Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels started game-planning about two years ago for his retirement following the 2019 season.
He let the appropriate people know during the season. He submitted a letter earlier this week to head coach Mark Few and athletic director Mike Roth, a formality that allows Gonzaga to begin searching for his replacement.
But like many well-crafted plans in life, Daniels’ road map is about to take a bit of a detour.
He’s still leaving Gonzaga, but he’s not quite ready to completely call it quits after four decades in the coaching profession. He’s expected to join Utah’s staff as director of basketball operations, which trims his time commitment since it won’t involve recruiting or on-court coaching.
“It’s almost like the perfect transition,” said Daniels, noting his GU departure date and Utah arrival date haven’t been finalized. “I’ll basically just be another set of eyes. I was very comfortable with retiring and not doing anything until about a month ago when this opportunity came up.”
Daniels has spent nine seasons at Gonzaga, a span that includes all five of the program’s 30-win seasons, two Elite Eights and the 2017 national runner-up.
His departure is the first change on the Zags’ staff since Brian Michaelson replaced Ray Giacoletti, who departed after the 2013 season to become the head coach at Drake.
Daniels’ absence will be felt on and off the court.
“The most amazing thing about Donny is the thousands of people you meet, literally thousands that tell you, ‘Hey, tell Donny hi for me,’ ” Few said. “Not once do you come across anybody that has anything bad to say about him.
“That’s an amazing tribute right there. That’s really what life should be about, having that type of impact on people.”
Success has been Daniels’ constant companion on the floor. He’s been to five Final Fours (one at Utah, one at Gonzaga and three at UCLA) and three national championship games (one at each program). Daniels will be part of the inaugural class inducted into the Assistant Coaches Hall of Fame next month in Atlanta.
“He’s just had this amazing run of success. There’s obviously a correlation there,” Few said. “It’s probably unrivaled the amount of success he’s had as an assistant.”
Daniels, who played at Cal State Fullerton for coach Bobby Dye, began his coaching odyssey in 1979. Dye thought Daniels would make a good coach and put actions behind his words by bringing Daniels on as a CSF volunteer assistant for the 1979 season.
Daniels hasn’t had a year off from coaching since that first season, despite enduring several job changes. He had two head coaching stints along the way, at L.A. Harbor in the mid-1980s and Cal State Fullerton from 2001-03, the latter coming between stops at Utah and UCLA.
“I haven’t had a year off, which is remarkable in this profession,” Daniels said. “That’s where I’m the luckiest person. To say I’ve never worked in 40 years is an understatement.”
A few years ago, Daniels began considering his course after basketball.
“Like I told Mark, I didn’t see myself out there (because there aren’t many) 63-year-old assistants out there,” said Daniels, who usually gets disbelieving double-takes from people when he tells them he’ll turn 65 this August. “We came up with a two-year journey to get to this point. Mark and Mike have been outstanding with this whole process. There comes a time where you age yourself out of things, in my mind.”
Daniels has numerous friends in Salt Lake City from his time as a Utah assistant from 1990-2000. The current staff includes familiar faces in assistants Tommy Connor and Chris Jones, both of whom played at Utah early in Daniels’ tenure on Rick Majerus’ staff.
Daniels’ son, Eric, has been an assistant at Utah Valley, but it isn’t clear if he’ll remain on staff after a coaching change. Mark Madsen replaced Mark Pope as head coach after Pope was hired at nearby BYU.
Daniels doesn’t know how long he’ll work for the Utes. He hasn’t decided if he’ll retire in Spokane or Salt Lake City, but he’s comfortable with either option.
He said the last nine years “couldn’t have gone any better” because of Gonzaga, the administration, coaching staff, players, fans and community.
“I have an affinity for Spokane,” he said. “When I came here it was an outstanding program and when I leave here it’s still an outstanding program, and the things we’ve accomplished have been history making.”
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