Getting to chat with Johnny Dawkins for about 15 minutes over the phone last week was probably the first time I would ever classify an interview as relieving.
Speaking with Dawkins provided me a sense of normalcy and a brief respite from all of the sudden change and unease in our world. It was nice to hear that sense was shared.
“I feel the same way you feel,” Dawkins said as our conversation was winding down. “... I’m trying to keep it business as usual. I’m trying to keep my schedule like I normally have it, like I had it when I was going in (to the office) every day. I’ve been pretty consistent with that. That’s been good.”
We discussed, among other topics in this lightly edited transcript, what it was like to have the American Athletic Conference Tournament canceled while the UCF Knights were preparing for their first-round game, how he would grade UCF’s 2019-20 season, and redshirt junior guard Ceasar DeJesus‘ decision to go pro.
But my first question seemed like the proper one to ask given the current climate.
Q: How are you doing?
Dawkins: “We’re doing OK. We’re doing fine. Just trying to obey all of the rules that we hear, social distancing. Trying to make sure that we honor everything that they’re putting out there to make sure we can stay as healthy and as safe as possible.”
Q: For someone like you who is so synonymous with college basketball, how weird does it feel to not have the NCAA Tournament going on right now?
Dawkins: “It is extremely weird. Just to think in my lifetime that has never happened. And I do understand it. Believe me, I do understand it. With the public health crisis that we’re in, I understand it wholeheartedly. I’m still in shock that that’s not going on right now. We’re in March and you know what’s going on right now.
“It’s just unbelievable that that’s not going to happen this year, but understandably so. Public health is the number one priority.”
Q: Regarding the AAC Tournament, how did you find out about the cancellation? And although you knew it was the right decision in the end, what was your initial reaction when you found out?
Dawkins: “I started hearing about it actually as we were entering the arena (Thursday). I heard rumblings that, ‘Hey, this game may not take place.’ So we were concerned even that morning, just with the uncertainty of the other conferences and what was going on. It was like, ‘Are we going to play this game?’
“Your preparation remained the same. You tried to keep your guys as focused as possible on the task at hand. But once we got there, they were like, ‘Well, keep everybody on the bus.’ That’s when it became even more suspicious.”
Dawkins said such a disruption has never happened to him before. After a short delay, he was told to bring his team off the bus and into Dickies Arena and to sit tight in the locker room. Although the players were free to go onto the court to warm up if they would like.
“Nobody went out to the court; the players stayed in the locker room. Shortly thereafter, they came in and just said, ‘Hey, you know what, it’s going to be canceled.’ But you kind of could see the writing on the wall, from the bus and from the checking and security. And when you were in their building, you could kind of see nothing was really flowing like it normally would. Your normal pregame ritual, everything, was thrown off. You knew something was off with that. And of course, they ended it.
“It was tough. The toughest thing was trying to talk to your players at the end of that, especially the seniors. We were going around and trying to console them. It was tough because, all of a sudden, your season ends that abruptly. Everyone goes into March Madness with an opportunity to make your dreams come true. You can hear speculation about what would’ve happened, what may have happened; no one knows.
“So, it’s tough when you have a chance. You felt that you were playing some of your best basketball down the stretch and you’re looking forward to the opportunity in the conference tournament. All of a sudden, your season is just over. I’m sure every team in our league and around the country probably feels the same way.”
Q: What did you say specifically to guys like Dazon Ingram, Matt Milon and Frank Bertz? How did you try to console them through that really tough time?
Dawkins: “Just more of apologizing because of kind of how it went. We all understood. I talked about the importance of understanding what we’re going through. This is unprecedented.
“I just wanted to make sure they had hope because, as a senior, this is it for you. There’s no ‘I get a do-over next year.’ Those guys are just left out there with the uncertainty of how they would have performed in the conference tournament. It’s just left out there open, like, I don’t know what we would have done. I knew they were feeling that way, so I just wanted to try to console them as best I could and give them hope and keep encouraging them about how much I appreciate everything they did for us this year. Those type of things were first and foremost on the mind.”
