By Winston Shi
College basketball is defined by its coaches. Johnny Dawkins, head coach of Stanford men’s basketball for the last eight seasons, was fired on March 14. Eight years is a long time, and it’s fair to say that Stanford basketball is in an entirely new era.
We all have our opinions on Coach Dawkins. Some might even argue that the new era Jerod Haase faces is one of Dawkins’ own making, but it is both ill-advised and ill-tempered to dance on the grave of the Dawkins era. There appears to be a small minority of fans that continues to cheer Dawkins’ fall nearly a month after his tenure’s passing. Frankly, I really don’t see the point.
Most of us, however, will look at the past with rose-colored glasses. Johnny Dawkins is no longer affiliated with Stanford University. His success or failure no longer has an impact on the institution to which we truly bestow our fandom. We’ve learned over the last eight years that Coach Dawkins is an exceptional man, for what that’s worth in basketball today. College sports have a tendency to lionize the few and demonize the many, when even the supposedly evil John Calipari is well known for being a true good-guy, so perhaps I am exaggerating my point.
But nobody has a bad word to say about Johnny Dawkins, and one would hope that that would actually count for something.
If Dawkins’ most committed detractors are to be believed, perhaps that legendary niceness already did buy him several years. Stanford’s identity as an athletics program – in fact, its identity as a university – is in its confidence that it can win at everything. The university aims to be great at medicine, at neuroscience, at English, at economics and at basketball. But it also aims to hold up high ethical standards for each and every one of these things. It’s about winning the right way.
Unlike my friend Do-Hyoung Park, I do not believe it is impossible to compete for conference championships at Stanford in men’s basketball, but certainly Stanford’s vision doesn’t make it any easier – not when high school hoops are increasingly professionalized and the best talent is often only marginally interested in academic success. As a country, we demanded athletic success, and that’s all we got. At the end of the day, doing things the “right way” is required but not sufficient. The program still had to win.
But boy, was he nice. At the beginning of Dawkins’ tenure, he fired up the students by making the Sixth Man free – back when Stanford men’s basketball was one of the few, if not the only, Stanford sport to charge students for admission. But even that arguably backfired on him when students, without any financial investment in Stanford basketball, stopped treating the games as events to be taken seriously. That’s narrative No. 1 of the Dawkins era: a man too nice for his fanbase and too nice for big-time college basketball.
And yet we will still be fans. Being “fans,” however, is not enough to rebuild Stanford. The program is bitterly divided over the future of its now-departed coach. On some level, we cheer for the Stanford Cardinal – and while many will have a soft spot for UCF because of Dawkins, Jerod Haase is the man to whom we owe our allegiance. The Dawkins backers deserve time to stew. But they, too, will return to Maples. If they cheered through thick and thin for Dawkins, surely they will cheer for the next guy. I’m not worried about them.
What about the Dawkins detractors, though? On some level, they’ve won – might as well move on now. But going back to my original inspiration for this piece, there seems to be a notion that people who are rich do not deserve sympathy. Johnny Dawkins was paid well. He might not have been paid like his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, but he was comfortably in the upper class. And just a week after Stanford let him go, he found another head coaching job at a Division I school – in the coaching world, a speed faster than light itself.
Johnny Dawkins is moving on. He gets to coach his son, he gets to keep getting paid to coach the game he loves and he gets a second chance. If we had not known that he was just fired from Stanford, we would have counted Coach Dawkins among the luckiest of men. But the man did just lose his job. And for what it’s worth, even though the results were disappointing and the fans eventually stopped showing up, he still served the university proudly, graduated his players, cared about the students and openly gave a damn. For a lot of folks, maybe that’s the one thing that really matters. For Stanford, it’s just business.
The king is dead. Long live the king.
As it turns out, Winston Shi is capable of having normal human emotions after all, if this column is any indication. If you’re still not convinced, send Winston your best Turing tests at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.