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Juliana Nikac and Ryan Chichester

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Photo: Samantha Bashaw

Photo: Samantha Bashaw

New head coach Baker Dunleavy has wasted no time in his attempt to infuse the basketball program with a winning attitude.

Less than a mile beyond the doors of the TD Bank Sports Center, nestled behind York Hill’s five-story parking garage, in a dull beige house on Kimberly Avenue, lies  

Ground Zero of the Baker Dunleavy era at Quinnipiac University.

Hours after Dunleavy signed his near $800,000 deal in March to resurrect the basketball program from chronic irrelevancy, he moved into the three-bedroom home normally used for student housing. With his family and newborn child still in Pennsylvania and more than two months away from joining him in Hamden, Dunleavy got to work.

Instead of basking in the bells and whistles that come with a multi-year deal that made him the highest-paid coach at Quinnipiac, Dunleavy began to rebuild the program that had just committed its future to him.

Dunleavy put together his coaching staff in days, and they would join him in the three-bedroom duplex. The group lived together like they were back in college. Instead of returning from class and studying for an exam, they discussed the future of Quinnipiac basketball. There was no cable, no television at all. Just Dunleavy and his staff putting together a competitive roster designed to flourish under a new system.

“It was old school,” Dunleavy said of his early living situation. “It got us all on the same page really quickly. We were fully immersed in everything from day one.”

Dunleavy and company worked 14 hours a day through the summer, hosting recruiting visits and going over new on-court schemes on a white board in Dunleavy’s office. When they returned to their secondary office on Kimberly Avenue long after the sun retired behind Sleeping Giant, the work continued.

“We would get a bite to eat, and when we got back to the house we talked more basketball and recruiting,” assistant coach Tom Pecora said. “It was very productive.”

It was productive and familiar, especially for Dunleavy, who could handle a day of nothing but basketball with just a meal in between. He and his family had been doing it his entire life.

On the Dunleavy family crest, a red dragon and bronze deer stand upon tall blades of grass, holding up a burnt red human hand. The hand might as well be replaced by a basketball.

Dunleavy has been enamored of  the game since first grade, serving as a ball boy on the baselines of the Los Angeles Forum while his father roamed the sidelines as the Lakers’ head coach. Dunleavy would soak in the intoxicating scene as he mopped up the free throw line recently vacated by legends like Magic Johnson.

Dunleavy grew up with a father constantly on the road, their world spinning like a basketball on an index finger. In that position, you either choose a different path or become immersed in it. Dunleavy and his brothers chose the latter.

“It was all basketball all the time,” Dunleavy said. “We were obsessed.”

Photo: Samantha Bashaw

Photo: Samantha Bashaw

The obsession led to an NBA career for Mike Dunleavy Jr., a vice president position at a California sports agency for James Dunleavy, and an Elite Eight performance for Baker, who came off the bench for Villanova in its 2006 NCAA Tournament run, back when his shaggy light brown curls dangled below his eyebrows.

Dunleavy walked off the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome court after the Elite Eight loss to Florida and wouldn’t return to the hardwood until 2010, after a stint on Wall Street failed to fill the basketball-sized void inside of him.

“I missed the game,” Dunleavy remembered. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I took for granted being a part of something bigger than myself.”

Back at his alma mater in 2013 as a director of basketball operations, Dunleavy blossomed into a trustworthy assistant coach helping lead the Wildcats to four straight Big East titles, eventually culminating in a National Championship in 2016.

A decade since walking off the court after a painful loss, Dunleavy exited to falling confetti after an unforgettable buzzer-beating win. After the euphoria, some Wildcats believed they would soon be without their assistant coach, who made his value known in some of the most crucial moments of the tournament.

“A lot of us thought Baker would be a head coach after we won the championship,” Wildcats forward Darryl Reynolds said, who appeared in every NCAA Tournament game. “Just because so many of the scouting reports and X’s and O’s stuff started with him in those last couple games.”

