He is also one of three active coaches for whom the ground on which his team plays its home games is named. The other two: Boeheim and Krzyzewski.
“Honestly, I almost obsessively try not to focus on things like that,” McKillop said in his calm New York accented voice. “As I was approaching Game 1,000, people started talking to me about it and I said, ‘Don’t talk to me about it. I really try to stay in the moment. I understand why things like this happen. I understand, but I don’t really want to talk about it while it’s happening.
For most of his career at Davidson, there’s been data about the Wildcats: They’ll always have shooters. They will win a lot of games – their victory over George Washington took their record to 19-3. And McKillop will always appear on the sidelines as if straight from the pages of a fashion magazine.
When asked if he was back to wearing suits on the bench after the 2020-21 covid sweats and trainers season, he acted as if the question was rhetorical.
“Well, yes, of course,” he replied.
It’s almost as rhetorical to ask if Davidson is good again. The Wildcats had won 18 of 19 and led the Atlantic 10 with a 9-1 record entering Wednesday’s game against Saint Joseph’s. That should make it a lock for a 10th NCAA Tournament bid since 1998 — an impressive number considering 17 of those seasons have been spent in the Southern Conference at one bid.
McKillop has reached the point where he almost makes what he does look easy. It has not always been so.
He grew up on Long Island and began his coaching career there at Holy Trinity High. One of his players was Matt Doherty, who went on to play on North Carolina’s national championship team in 1982.
“He was Mr. McKillop because he was my ninth-grade social studies teacher,” Doherty said with a laugh. “Even when I was just a kid, you could tell he was special. He always focused on the little things – attention to detail. In fact, he did a clinic on ‘the little things “He taught me so much mentally that going to play for Dean Smith wasn’t a big mental adjustment. He was a lot like Coach Smith – almost always one step ahead of the rest.
McKillop spent a year at Davidson as an assistant to Eddie Biedenbach before returning to New York to coach at Long Island Lutheran High. Twice he was offered jobs near his home – Marist and Hofstra – but they turned them down because they didn’t seem like the right fit. Then, in 1989, Davidson offered him the job of head coach.
“I initially refused,” he said. “I knew all about the legacy, all the success of Lefty Driesell and Terry Holland there, but that was a long time ago then. They had been struggling for some time and there was a lot of commotion.
In fact, the school had gone through four coaches in 15 years – all with losing records – since Holland left for Virginia in 1974. Additionally, the school had formed a committee to study the possibility of moving down to Division III. and to follow, as McKillop described it as “the Amherst, Williams model”.
McKillop wasn’t looking to step away from home to coach in Division III.
It was Holland who changed his mind. He had decided to give up training at the age of 48 due to stomach problems. He planned to return to Davidson as athletic director.
“He called me and said, ‘Accept the job; I will make sure you get everything you need,” McKillop said. “Without him, I would never have taken the job. And, without him, I would never have survived very long in this job.
Holland, who included Davidson and coaching, backed McKillop through his first three seasons, which produced a 25-60 record. Things started to improve in season four – 14-14 – then the breakthrough came a year later when the Wildcats went 22-8 and reached the NIT. From there they haven’t looked back, reaching the playoffs 18 times, with a seemingly guaranteed 19th place finish in March.
The high point of that run came in 2008 when Davidson was led by a sophomore guard named Stephen Curry, who had been overlooked by every major school.
The 2008 team entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 10 seed. It then upset No. 7 seed Gonzaga, No. 2 seed Georgetown and No. 3 seed Wisconsin to reach the Midwest Region Finals, where it faced top-seeded Kansas in front of more than 57,000 fans at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Wildcats, trailing 59-57, actually got the last shot. But Kansas coach Bill Self smartly doubled Curry, who was forced to reverse the ball to Jason Richards. His three-pointer at the buzzer missed and Kansas won the national championship.
“One shot,” McKillop said with a smile. “We were so close. I would love to do one more race like this.
Curry has become an NBA superstar but remains close to McKillop and Davidson. “He’s always keen to talk about his Davidson roots,” McKillop said. “His fingerprints are all over Davidson and all over my life.”
As usual, this season’s Wildcats can shoot — they entered Wednesday with nearly 41 percent of their three-pointers and averaging 77 points. Naturally, McKillop is not satisfied with what he sees.
“I have to do better to develop our depth than I have done so far,” he said. “And we need to get better defensively if we’re going to have any real chance of doing anything in March.”
A coach will always find flaws in his team, especially during the season. And there’s no doubt that if Davidson wants to be a factor in mid-March, he’ll have to keep improving. But the now 71-year-old Wildcats coach appears to be as good as he’s ever been.
“I’m healthy and still enjoy going to work every day,” he said. “This team has been a pleasure to coach. Their attitude is great and I love being with them. Davidson is my family, and in basketball I am the head of the family. I’ll stop coaching when I think it’s the best thing for my family. I think I’ll know when it’s time.
McKillop is in his 33rd season at Davidson. On January 29, he coached his 1,000th school game – a victory against La Salle. This made him the fourth active coach to reach the milestone, behind Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Greg Kampe of Oakland University.