Q: Before the season, you said this would be one of the toughest coaching jobs of your career because of all the new players you were implementing. Looking back at the year in full now, how would you grade this season?
Dawkins: “I guess to give it a grade, I’d give it an ‘Incomplete’ because we didn’t finish it. I thought we had our ups and downs. I thought we had a season where we definitely had some high moments and we had some moments that we wish we could have do-overs on. But that’s part of basketball. It’s a long year, and most teams are going to have ups and downs. I didn’t think we were as consistent as I would’ve liked to have seen us throughout the year, but I do think we showed the ability that we can play with anybody on any given night, and that’s what you want to see.
“The one thing that never wavered with our group is the belief. I think you could see that at the very end, how we were playing. Our guys couldn’t have been in that kind of state the last several games going into the tournament if the guys didn’t really believe in themselves and believe in what we were doing. They were playing some of their best basketball.
“When you’re trying to get that many guys on the same page, especially under the circumstances, I thought they did a terrific job. I thought they fought with us the entire time and they gave us what they had. That’s all you can ask from any group.”
Q: When you look at what this team accomplished in moments this year and the returning players you expect to have, does that give you hope for the future of this program?
Dawkins: “Absolutely. We’re excited about the young men who are returning. We’re excited about the young men that will be coming on line this year. There were a few guys that were sitting out for us. Absolutely, we’re encouraged by what we see every day in practice with these guys and the overall maturity that I think some of our young guys gained this year through the experiences they had.
“The league this year was, I think, as deep as it’s ever been, as competitive as ever, and I think the records show that. When you look from top to bottom, there were no easy games. ... That’s a sign to me of a really healthy league. I just didn’t think our league garnered the amount of respect that it deserved for as competitive as it was. When’s the last time we had a three-way tie at the top of the conference? You never see that.
“It was really good for us, especially our young players, to be in the league during this year and to be a part of that because they know what to expect now. They know how challenging this league is going to be, so I think in the offseason, they know what they’ve got to do in preparation for a new season.”
Q: There was a report recently that the NCAA is unlikely to extend an extra year of eligibility to winter-sport athletes. Danny White thinks those athletes should get an extra year because, as he said, they didn’t receive a championship opportunity. What is your opinion on this topic?
Dawkins: “I agree with our athletic director. I think that these young men will always have a sense of an incomplete year. It’s tough to always think about what may have happened, what could have happened. Everyone had hopes for the NCAA Tournament; it’s a magical time of year right now that we’re in. For those guys, they are left with no hope, and I just think that’s tough when you talk about collegiate athletes. I think that’s just a sad way to end your career
“So, yeah, I agree with our athletic director. I hate to see these guys go out. For everyone else that’s able to return, that’s great. But for these guys who this was their last year, to leave with an incomplete is really difficult to swallow.”
Q: Ceasar DeJesus has announced his plans to go pro. What can you say about what he gave to the program — he verbally committed to UCF less than two months after you were hired — and what do you think about his decision?
Dawkins: “I love Ceasar. I loved coaching him. Terrific young man. I think he really grew a lot in our program. He’s been a part of some really good teams and that’s how he’ll be remembered. He’s someone that we will definitely miss, but every young man has to make that decision based on what’s in the best interest for them and their family.
“For Ceasar, he graduates this year, so for him, you have to weigh all of the options. He felt the appropriate time is now to try to continue his career professionally, so we understand that. Every kid has to run his own race with where they are, them and their families. He’ll have his degree, which is the most important thing, and he has a chance to continue to play a sport that he loves at a different level.
“If he wasn’t on track to graduate, then I don’t think, as his counselor — like all of us as a staff — I think the counsel would be a lot different. But he’s going to get his degree. That’s the most important thing. He’s not leaving here without his degree.”