DENVER — From one who should know, it won’t be a contest as to which team BYU fans will be cheering during Saturday’s Utah-Gonzaga NCAA Tournament game.
There are no wounds like new ones on top of old ones.
“I think hate will take over,” said Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels. “I think they’ll cheer for us.”
Unprompted, he then brought up the cancellation of next year’s instate game by Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak.
“They had that big hassle with playing, not playing, playing, not playing,” Daniels continued. “That was a beauty.”
Or a disaster, depending on perspective.
He merely laughed, having followed it from afar.
Daniels isn’t your garden-variety observer. If anyone should know BYU and Utah sports and politics, it’s Daniels. He spent 11 years as an assistant at Utah under Rick Majerus. Part of his job was keeping the big guy from going bananas and getting ejected. It wasn’t unusual to see Daniels calmly but subtly guiding Majerus to the bench.
But Daniels doesn’t talk about that. He prefers to focus on what it was like to be with a Ute team that nearly always made the NCAA Tournament — just as he’s now doing with Gonzaga.
“In our profession, it’s all about winning, and we won at such a high level — and so early,” Daniels said of his time at Utah. He went on to note the Utes went to the Sweet 16 in just his second season.
“We just kept rolling,” he said.
Utah made the NCAA field in 10 of the next 12 years.
“The success under Majerus — I don’t know if they’ll ever do those things again,” he said. “That run, it was … wow!”
Daniels caught on with the first Majerus coaching staff and hung there for more than a decade. That could be a lifetime when working for a coach who expected his assistants to work on Christmas and make sure their jobs were their lives.
Daniels joined the Gonzaga staff in 2010, a year before BYU entered the West Coast Conference.
So now he has viewed the Cougars from two different benches, in two different conferences.
Daniels has always come across as classy and composed. Patience is a virtue, but with him it’s also a trait. He lasted longer with the obsessive Majerus than any Utah assistant, including the imminently likable and patient Jeff Judkins, who stayed 10 years before taking a job at BYU.
Any similarities between Utah’s and Gonzaga’s programs are purely intentional. Ute coach Larry Krystkowiak said on Selection Sunday that he knew the Zags better than any team outside the Pac-12, adding that in some areas he has tried to pattern the Utes’ revival after Gonzaga.
In the 1990s, it was the other way around. The Bulldogs were trying to get to the level of perennial tournament team Utah. The year after Utah reached the Final Four under Majerus, the Bulldogs reached the Elite Eight. While Utah’s fortunes gradually began to slip, Gonzaga was on it way to an 18-year run of NCAA appearances.
“Our conference all wants to be Gonzaga, but no one has quite found the formula to do that,” Daniels said.
At the moment, Utah and Gonzaga are running somewhat parallel paths.
“It’s interesting. I think the teams are eerily similar,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.
At both Utah and Gonzaga, Daniels thrived and stayed. In a profession often marked by a long series of short stops, he has been a steady presence. Aside from his long Utah stay, he spent seven years as a UCLA assistant and has been six at Gonzaga. Additionally, he stayed 13 years at Fullerton in varying tenures — 10 as an assistant and three as head coach.
“I feel really blessed,” he said.
In that time he has watched Utah’s program rise, fall and again rise.
Now, though, the observation period is done. He has a job to do on Saturday. Which is too bad, in a way. The game is one he would love to be watching from the stands, too.
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