Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
There are a lot of important things to do when settling into your first Division I coaching job: hiring a new staff, meetings with players, jumping into recruiting, learning a new campus, meetings with donors. All that and more, on top of moving a family halfway across the country.
The University at Albany’s new head coach, Dwayne Killings, has already made one crucial decision — a place for his out-of-office meetings.
“Cafe Madison, that’s my spot, that’s my satellite office,” the Amherst, Mass. native said during a Zoom call earlier this month. “They’ve got a great omelette with spinach, onions, turkey bacon, peppers, toast and no butter...so I guess I really belong here.”
Killings has been at Cafe Madison so often since being named head coach on March 16 that the staff already knows his order when he walks in. The former Temple, Marquette and UConn assistant may love his omelette, but becoming a mainstay at a local restaurant wasn’t by accident.
Dwayne Killings (above) was named Albany's head coach last month. (Photo courtesy Temple Athletics.)
It was something he picked up from his mentor, Temple University’s acting athletic director and former head coach Fran Dunphy. The 40-year-old Killings, who walked on at UMass and then graduated from Hampton, spent a total of eight years at Temple; from 2006-09 as an assistant director of basketball operations, then, after a one-year stint at Boston University, he returned to Temple in 2011 directly under Dunphy as an assistant coach.
During his time at Temple he learned a lot from the Big 5 legend, helping Dunphy lead the Owls to four of the six NCAA tournaments he reached in his 13 years on North Broad before handing the reins over to Aaron McKie in 2019.
But more important than the on-court knowledge, Killings learned the importance of cultivating a community around campus — which often starts with food.
“I always noticed [Dunphy] never ate alone,” Killings said. “He was always taking somebody to lunch.”
Killings is looking forward to bringing a Dunphy-esque level of community commitment to the Capital Region. He vividly remembers Dunphy doing things like picking up trash while walking down Broad Street, and he wants to bring the same attitude to Albany.
“This is our spot and I'm going to invest every ounce of energy and passion that I have into it because they're giving me a chance,” Killings said. “The other things [Dunphy] always talked about how important it was to... talk to people in the community, whether it's the superintendent of schools or the police chief or the local teacher.
“Those things are important because you’ve got to understand the community and the pulse of the community to really understand how your program can help it,” he added.
Killings (above) spent eight seasons at Temple, then held assistant jobs at UConn and Marquette. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
At Albany — part of the State University of New York system, hence its somewhat strange name — Killings takes over over for Will Brown, who led the Great Danes to a 315-295 record which included five conference championships during his 20-year tenure. But they’d failed to break .500 each of the last three seasons, and a 7-9 record in the pandemic-shortened 2021 season was enough to end his tenure.
Dunphy — one of Killings’ first calls after he found out he’d gotten the job — cited the strong foundation laid Brown laid as one of the reasons he believed Albany would be a good place for Killings to begin his head coaching career, but there were others.
“It’s close to his family in Amherst, Massachusetts,” Dunphy said as the main reason he liked the job for Killings. “He has a terrific family and I think the sense of pride that his family must feel with him accomplishing that goal of getting a head coaching position, that part was as good a fit as any… the proximity towards his family and his roots is terrific.”
After telling his wife about the new job and making some more thank-you calls, Killings got started in his new role the same night. His first task was to start filling out his staff, which began by reaching out to Matt Griffin.
“He called me about 10:30 at night… I already knew that he got the job,” said Griffin, who was serving as Roman Catholic’s fifth-year head coach at the time. “I say congratulations and he said, ‘OK, yeah, thanks I appreciate it. But let's let's talk business, offering you the job. When can you start?’”
For Griffin it was a bittersweet call for multiple reasons; sweet because he was honored that Killings thought to bring him on his staff, but he also got the call the same evening the Cahillites had lost to Archbishop Wood in the PCL Championship, and he knew he’d be leaving a place he has called home for the past five years.
