McKillop’s Post-Graduate Year at Hun School Pivotal in his Path to Guide Davidson Men’s Hoops
FAMILY BUSINESS: Matt McKillop, left, and his father, Bob McKillop, enjoy the moment this June when son succeeded father as the head coach of the Davidson College men’s basketball program. The younger McKillop came to the Hun School for a post-graduate year in 2001-02 and views that experience as pivotal in his path to guiding the Wildcats. (Photo provided courtesy of Davidson College Athletics)
By Bill Alden
During much of his childhood, Matt McKillop’s life centered around the Davidson College men’s basketball program.
McKillop’s father, Bob, started coaching the team in1989 and helped transform the small North Carolina college into a national power, highlighted by coaching future NBA superstar, Steph Curry, and guiding the Wildcats to the NCAA quarterfinals in the 2007-08 campaign.
The younger McKillop hung around the Davidson gym, serving as a ball boy for his father’s teams, and then starring for Charlotte Catholic High.
But, deciding that he needed more seasoning to play at the Division I level, McKillop decided to head north to the Hun School for a post-graduate year in 2001-02.
His buddies in North Carolina questioned McKillop’s move.
“I had to explain to them why I am going to a different high school essentially to pursue my dreams of being a college basketball player,” said McKillop. “I was very confident in it being the right decision. It was not the easiest thing for others to understand.”
That decision proved to be the right move as it turned out to be a key step on a path that ended up with McKillop succeeding his father as the Davidson head coach this June.
Upon arriving at Hun, McKillop made a smooth transition. “It is a smaller school, it was so easy to be comfortable and to develop relationships quickly,” said McKillop, who established himself as a sharp-shooting guard for the Raiders and served as a team captain.
“I lived in a hall with all postgrads, most were in the same shoes as me. They had a specific goal in mind for why they wanted to spend the year at Hun. We were in the gym every day. I was able to compete every single day with people whose goal was to play at the college level like myself.”
After his year at Hun, McKillop returned home to Davidson where he enjoyed a solid four-year career, averaging 8.2 points a game and helping the Wildcats make the NCAA tournament in his senior season in 2005-06. He ranks seventh in program history in three-pointers with 227 and seventh in three-point percentage at 39.3 percent.
He then had a short stint playing pro ball in the Czech Republic and returned to the U.S. where he got a marketing job with the Charlotte Bobcats. Missing being on a team, McKillop got into coaching, serving as an assistant at Emory University.
In 2008, McKillop joined his father’s staff at Davidson as an assistant coach. He rose to associate head coach prior to the 2016-17 season and took the helm of the program this summer when his father, 72, retired after 33 years and posting a 634-380 overall record.
As McKillop settles into his new role, he credits his Hun experience on and off the court with being critical to his success in the game.
“It was great that I could reflect on a year that I did not spend at Davidson,” said McKillop, 39. “I got outside my comfort zone and got to meet different people. I developed some incredibly strong relationships, specifically with coach [Jon] Stone. I am very close with him and the Quirks, Bill and Kathy (who ran Hun athletics). Their son, Pat, and I were as close as could be in the year that I spent there.”
Utilizing a strong work ethic, McKillop honed his skills during that year.
“I was in the gym every day, you had the freedom to put in extra work,” said McKillop. “I was living on my own for the first time. After study hall, I could get down to the gym. I could wake up early and get to the gym. You had the resources, you had the access and had some freedom to find time to really work at things.”
In addition, McKillop got to test his game against some high-powered competition.
“We played Blair three times when they had Luol Deng and Charlie Villanueva,” said McKillop, referring to the pair of stars who went on to play in the NBA. “We played against Lawrenceville, they were really talented and against St. Benedict’s when Danny Hurley was the coach. We played an unbelievably competitive schedule. I think that is really where I saw the most benefit. I was thrown into the fire. I played against high level players and felt I could compete with them. So when I arrived on a college campus the following year, I felt like I belonged.”
Hun head coach Stone noted that McKillop belonged from the start upon joining the Raiders.
“Matt fit in great, he was a great person,” said Stone. “From a character standpoint, he was as good as we could find. He was a tremendously hard worker as well. He really just fit in well and assumed leadership. In my time here we have had very few postgraduates that were elected captains and he was one of them. I would say in my 23 years we have had two or three.”
