OKLAHOMA CITY — Before Danny Manning sought a head coaching job, the former Kansas All-American called his college coach, Larry Brown, for a bit of advice.
Manning’s resume was strong. He had won a national title as a player for Brown in 1988, played 15 years in the NBA and had won a national title as an assistant under the Jayhawks’ Bill Self in 2008. He was getting the itch to step out on his own, but wanted Brown’s blessing before proceeding.
Brown, who had a long history with the family and had employed Manning’s father, Ed, as an assistant coach years ago, said the answer was easy.
“He asked me if I thought he was ready to be a (head) coach,” said Brown, now the coach at SMU. “He was ready the first day I met him, when he was five years old.”
Brown’s exaggeration brings home the point that Manning was seemingly born to coach. And, as Brown expected, Manning’s rise has happened quickly. In just his second year as Tulsa’s coach, Manning has reached the NCAA tournament with the Golden Hurricane earning an automatic bid by winning the Conference USA tournament title. Tulsa (21-12), the No. 13 seed in the South Region, will open against No. 4 seed UCLA (26-8) Friday in San Diego.
Tulsa, making its first NCAA appearance since 2003, nearly missed Sunday’s announcement of their opponent. The team still was traveling back from the league tournament in El Paso, Texas, and it got to the Reynolds Center about 15 minutes before the selection show.
“We got off the plane, we got on the bus, we drove here, we went to the locker room, we dropped our bags, we walked out to the court,” Manning said. “I said a few things to our fans that were there. Selection show comes on and, bam, we come up. They got a nice boost of energy when they popped up on the screen. All the hard work that these guys have been putting in — you can see it.”
The NCAA tournament berth will force a change of scenery in Manning’s office, where he displays his two national championship rings for recruits. Now, they’ll see a third ring — the one from the Conference USA tournament championship.
“I’ve got a spot saved for a Tulsa ring in the middle, and we got that this year,” Manning said. “So next year, there will be a Tulsa ring right in the middle of it.”
Brown said Manning’s quick rise is no shock. He said he saw Manning’s coaching potential watching him work with the big men at Self’s Kansas practices.
“He was just as he was as a player — fundamentally sound, as prepared as anybody could be, and he had this kind of personality where it’s real calming,” Brown said. “He has a tough side, but he has this quality to calm kids down and make them listen and make them want to play for him. That’s a special gift. Plus, he’s bright. He’s the whole deal for me.”
Manning was the No. 1 pick in the 1988 NBA draft after winning the national title for Kansas that season — Danny and the Miracles, that team was called. The 6-foot-10 power forward was an All-Star twice during a 15-year NBA career hampered by knee injuries.
At Tulsa, he replaced Doug Wojcik, who set the school’s wins record in seven seasons in charge of the Golden Hurricane but never reached the NCAA tournament. And Manning knows he’s just the latest in a long line of successful coaches — guys like Nolan Richardson, Tubby Smith and Self. All went on to win championships.
Tulsa went 17-16 and went to the CBI tournament in Manning’s first year. This season didn’t look like it would be special at the beginning after an 0-4 and then 1-6 start.
“We were doing some things right, we just weren’t able to sustain it over the course of the ballgame,” Manning said. “One-and-six was a miserable existence for us in terms of what we wanted to accomplish, but our guys’ spirit never changed.”
A closer look at the schedule reveals that Manning had a plan. The Golden Hurricane lost to NCAA tournament teams Wichita State, Creighton and Oklahoma.
“We weren’t ducking anybody,” Manning said. “We aren’t afraid to go play people. Although there are no moral victories and we didn’t win those games, those hardships made it possible for us to be where we’re at today. That’s how you get better, in my opinion, and that’s the formula we wanted to go with. We want to play teams that are going to stretch you out. We want to play teams that put us in uncomfortable situations in the non-conference.”
Eventually, Manning’s young team started rolling. Tulsa won a share of the Conference USA regular-season title, then beat Louisiana Tech in the league tournament to win the automatic NCAA bid.
“They are a tremendous basketball team,” Louisiana Tech coach Michael White said. “They are interesting because they have gotten so much better throughout the year. Coach Manning has done a tremendous job and their staff has done a tremendous job.”
Tulsa accomplished it all with a sophomore-dominated team that had no players on the all-conference first team.
James Woodard, a sophomore who was second-team all-conference, averages 15.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Sophomore forward Rashad Smith has added 12.1 points and 4.9 rebounds and sophomore guard Shaquille Harrison adds 9.8 points per contest. Forward D’Andre Wright, guard Rashad Ray and forward Lew Evans also are sophomores who play significant roles. Tim Peete, a senior guard, is the only non-sophomore in the starting lineup.
The team has bought into Manning’s defense-first approach, one he borrowed from Self. Tulsa allows just 67.4 points per game.
“They compete hard and they make the other team work,” Manning said of Self’s teams. “We have that mindset here. We call that grinding. We get out and we just want to grind, we just want to compete and work and battle every possession.”
Manning wants his players to take that approach into the UCLA game, but he also wants them to soak in the atmosphere.
“You want to play hard, you want to play unselfish, you want to play smart, but you want to enjoy the moment,” Manning said.