Dunleavy’s path toward head coaching had begun long before Kris Jenkins’ deep three-pointer descended through the net as the clock hit zero in the National Championship game. Dunleavy had been contacted for positions years prior, and he would bounce possibilities off of head coach Jay Wright and Pecora, Wright’s former colleague at Hofstra University. Both told Dunleavy to wait for the right fit. When Quinnipiac athletic director Greg Amodio contacted Dunleavy during the 2017 Big East Tournament, Pecora felt it was time for Dunleavy to make the leap.

“He didn’t jump at the first opportunity he had, trust me on that one,” Pecora explained. “He had a lot of schools he could have gone to, and you would know who they were. He didn’t come here by mistake. He chose (Quinnipiac) because it fit Baker Dunleavy.”

Quinnipiac fit the Dunleavy mold because it represented familiarity, which heavily factored into his ultimate decision.

“It’s a lot like Villanova in a lot of ways,” Dunleavy explained. “It’s a similar recruiting region, it’s a great sell in terms of parents. Kids value academics and not just basketball. We were looking for the magic fit. For me, this is a great fit.”

Of course, there was a noticeable difference. Dunleavy returned to Villanova as a coach for an established program with the recruiting muscle to chase blue-chip talents. Where Villanova tried out just 10 players for one spot on the floor, Dunleavy now needs around 50 in order to take into account players that might take their talents elsewhere, as the Bobcat lure isn’t quite as strong as that of the Wildcats.

Still, Dunleavy saw an amenity atop York Hill that eclipsed even what Villanova offered, and it was the deciding factor on where he would begin his career as a head coach.

Photo: Samantha Bashaw

Photo: Samantha Bashaw

“I think the tipping point for me was when I first got a look at the facilities and the campus when I visited,” Dunleavy said. “Something we didn’t quite have at Villanova, at least relative to the rest of the league, was the facilities. I think we have the best facilities in our league here.”

The new training facilities around Lender Court were enough to bring Dunleavy to Quinnipiac, but he faces an uphill climb with a Bobcats team picked last in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference preseason poll. After an early exit in last year’s conference tournament, the Bobcats lost MAAC Rookie of the Year Mikey Dixon and MAAC All-Rookie Team selection Peter Kiss to transfer, gutting a backcourt that was considered to be the center of a bright future.

Dunleavy couldn’t control those departures. The duo requested their releases before he officially took the job. He also couldn’t control the talent he inherited nor the state of the program when he arrived. What he could control was the culture and attitude in the locker room and on the practice floor, something he addressed immediately at his opening press conference.

“He talked about building a culture of winning and having a winning attitude,” junior guard Aaron Robinson said of Dunleavy’s first meeting with the team. “His biggest thing to this day is that all winning teams have winning attitudes.”

Dunleavy should know. It is something he experienced at Villanova, and is what molded his approach. Well, that and his favorite book, “The Score Takes Care of Itself” by Bill Walsh, the legendary football coach who took a pitiful San Francisco 49ers squad and turned them into a powerhouse. Dunleavy loves the book for its focus on culture and attitude, where the real changes take place.

“When you have 13 guys on a team doing this together, that’s a culture,” Dunleavy explained. “I tell our guys all the time that even if I don’t have a perfect plan, if we’re all buying into the same plan, we’ll be fine. Together is better than perfect.”

It’s a philosophy that would make Walsh proud, and one that hasn’t been lost on the Bobcats.

“Everybody is coming from a different place, but he’s doing a really good job creating a culture of togetherness.” freshman Nathan Davis, a Dunleavy recruit, said.

With the basketball season underway, Dunleavy is settled into his own house with his wife and daughters. He even has the luxury of a television, taking in Game of Thrones and reading fan blogs to learn as much about the show as he can. For a man whose job is dependent on teaching, Dunleavy insists on continuously learning.

Less than a mile from the recently vacated three-bedroom duplex on Kimberly Avenue, out of the shadows of York Hill’s five-story parking garage and through the doors of TD Bank Sports Center, the Baker Dunleavy era is well underway at Quinnipiac.