That hard work helped McKillop progress as a player in his time in New Jersey.
“I think that was testament to him and who he was; you have a gym in your backyard and you are able to use it,” said Stone. “Matt shot 50 percent from the 3; you don’t remember many statistics in 23 years but that’s one that I remember. He and Noah Savage (a former Princeton University standout) were the only two guys to shoot 50 percent from 3 for us. I think where he developed too was just in some of his speed and quickness and ability to defend higher level players. Things like that he didn’t have a chance to do in high school just because he wasn’t playing against the same kind of competition.”
For McKillop, returning to Hun in late June for a recruiting event was a matter of coming full circle.
“It was really special, I was named head coach seven days earlier,” said McKillop. “It was my first recruiting trip as head coach at Davidson and I was going back to the place that was so meaningful to me. I spent time with coach Stone there. I went to Hoagie Haven and I grabbed lunch with Pat Quirk. I sat in Bill and Kathy’s office and was able to catch up with them and hear about their grandkids. That was really, really cool and special for me. The relationships are always the most meaningful piece of it. For me to go back 20 years later now to spend my first weekend recruiting as a head coach was meaningful.”
Serving on his father’s staff for the last 14 years was special for McKillop.
“It really wasn’t too different than being as a player; it was actually easier than playing for him,” said McKillop.
“You knew his expectations and your job was to make his job as head coach as easy as possible. I think I added a lot of benefits in terms of having just recently been a player and knowing the ups and downs of being a student at Davidson College and the challenges that come with it. When it comes to recruiting, I felt like I always had a good feel for the people who would fit not only with the basketball program but the college. I think it was a great relationship that he and I had together working on staff. I had a little bit of a different niche for what I could bring to the table as an assistant.”
The challenge of Davidson’s move to the Atlantic 10 in the 2014-15 season helped accelerate McKillop’s development as a coach.
“That was really a chance for growth in itself because we had to change and adapt the way we recruit, the way we operate,” said McKillop. “In many ways, that transition itself helped me grow and helped our staff grow.”
McKillop’s growth was aided by his father’s decision to delegate more to his assistants.
“Over the last five years, he understood that he had some younger coaches who had aspirations of being head coaches so he gave us a lot more freedom than he had in the past,” said McKillop. “He allowed me to change our offense. He was giving us responsibilities that he had typically not relinquished to assistants in the past in recent years to allow us to grow.”
Drawing on that experience, McKillop is excited to be running the program.
“I absolutely feel ready, there are the day-to-day surprises that pop up that I didn’t realize I had to think about that or take care of,” said McKillop.
“To be a great head coach, you need great assistants. As an assistant, I had a work ethic that was basketball 24/7 in many ways. Now this is really no different, you just have to find ways where you put your time. I have a terrific staff, four members of the staff are graduates of Davidson and know the program. We have got all of the right pieces in place. It is easy to say that now, we haven’t played a game yet. That could feel different after a great win or a tough loss.”
While following a legend like his father can be problematic, McKillop isn’t fazed by that.
“There is just a general challenge of being a head coach anywhere,” said McKillop. “This is college basketball, the expectations and pressure will exist no matter what job you have. I am confident in myself, I am confident in our team. I know they have confidence in me and in our athletic director. They know he would not have given me the head coach job if he didn’t have confidence in me and feel like I am the right person for the job.”
Stone, for his part, believes McKillop is the right person for the job.
“We are so proud of him; over the years I always put out to our Hun basketball family news on guys that make the NCAA tournament,” said Stone. “He made it as a player and he made it as an assistant coach and now he is the head coach. We know he is going to do great and we can’t wait to keep the relationship going.”
For McKillop, it is the relationships with players that are his top priority.
“Ultimately every single day what it comes down to is being the most present with our players,” said McKillop. “That is really what this is all about; you walk into the gym and think about how can I help this player or that player.”
Coming to the Hun gym some 21 years ago certainly helped pave the way to McKillop’s rise up the coaching ladder.
“My year at Hun was so pivotal for me and my growth as a young man,” said McKillop. “I wouldn’t be where I am without that year.”