FGCU coach Joe Dooley ushers a new era to Dunk City

FGCU’s Dunk City guys are gone, but the third-year coach has new ways for the Eagles to fly—and win

BY January 26, 2016

Photo by Dave Anderson

Coach Joe Dooley walks into Alico Arena and surveys the court with a furrowed brow. Already the symphony of basketball has begun—shoes squeak against hardwood, balls clang and thud against hoop.

His team is about to start its practice, but Dooley is dressed like he might take the court himself. His tall, lean frame is in athletic gear: gray shirt, knee-length black shorts, dark blue shoes—all Nike coordinated down to the ankle socks with Air Jordan logos. His hair is slicked back as usual.

This is when he’s in his prime.

He’s a self-proclaimed practice junkie. This is the time when your team gets better. Yes, it’s a little cliché. But this is the type of old-school intensity Dooley is bringing to Florida Gulf Coast University. He’s been brought up on some of the most hallowed grounds of basketball. He knows the standards that need to be set to win consistently. FGCU has seen some winning. But it’s time to take it to a new level.

So, he’s perched under the basket, his hands on his knees and a look of concern on his face, shouting in stacco bursts, “Get the ball! Get the ball!” “Go, Go, Go!” Transitions between drills are quick. Players have broken a sweat almost as soon as they start running.

Star guard Julian DeBose has seen plenty of intensity. He remembers a time last year, the Washington, D.C., native’s first after transferring from Rice, when he was slacking during a shell drill. Coach didn’t like what he was seeing. He told DuBose to run courtside. But the effort still didn’t sit well with him, so he shouted out, “You know what? You can run home to D.C. and stay there.”

At the time, DeBose didn’t like getting called out in front of the team, but now he laughs. “That’s his way of challenging you,” he says. “He’s challenging you mentally and physically. He’s all about effort. He shows his passion through the game.”

Welcome to Dooley City. Does that work? Is it catchy enough? Probably not as much as Dunk City. But the old Dunk City is gone.

The moniker derived from one of the most unlikely tournament runs in NCAA history recalls names like Brett Comer, Bernard Thompson, Chase Fiedler. They’re gone. So is the coach of their high-flying ways, Andy Enfield. He’s replaced by a man known more for a love of stingy defense than an alley-oop. This is the season where Dooley City (Still not catching on? OK, scratch that.) starts to truly take shape. In are assistant coaches Senque Carey and Tom Abatemarco. The players are mostly ones he’s recruited. It’s an exciting time. It’s Dooley’s time. And the team needs to shape itself again. What is it now? No ones knows. But it will take the form of the man leading it.


Dooley is courteous with the media. He’s polite but pointed in press conferences. He’ll speak in sound bites flavored with his lingering Jersey accent, then purse his lips when ready to move to the next question. His answers when speaking about last night’s win and such tend toward the one-game-at-a-time coach-speak. But once he gets talking about his past, he starts to loosen up.

He grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, the son of a lawyer father and a mother who was a high school basketball player. He gets his drive from his mother, Margaret. Competition is in the blood. That whole family was into sports. He couldn’t go to grandma’s house without catching or throwing something.

He played baseball and basketball and ran cross-country when he was younger. His focus eventually narrowed to basketball by the time he hit eighth grade. Basketball had become his life. He grew up friends with the son of NBA coach Richie Adubato. He was watching pro-level ball in person every chance he could.

He became a star player at St. Benedict’s High School, which churns out NBA talent. At one point, he held the all-time school scoring record. He was a two-year starter at guard for George Washington University, but he realized his playing career would end after graduation. “We all want to play professionally—but then there’s reality,” he says. Coaching, particularly college coaching, would be his calling.

After a stint as an assistant at the University of South Carolina, he wound up under Eddie Payne at East Carolina. When Payne left, Dooley was promoted. At age 29, he was the youngest college coach in the nation. His first two seasons he posted back-to-back 17-win seasons, only the third and fourth times an East Carolina squad had won at least that many in a season. But then the team stumbled with two sub-.500 campaigns, the fourth year hindered by key injuries. In came new athletic director Mike Hamrick, who fired Dooley and brought in his own man. When asked about the stint, Dooley chooses his words carefully, sticking to the mantra that he was gracious for the opportunity. Fran Fraschilla is a bit more blunt: “I think he got a raw deal.”

The current ESPN analyst was the head coach at New Mexico when he hired Dooley as an assistant. In him, he saw a guy who knew all the ins and outs of college coaching, from recruiting to Xs and Os to breaking down film. “It was like having another head coach,” he says.

