The smile never left Anthony Grant’s face as he ascended the blue ladder, climbing to the rim with scissors after 11 scholarship players, five walk-ons, four assistant coaches, three graduate assistants, the trainer and the strength coach.
A moment three years in the making — or 33 if you count the time that had passed since Grant’s graduation from the University of Dayton — featured Grant shouting, “Wow,” as he shook his head in amazement at the top of the ladder. Grant needed to make only one snip to free the net.
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Grant and the Dayton Flyers could have cut down the net a week earlier when they clinched the outright Atlantic 10 Conference championship with a victory over Davidson. They waited. Sixteen victories weren’t enough. Only a perfect 18-0 conference record would suffice for a team that had chased history for months.
The celebration March 7 after a 76-51 victory over George Washington in the regular-season finale will go down as one of the great moments in UD basketball history, especially considering it turned out to be the last game when the A-10 and NCAA tournaments were cancelled five days later.
Despite the season’s abrupt ending, this Dayton team made its mark on the history book, and that’s why Grant was named the 2020 winner of the Basketball Times National Coach of the Year award on Thursday. Grant learned of the honor moments after his postgame press conference following that victory against George Washington.
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“I’m humbled by that,” Grant said. “Obviously, for me, it’s never about me, but that recognition speaks volumes to our players, to the job our staff has done, to the perseverance of trying to build something and believing in the vision.”
Grant led Dayton to a No. 3 ranking, its highest position since 1956, in the Associated Press poll. The Flyers set a school record for victories (29-2) in a season, matching a school record for consecutive victories (20) at the same time.
Dayton played 31 games without losing a game in regulation time. Its only two losses came in overtime to Kansas, 90-84 in the Maui Invitational championship on Nov. 27, and to Colorado, 78-76 on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Dec. 21.
Dayton benefitted from having one of the nation’s top players, redshirt sophomore forward Obi Toppin, and another player so good he shared the team MVP award with Toppin: junior guard Jalen Crutcher. A strong supporting cast, led by seniors Trey Landers and Ryan Mikesell, also made Dayton soar.
The success started at the top, however, and the people close to Grant say he deserves all the praise heading his way.”
“He is a coach that has had success throughout his entire career,” Dayton Athletic Director Neil Sullivan said, “but clearly this is a very special year for him as a person but also as a program. I can’t think of anyone more deserving.”
Grant talked early and often during his tenure at Dayton about establishing a culture. Larry Hansgen, the radio voice of the Flyers on WHIO, said he built one that matched his character.
“I think his recruiting approach,” Hansgen said, “whereby he makes the sincere promise to parents to make their sons better men, not just better basketball players, has built the program for the long haul. There are no quick fixes in his approach. He could have maybe won more games his first year, but he refused to compromise his principles, and did not play guys who were not buying in to how he wanted things done.”
Sullivan hired Grant on March 30, 2017, five days after Archie Miller departed for Indiana. Grant inherited a roster that would need to be reshaped following the graduation of four seniors, including all-conference point guard Scoochie Smith.
When the top incoming point guard, McKinley Wright, decommitted and chose Colorado after the change in coaches, the new coaching staff knew what it had to do.
“The first day we were there, he said we needed a point guard,” said James Kane, a longtime protege of Grant’s who coached on the staff the first season before taking a job at Iowa State under another mentor, Steve Prohm. “That was all the direction we needed.”
Dayton hit the jackpot by convincing Crutcher to become a Flyer. He reached the 1,000-point milestone as a junior and joined Toppin on the A-10 first team. Toppin picked Dayton 10 days after Crutcher. Just like that, the foundation for Dayton’s unprecedented 2019-20 season had been built.
Dayton recruited Toppin knowing he would probably have to sit out a season as an academic redshirt. It made similar decisions a year later by adding four transfers to the roster, limiting its ability to compete in Grant’s second season but improving its chances this season.
“Those are the type of decisions that have some maturity to them,” Sullivan said. “Everyone wants to win now. We do, too. There’s no long term in sports anymore. But at the same time, you have to make decisions that you think are in the best interests for the long term, and sometimes that means sitting a kid and sometimes that means taking a transfer. You’ve got to maybe take some lumps, and we did.”
Dayton improved to 21-12 in Grant’s second season, raising the expectations for this season. It surpassed those expectations by miles.
“Anthony’s always been humble and had a great spirit and calmness,” said Donnie Jones, an assistant during Grant’s second season and now the head coach at Stetson. “He builds trust with his honesty. He’s always got a strategy for what he wants to do. He’s a great evaluator, great teacher. The players buy into him.
Kane sees Grant’s ability to build relationships and connect with his players and staff as the key to his success.
“It’s not a surprise because the amount of work that coach Grant puts into everything,” Kane said. “You just knew it was just a matter of time until he was able to benefit from the fruits of his labor.”
This story was also published today in the Basketball Times.