There is an art to building a college basketball program, a painstaking process of maneuvers and steps that must be taken in the right sequence. You have to ingratiate yourself to a new fan base, tinker with a new roster — and most times, you have to learn a new league.
Simple translation: It’s been another busy spring for Danny Manning, who is just two months into his new job as the head coach at Wake Forest.
“It is a lot of work,” Manning said, smiling while back in Lawrence on Saturday.
Two years ago, Manning left Kansas and began his head coaching career at a rebuilding program in Tulsa. Now he’s taking on his next challenge at Wake Forest, returning to his childhood roots on Tobacco Road.
For Manning, the former Kansas star and long-time assistant to KU coach Bill Self, it’s the second program rebuild in three years. It’s not something Manning could have envisioned when he left Lawrence for Tulsa in the spring of 2012, but he’s now wading into basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference, competing against the likes of North Carolina, Syracuse and Duke.
“It’s kind of come full circle for me,” Manning says.
Before Manning was a high school standout in Lawrence and a NCAA Champion at Kansas, he was a young prodigy in Greensboro, N.C., where his family had settled. It was just 30 miles from the Wake Forest campus in Winston-Salen. So when Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman came calling in the spring, Manning had reason to listen.
“Growing up,” Manning says, “Wake Forest played in the Greensboro Coliseum, and that was one of the teams we followed very closely. And it’s just a great school.”
During nearly a decade on Self’s staff at Kansas, Manning built a reputation as one of the best big-man coaches in the country. But if there were questions about his ability to run his own program, he quickly answered those in two years at Tulsa.
After recording a 17-16 record in his first season, Manning led the school to a 21-13 record this past season, winning a Conference USA title and leading the program to its first NCAA Tournament since 2003. Now he will try to duplicate the success at Wake Forest, a once-proud program that missed the NCAA Tournament the last four years under Jeff Bzdelik.
“We just want to make sure that we get our foundation put in correctly,” Manning said, “and doing it the right way, and making sure that the guys on our team and the people involved in our program understand how we’re going to do things.”
Manning is returning to a state he once called home, but the rest of his staff has an unmistakable Kansas influence. Former KU players Steve Woodberry and Brett Ballard — who was once a part of Self’s staff at Kansas — followed Manning from Tulsa to Wake Forest. And Justin Bauman, the director of basketball operations, is a former Kansas manager who worked for Manning at Tulsa. (Manning also hired former Wake Forest standout Randolph Childress to round out his staff.)
“There’s so many different ways to skin a cat,” Manning said. “The way that we’re doing things is different than the way that was done before, with the last regime, but that’s just a part of how it works.”
Manning, of course, still feels at home in Lawrence. He still has a house here, for instance, and his son, Evan, is still a walk-on at Kansas. On Saturday, he appeared at the opening of a DICK’S Sporting Goods while returning to town to see some old friends. And during his two seasons at Tulsa, he would often sneak in games at Allen Fieldhouse during recruiting trips or other days off.
Those side trips to Allen Fieldhouse may be tougher in his new gig, of course. But Manning is still looking forward to the challenges that await in the ACC.
“For us,” Manning says,” it’s trying to establish a culture that we want.”
To reach Rustin Dodd, send email to email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/rustindodd.