Last March Billy Donlon, distraught over being fired as Wright State basketball coach, drove to Indianapolis and cheered against Michigan in a Big 10 tournament game versus a Northwestern team guided by his childhood friend Chris Collins and high school coach Brian James.
Almost a year to the day later, Donlon was back inside Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, this time wearing a maize block ‘M’ on his chest as an assistant coach for the Big 10 champion Wolverines, who will face Oklahoma State in an NCAA tournament first-round game Friday night.
“What a year,” Donlon said. “It’s been a heck of a ride.”
After watching Michigan beat Northwestern in overtime, Donlon drove to Chicago and spent part of his weekend at Collins’ house as the two mulled options on how to move forward with his career.
“When you find out you’re no longer able to coach someplace, you can either cry over the spilled milk or just get on with it,” Donlon said. “I got on. I just tried to figure out what I was going to do next.”
>> MORE: Photo gallery from Michigan practice
A few weeks after his visit with Collins – who, by the way, has Northwestern in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history – Michigan assistant coaches LaVall Jordan (Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Bacari Alexander (Detroit) left to become head coaches in the Horizon League. And Collins was the one who recommended Donlon to Wolverines head coach John Beilein.
The hiring has paid off for Michigan, as Donlon’s defensive scheme is a big reason why the Wolverines are one of the hottest squads in the country, winning 10 of its last 12 games, including four in four days to capture the Big 10 title after the team plane skidded off the runway on the way to the tournament.
“It’s been incredible,” Donlon said. “The opportunity to work for a guy who one day belongs in the Hall of Fame in coach Beilein and the other members of the staff and to do it at a place like Michigan has been a remarkable experience for me.”
And he said he has similar positive feelings about his time at Wright State, despite losing his job after guiding the Raiders to the HL tournament championship game three times in four seasons.
“I spent 10 years there, and I love that place,” Donlon said. “I think Wright State is one of the best places in the world. I love the fans. I love the people. I appreciated my 10 years there. I will always cheer for them.
“I’m really proud of what I did as a coach,” Donlon added. “I went to three conference finals in four years. In life you always have to remember, there are the controllables, and there are the uncontrollables. When other people get to make decisions with your life that you can’t control, you just have to move on from them.”
After Michigan beat Wisconsin 71-56 in the Big 10 tournament championship game Sunday, television cameras caught Donlon doing jumping chest-bumps with several of his players. And it’s been those type of relationships he’s developed in his return to an assistant role that been among the highlights of the season for him.
“The best part about being an assistant is the way you can be with the players,” he said. “There’s just certain interactions you can’t have with players as a head coach that you can as an assistant. And that’s been a lot of fun for me. It’s been great to get back to that experience, because it had been six years since I had been able to do that.”
But that doesn’t mean he’s content to stay in that role the rest of his career, although it’s not something he’s focused on heading into the NCAA tournament.
“I really do try to live in the moment,” Donlon said. “Would I love another opportunity? Of course I would. But if someone says I get to be the assistant at Michigan and work for John Beilein and with Jeff Meyer and Saddi Washington for the rest of my career, I would love that.
“I mean, I’ve had a great year,” he continued. “We are Big 10 champions. That’s pretty good. We played at Madison Square Garden. Next year we’re going to Maui. Hopefully I’m back. I’m fighting hard to make sure I don’t get fired two years in a row.”