“They want to shut the Wright State people up, then play us. The best way to shut people up is play them.”
That was Billy Donlon — at the very end of Wednesday’s annual Wright State preseason basketball luncheon — when someone in the crowd brought up the University of Dayton and, by inference, the Flyers’ refusal to play the Raiders for the past 16 years.
The out -of-the-blue question hit a nerve with the WSU coach and suddenly he was speaking with plenty of passion and not much filter.
And, in my book, he was right on the mark.
“Look, we don’t have anything to prove to the University of Dayton — that’s not why we should play,” he said. “I want to play this game because it makes sense. People I talk to on both sides of the aisle, they tell me they want to play the game.
“But most of all, for the community it could be incredible. Think what you could do for charity? Children’s Hospital. The Salvation Army. Cancer research — that would be impactful for us with the amount of people on our team directly affected by cancer.”
Donlon’s mother Maryann died three years ago after a long battle with breast cancer. Deanna Darling, the mother of senior forward Cole Darling, is dealing with breast cancer now.
“Think of the good our two schools could do if we played home and home every season,” Donlon said. “There are no excuses.”
This community could use an event that not only bolsters a charitable cause, but simply puts a buzz on the sports landscape. Save for an NCAA tournament appearance every once in a while and the now-mothballed Dayton-Xavier games each season, there hasn’t been a whole lot locally. I’m not talking Ohio State football or the Cincinnati Reds or Bengals, but right here in this town.
Look at the non-conference home schedules of our two Division I teams this year. Dayton opens up with Purdue-Fort Wayne and two St. Francises, one from Pennsylvania, the other Brooklyn. Throw in Delaware State and Winthrop and Flyers fans have several yawner games at home.
Wright State is just as anemic with a pair of Division III schools in Mount St. Joseph and Manchester, as well as Alcorn State, Western Carolina and Missouri-Kansas City.
What better time for a Dayton-Wright State game?
This is the first time in 77 years the Flyers don’t play at least one of their four backyard Miami Valley rivals — Xavier, Cincinnati, Miami or Wright State. And Butler, WSU’s biggest rival in recent years, is no longer on the Raiders’ schedule.
From 1989 to 1997, in a much-hyped game billed as the Gem City Jam, UD and WSU played eight times with the Flyers holding the 5-3 series edge. Five games were at UD Arena, three at the Nutter Center and all drew big crowds, most of them sellouts.
“I don’t know the exact figure but there’s at least a half-million people in the area here and if WSU was to play Dayton, I’d say 200,000 of those people would be excited about the game,” Donlon said. “They’d be talking about the game months ahead of time and for two or three days after. What other game draws that interest? You can’t put a price on that in the community.
“And the first time we play — which would almost certainly be at UD Arena — I think that game would end up on ESPN or ESPN2. What other nonconference game at home that UD plays gets on national TV? There can’t be many. The kind of recognition for a school is invaluable.”
Speaking later on The Chick Ludwig show on WONE-AM, Donlon brought up similar next-door rivalry games — VCU vs. Richmond, as well as the matchups between Iowa, Iowa State, Drake and Northern Iowa — that are much anticipated.
Although he didn’t mention it, think of the Crosstown Shootout between UC and Xavier that, except for a fistic glitch or two, brought a buzz to the Queen City each year.
Before and after Donlon broached the subject Wednesday, he made sure to embrace his Flyers counterpart, Archie Miller, whom he called “a terrific person and a terrific coach.”
“I don’t think it’s Archie Miller’s decision,” he said. “I know Archie well enough. He’s a guy that played at N.C. State. He’s a coach’s son, an old-school guy who doesn’t back away from anything. I believe the decision (not to play) is above his pay grade.”
As for the argument that WSU doesn’t have a good enough RPI to bolster the Flyers’ resume come tournament time, he scoffed:
“That whole RPI talk is the biggest nonsensical argument I’ve heard and I’m tired of it. The last seven years our RPI has averaged out about 105. If you are a top-80 (RPI) program and you get beat by a top-150 program, your RPI might drop four or five spots. But the very next game, if you win, it goes right back to where it belongs. And if you beat that 150 team, it goes up a few spots.
“They (UD) play us in almost every other sport. C’mon? You don’t care about RPI in other sports? At some point this game will get played. This game is gonna happen again. I just hope I’m the coach at Wright State that gets to be on the sideline for that first one.
“Like I said, we don’t have to play this to prove anything, but it’s a game that should be played for all the good it could do in our community.”
After he was done, Donlon sat by himself and wondered if he had said too much.
“When I looked out in the crowd I didn’t see anybody give me the cut-off sign,” he said with a smile. “Usually that would be my dad (assistant coach Bill Donlon) signaling, ‘OK, that’s enough.’ But I didn’t bring it up, somebody asked me and sometimes when I get on a subject I’m passionate about, the thoughts just come out.
“I don’t know, maybe I’m going to be in real trouble tomorrow.”
It should be just the opposite.
He put some life in the preseason basketball conversation here. For that, he should get a pat on the back, not just from local hoops lovers, but from fans of this town.