ALBANY — Let the record show that Dwayne Killings’ first shot at UAlbany’s SEFCU Arena was an airball.
He walked out of the tunnel and onto the floor on Thursday for what was as much (or more) introductory pep rally as it was intro press conference (as these events go) and carried a black Great Danes t-shirt to throw to well-wishers.
He looked up toward the ceiling, at a half-dozen people on the catwalk, and rifled the shirt in their direction.
It got only halfway before unfurling and falling back into his hands. Unfazed, he smoothly maintained his beeline for the dais and tossed it to someone closer to the ground.
Then again, Killings is not here to make shots, he’s here to make a difference, and there wasn’t anything to suggest that he can’t/won’t do that as the new men’s basketball coach on Western Avenue.
There will be bumps and hit-or-miss opportunities that any young coach will face in his first shot as the head coach, especially while trying to revive a program that has had three straight losing seasons.
What he inherits is a foundation established over two decades by Will Brown, and it’s a measure of Brown’s impact on the program that, on Killings’ big day, Brown was recognized and thanked by the UAlbany administration. That’s a rarity when one of the circumstances of the coaching change is that the predecessor was fired, for all practical purposes, and didn’t leave by his own choice.
It’ll be interesting to see what Killings does with that foundation, and if first impressions count for anything, there’s reason for high expectations from UAlbany.
Much has been made of the fact that, at 39, Killings becomes one of the youngest head coaches in Division I, but it’s easy to forget that Brown was just 30 when the interim tag was removed from his job title in November of 2002.
He was rewarded for his promising work with a four-year contract worth a base salary of $85,000 a year, which is dwarfed by 2021 numbers, including a ceiling of $378,000 for Killings, via reporting from Gazette sports editor Michael Kelly. Brown didn’t get to that level until 2018, after UAlbany had been to the NCAA Tournament five times.
At the announcement of Brown’s four-year deal in 2002, one of his former bosses, Brian Beaury, said, “He’s a steal for UAlbany. Five years from now, he’ll have his place on the map.” The words proved prophetic, as, by 2007, the Great Danes had made it to two straight NCAA tournaments.
Now Killings is trying to plant his own flag.
He brings a reputation as an effective recruiter at top-level, storied programs like Temple, Connecticut and Marquette, and on Thursday he showed why, hitting all the right notes not only through his choice of words, but also in the delivery. He has a self-assured manner and carries himself like someone who won’t be satisfied with anything short of the types of seasons that put UAlbany on that map.
“When you get up every morning, you have to be striving for something bigger than yourself every day,” he said, SEFCU’s big video board lowered to serve as a backdrop monitor of his image as Great Danes logos flashed on a digital video strip in front of the stage.
Every new coaching hire says they want to connect to the community and make a difference off the court, not just on it, but it doesn’t appear to be lip service in Killings’ case.
He was one of 21 founding members, all Black assistant coaches in the Big East, who started Coaches For Action last year as a means of using their public platform to take a stand against social injustices.
Killings wants to branch that into the America East so more players can expand their voice on these issues and to help them cultivate their leadership qualities.
On the basketball front, he faces the uncertainty that any new hire does on the landscape they’ve inherited, not the least of which is assembling a roster from the players who choose to stay and those he and his staff can bring in.
Whatever success he achieves will also be a function of how much support he gets from the school and the athletic department, which said all the right things on Thursday and was rightfully and genuinely thrilled with their new men’s basketball coach.
“I wanted to be part of a community that cared about basketball,” Killings said. “I see that here. Now, we have to wake some more people up and make them care about what we’re trying to do. But I see it.”
He can do that by looking in both directions, backward and forward.
Killings said he sees Brown’s legacy not as a burden, but as an opportunity, “to inspire them to win the way they want to win.”
This is the interim head coach Brown, on Feb. 11, 2002, after a 61-45 victory over AE powerhouse Vermont:
“To tell you the truth, I felt we could play our best basketball and still not win against this team. Vermont is that good. But I didn’t tell our players that. I was surprised by the final score. This has to be the biggest win in the history of the school.”
UAlbany would go 12-44 over the next two seasons, hadn’t even sold naming rights to its gym, but the school stuck with the young coach, and by 2006, they were in the NCAAs. That “biggest win in the history of the school” would be supplanted many times over in the coming years.
Now Dwayne Killings gets his shot.