Donny Daniels is a touchstone to the days when Cal State Fullerton basketball was successful. He was the leading defender for the Bobby Dye-coached team that won the school's only Division I regular-season conference championship, sharing first in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. in 1975-76
Later, he was a Titan assistant coach for eight seasons, and Fullerton had winning records in six of them.
Now, Daniels is back at Fullerton as head coach, trying to bring new life to a sagging program that has had only one winning season since he left 11 years ago.
"I have a great deal of history here, and coaching at your alma mater is a special situation," Daniels said. "I'm really pleased about the support. People seem to be excited that I'm back."
The lure of coaching at Fullerton has been strong for Daniels since his playing career ended.
Daniels, 46, was a part-time assistant under Dye from 1978 to 1980 before spending a year as an assistant at Verbum Dei High, also his alma mater.
He returned to Fullerton as an assistant under George McQuarn for three seasons before leaving again to coach two seasons at Harbor College, which Daniels attended before transferring to Fullerton. He rejoined McQuarn's staff for three more seasons, then stayed on for another year under John Sneed before leaving to join Rick Majerus' staff at Utah in 1989.
Daniels, who applied for the Fullerton head coaching job twice previously, when it went to Brad Holland in 1992 and Bob Hawking in 1995, just hopes Titan fans won't expect too much too soon now that he finally has it.
"It's going to take some baby steps at first," Daniels said. "We have to think of it as a brand new program. To me, they're all new players, and to them, I'm a new coach. Everything is new for all of us. Teaching a new system is going to take some time."
Kirk San Roman of Fullerton, the president of a new booster group, says Daniels was a popular choice among Titan fans. "I'm really happy the school was able to land him, and I think it's only going to be a matter of time before he's successful," he said.
Daniels is reluctant to set a timetable for how quickly he thinks he can deliver a winning team, but some who know him well are confident he will be successful once he establishes his own style of basketball and has more time to recruit.
"It's wonderful to have him in that job," said Dye, who recruited Daniels out of Harbor College to play on his first Division I team. "He's seen what can happen there. He was a tremendous defensive player for me for two years, a real warrior. They couldn't get anyone more loyal or who would be more committed to that program."
The same character traits that helped make Daniels a standout player, and then a valued assistant, will be factors in making him a successful head coach, McQuarn said.
"Donny always had a great work ethic as a player, and I think that's carried over into his coaching," said McQuarn, who coached Daniels at Verbum Dei and then hired him as a part-time assistant. "As a player, you knew he was always going to give you the best effort he had, and he has been that same way as a coach."
Daniels' recruiting savvy is expected to be a key factor in building a successful program. McQuarn credits Daniels with helping recruit Cedric Ceballos out of Ventura College in 1988. Ceballos was a second-round pick in the NBA draft two years later, and is now with the Detroit Pistons.
"That last recruiting class we had with Ceballos was a good one, and Donny had a lot to do with it," McQuarn said. "College basketball recruiting is a lot about relationships. That's how players end up at certain schools. Schools like UCLA and Kentucky are always going to get good players no matter what, but at other places it's not always about the gyms or a program's history. It's about relationships, and Donny has built some great relationships in basketball."
Majerus, who has been one of Daniels' strongest backers, says he has no doubt that Daniels will be successful at Fullerton. "I think he'll win the league in three or four years," Majerus said.
Daniels earned high marks for his whirlwind recruiting effort after taking over the program in April. Four recruits on the roster this season--Keith Brooks of Compton Dominguez High, Joe Travis of Long Beach Poly, Chris Smith of San Bernardino Pacific and Ryan Dillon of Victor Valley--were first-team All-Southern Section selections in their divisions.
Later, the Titans added 6-foot-11 sophomore center Babacar Camara of Dakar, Senegal, who had played club basketball in West Africa.
Guard David Castleton transferred from Orange Coast College, and guard Kevin Richardson from Treasure Valley College even though Fullerton could not give athletic aid to community college transfers under a four-year NCAA probation for violations dating to when Holland was coach.
The Titans won't be able to give aid to community college players until 2002.