his time alongside Stephen Curry and McKillop that he aims to instill in them.
Before he left Davidson, Thom helped bring along some of the current crop of Davidson basketball managers. Even before Fabian Lara ‘16 began his freshman year, he and Thom had spoken at length about the ways Lara could be engaged with the program.
Now a senior, Lara says he’s often asked why he would spend 20 hours doing this job without getting paid. People look at him and others on the sideline and assume he’s just a glorified water boy. But Lara wouldn’t give up the job for anything. And it is helping him prepare every day for his future.
“The more I invest, the more I get out of it,” said Lara. “A lot of the skills are transferrable to future potential jobs. And it’s a lot of fun. There’s a lot to get out of it. The experiences of traveling and being in those games and those moments is also just a personal great experience.”
“But I feel like I do get a lot of life lessons from Coach McKillop, the same as the players, because we’re present for all the students he says,” Lara continued. “What we learn every day, contributing to the team and the program, makes ourselves better everyday.”
None of it is easy work. Before practice, the managers will come in at least a half hour early to set up. With access to the schedule, they know when and where everything has to be. The tape has to be in the right place on the door. Then in practice the clock has to be operated. They’ll have to make sure the balls are getting to the right spot. They’ll also be called into drills. And just like with the players, they will be held to a very high standard.
Some managers have even earned a jersey in recent years through a combination of their basketball ability and the trust they’ve earned from the coaching staff. In doing their work so well, they showed they could belong on the court. Will Thoni ‘14, who has since joined the coaching staff at Davidson in addition to helping out with USA Basketball, found himself on the roster his senior year after three years of continued dedication. Ryan Ansel ‘14 did the same. And Kamau Faines ‘18 was a manager for two weeks last season before being given a roster spot.
Though he is not on the court playing, Lara, who is looking to coach basketball either as a post-grad assistant or at his old high school in Chicago, is gaining valuable experience. Coming from McKillop’s system will have him as prepared and qualified as anyone. He is ready to spread the tree.
Another senior manager, Danny Howard ‘16, was not always as set on the position as Lara. Although Howard is looking to be a counselor after college, being a part of the program has been incredibly profitable.
“I’ve learned a lot about work ethic from watching people like Will Thoni and the other coaches prepare for games and how they go through their practice plans,” Howard said. “It’s been immensely helpful preparing for postgrad work and just life in general. They’re extremely precise and caring about everyone.
“Coach does a really good job of making us feel like family,” he continued. “He’s very complementary of us as managers which is helpful to make us want to do our job better. He’s not like other coaches. When he is in a press conference, he thanks his coaching staff, his managers and his players. It means a lot that he would do that for us – that such a great coach would bring us up with him.”
Seeing the precision and work ethic that the coaches use every single day has inspired many like Howard. It has taught them how to go about both their job and their life. These lessons have prepared them for the greater world.
Not all the former managers stay in basketball. Some go into finance. Some are lawyers. One of the earliest managers under McKillop is even a doctor here in town. But one thing is for sure. They’ve all learned valuable lessons from Coach Bob. And as McKillop told me, “When those banners hang in Belk Arena, they own a piece of that banner.”
When the 500th win arrives in a couple weeks, it will be an appropriate time to talk about McKillop’s legacy. Though he has seen the court named in his honor a year ago and the dedication of a brand new basketball center last week, that legacy is not just about winning basketball games. Through more than a quarter century of commitment to a program, McKillop has transformed the lives of so many individuals. And through this good work, his army is growing ever stronger.