Don’t ask Bob McKillop about 600 wins

The Davidson coach hit another milestone but is more concerned about the Wildcats’ next game

The Davidson coach hit another milestone but is more concerned about the Wildcats’ next game (Gary Landers / AP Photo)

Bob McKillop remembers his first win at Davidson. At the time, there weren’t that many wins to confuse it with.

“As I left Belk Arena that night, I’m certain I was just relieved we had one win,” he said.

It came in the fourth game of the 1989-90 season by one point against Erskine, which wasn’t a Division I school. That didn’t matter to McKillop, though.

“I don’t care if it was against North Mecklenburg High School. We had a win, and it was in the books, finally. So I did not forecast beyond one win.”

Davidson would lose its next 10. The team would end up beating just one Division I team that year and finish 4-24 overall.

The Wildcats joined a conference the next year and improved to 10-19. Then came an 11-17 mark in 1992, which is the last time Davidson — or McKillop — had a losing record.

Thirty years and one month after getting past Erskine, McKillop took Davidson on the road and beat Duquesne for the 600th win in his coaching career.

“I’m just thrilled we got a victory,” he said afterward. “That is it. It’s just the thrill of victory that’s got me excited right now.”

But what about the milestone?

“I don’t know,” he scoffed. “It happened 10 minutes ago. I have no idea. I just know we’re 2-1 in conference, and we’ve had two road victories.”

Three decades later, the 70-year-old McKillop is still just happy that his team got a win. The more things change…

To be fair, it’s tough for a coach to look back in the middle of a season. The good feelings from a win last until about the end of the postgame speech in the locker room. Then it’s time to look ahead because, as McKillop learned that first season, you never know when the next win is coming.

“That’s what you’ve got to do,” he said. “We have Dayton on Friday. We’d better be ready because they’re good.”

Sure enough, the Flyers knocked off Davidson at Belk Arena. The good feelings from win 600 didn’t even make it to the weekend.

“There’s such a fine line between greatness and good and mediocrity,” McKillop said, reprising his postgame message to the team following the Duquesne win. “Look at where we are right now, and look at where Texas is right now.”

Davidson played Texas dead even for 39 minutes in the first game of this season’s Maui Invitational in Asheville. The Longhorns pulled ahead 78-76, and a 3-point attempt by the Wildcats’ Sam Mennenga in the final seconds was off the mark.

“We had a shot,” McKillop said. “Conceivably, there could have been a foul called on that shot. Sam could’ve gotten three free throws, and we could’ve won that game against Texas.”

Instead, the Longhorns survived, won the Maui Invitational and are now 10-1, winners of six straight and ranked No. 4 in the country. 

“If we won, would Texas have followed that path to No. 4?” McKillop asked his players. “If we won, where would we be right now? That’s how fine this line is. We’ve got to get ready (for the next game). We can’t sleep on anybody. It’s too competitive a world. There are too many ebbs and flows in the emotions of players.”

McKillop’s discussions of coaching focus more on the mental state of his team than on X’s and O’s. He credits his 600th win, during which Davidson shot 27% in the first half and fell behind by 12, to a halftime message that essentially boiled down to “have fun.”

“Everyone is skilled at this level,” he said. “A guy could get hot because, just emotionally, he’s uplifted. A guy could get cold because he’s downtrodden. All of a sudden, you get a loss. All of a sudden, you get a win. I reflected with our team that fine line. Had we beaten Texas, where would they be right now? One play could have turned that game. So we have to live in the present.”

While McKillop doesn’t want to talk about the past, 600 wins is a lofty height for a college coach to reach. Only 40 coaches in Division I history have reached that milestone, and McKillop is the 15th active coach to hit the mark.

He’s in an even more exclusive club — with Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Dean Smith (UNC), Adolph Rupp (Kentucky), Edgar Diddle (Western Kentucky), Ray Meyer (DePaul), Don Haskins (UTEP), Denny Crum (Louisville), Tom Izzo (Michigan State) and Mark Few (Gonzaga) — as the only 600-win coaches to spend their entire career at one Division I school. Everyone except the two newest members, Few and McKillop, is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know many coaches in America can have the fortune I’ve been given,” McKillop said in a rare moment of reflection. “The fortune of being at one school for so long, the fortune of having so many players and coaches do everything possible to advance our program, to commit themselves so thoroughly, to care so much, to be able to trust them to do that. You add your family to that situation, and you realize how that is the rock-solid foundation.

“They moved down here from New York to give me the opportunity. It’s been a very special experience for any human being. You’ve got your family, your basketball family and your Davidson family — my goodness gracious. That’s the trifecta.”