“I was sad, because I poured my heart and soul into Roman Catholic basketball,” said Griffin, who also served as the school’s athletics direction. “And anytime you do that, it's hard to leave, it's hard to move on. I gave everything I had to Roman Catholic, you know, from 6 a.m. to 9-10 p.m. at night for five years… And I love those kids. I loved those young men I was coaching.”
Griffin’s primary role on the Great Danes’ staff will be looking over player development. Griffin and Killings connections to the Philadelphia region are going to be important to their recruiting effort, too. At all of his stops, Killings has been well-regarded as a recruiter. On Steve Wojciechowski’s staff at Marquette he was partially responsible for bringing in a top-20 recruiting class for 2020.
Matt Griffin (above) was Killings' first hire; he spent the last five years as Roman Catholic's head coach. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I just think (Killings') personality is terrific and it involves every aspect of what you need to be successful at it: he’s kind, he’s considerate, he’s warm, he’s very engaging, and above all I think he enjoyed it,” Dunphy said. “He said this is my job, I enjoy my job, I enjoy the recruiting process and I know how important it is.”
After seeing how Philly-area players approach the game, Killings has made the city a priority for recruiting. Since Killings arrival to Albany, the program has already secured two transfers from the area in Paul Newman (Roman Catholic/Bucknell) and Matt Cerruti (Archbishop Wood/ Lock Haven) earlier this month and landed a commitment from Westtown standout Ny’Mire Little last week. He also has grad student Chuck Champion, a Friends’ Central product, who’ll be returning for his sixth year of college hoops, and Temple grad transfer De’Vondre Perry, who was part of his final Temple recruiting class.
“I think that kids from Philly that play the sport of basketball, they're conditioned to win. You know, they understand what competitive spirit is all about,” Killings said. “If you can survive in Philly… it gives you some battle scars.”
Killings also has an affinity for the city because it was the place his life saw the most change outside of basketball. He and his wife Ana got married in 2015, and they have two children together, Alecia (7) and Tristan (4).
“When I got to Philly, I was a single dude just trying to figure out life,” Killings said. “I left Philly married with a child. And I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew my life's passion.”
The players Killings brings in will bolster the talent to his team. But he knows he has a responsibility to develop more than basketball players but to be a role model for young men and that extends to off the basketball court.
Killings put that knowledge into practice during his most recent job at Marquette — Killings joined the Golden Knights in 2018 after a three-year stint at UConn — when he co-founded Coaches for Action.
Coaches for Action is a group of 21 minority coaches in the Big East who aimed to challenge the campuses in the conference to continue using their voices and sustain their efforts addressing social injustice.
Like Killings, some of the founding members have moved on to new jobs this offseason. He doesn’t want to rush growing the program in the American East, and is prioritizing patience during the organization's transition so that it is done properly.
Additionally, he understands his role in leading young men through the external events that occur during a time of social upheaval in our country.
“I need to make sure that I teach our kids what a leader looks like. You know, for some of them it may be the first time they've seen that up close,” Killings said. “I hope that I get a chance to teach them what a real strong leader looks like, what a good father looks like, what a good husband looks like. Those things all matter to me.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to hit pause and pay attention to what's going on around us and help make sure our guys understand and know how that impacts them,” he added. “We've got to grow our young men in our program. There's a lot going on in the world, you know, it's heavy out there. So we need to guide our guys through it because I can't assume that they're talking about it in their dorm rooms. That's not fair.”
Killings sees his responsibility to lead the right way, extending past his players but to other black coaches who are looking to move upward in their career.
“I definitely feel like I represent something that is different... I've been given an opportunity that a lot of guys want that look like me and I need to make sure that I do a good job so they get their opportunity.” Killings said, “That's pressure that I want because I owe it to those guys. A lot of those guys are friends. So for them to get their opportunity, I got to run my program the right way.”
As the offseason progresses, Killings will have a lot to juggle, but like Cafe Madison he knows what the Capital Region wants: a winner. He’ll be trying to serve them exactly what they’re looking for.