In 2013, a small college off I-75 in Southwest Florida went from “Florida Gulf Coast University” to “Dunk City.”

Kansas came calling after Dooley left New Mexico for Wyoming. Coach Bill Self needed someone with West Coast recruiting experience, and Dooley had connections all over. Usually, assistant coaches have close ties with head coaches. But, according to reports that the time, Self knew purely by reputation that Dooley would be a good fit for an elite program.

Dooley had the professional goal of reaching the Final Four. Kansas was always a threat to do so, but after a couple disappointing tournament bounces, the Jayhawks won it all in 2008. That team included key players Mario Chalmers and Sasha Kaun, whom Dooley recruited personally. By 2010, college basketball websites were ranking him as one of the top assistants in the country. His name was mentioned for head coaching gigs elsewhere, but he was looking for the right fit. Before he knew it, 10 years had gone by at Kansas. His son, Max, was a Kansas native. It was pretty much all he knew. The decision to move was getting tougher.

In 2013, a small college off I-75 in Southwest Florida went from “Florida Gulf Coast University” to “Dunk City.” The team became a legend in college hoops history, becoming the first 15 seed to ever win two games in the tournament. Enfield translated the run into a head-coaching job at the University of Southern California, leaving his position open.

FGCU Athletic Director Ken Kavanagh faced a big challenge. Expectations were high. But the program was still fledging. At that point, it had been around for only a decade. It really hadn’t found a tradition.

Kavanagh asked around to athletic director friends, and Dooley’s name kept popping up. Kavanagh with president Wilson Bradshaw met Dooley for the first time in a Tampa hotel. Dooley came off as intelligent, passionate, high-energy. He had Division 1 coaching experience and came from a tradition of winning. He was the right fit. 

In FGCU, Dooley saw a ready-to-mold program with a supportive administration. He could win here. More importantly, his family could make a life here (and the fact that a beach was down the street helped, too). He took a pay cut to come.


Dooley, wife Tanya and Max live down the street from the university in Estero. He tries to get in as much family time as possible in between days at the office and nights watching film. Max is a frequent guest at practice and occasionally shoots with dad in the arena.

He “eats, sleeps and breathes basketball,” assistant Carey says. But there’s the other side that the intensity often overshadows. At New Mexico, Dooley coached Carey, a promising guard who transferred from University of Washington. Carey first met Dooley at a barbecue in New Mexico, the coach with his pet rottweiler he took everywhere. They talked mostly about Albuquerque, what it would be like for a young man to live there. “He talks to you like a man,” he says. “He’s the type of guy a player can talk to but he still sets a high expectation.”

Linwood Ferguson/Captive Photons

Fraschilla sees a similar side: “I hate to say he’s an Average Joe because that’s a cliché, but that’s what he is. He’s a guy you can go to a sports bar with and watch a game and shoot the breeze. He’s very approachable.”

Carey was coaching at the University of Hawaii when a spot opened on Dooley’s staff. “Over the years he was always there to give advice. He always picked up the phone,” he says. “(Taking the job) was a no-brainer for me.”

Redshirt freshman guard Zach Johnson remembers when Dooley came to his Miami home on a recruiting trip. The coach sold the program but one line stood out: “He said, ‘I love the way you play, but what makes you unique is the way you smile.’” Johnson has an easy grin to match his affable personality. “(Dooley) didn’t just like me as a player; he liked me as a person,” he says. Johnson was convinced he’d fit in at FGCU.

Johnson is one of several new players who will help form FGCU in the coming years. This year, they’ll also have a new leader in DeBose. Through his connection to Self, the Kansas coach, Dooley was able to put DeBose on the 2015 World University Games basketball team representing his country. The majority of the players were from Kansas. DeBose recognizes that was his time to learn from the best, return to FGCU and lead his teammates. “It showed me what it takes to play at a high level,” DeBose says.

The team has done well since that Cinderella run, winning 22 games each season. But the tricky part of being in a smaller conference like the Atlantic Sun is that you have to basically win the end-of-regular-season tournament to get into the Big Dance. And FGCU has fallen short each time since. Fraschilla sees another tough climb this year.

“I expect them to be very competitive, but there are some other good teams in (the Atlantic Sun),” he says. “You’re at the mercy of one bad game at the end of the year.”

In the end, the name “Dunk City” doesn’t really matter. For one, it’s a basketball team—of course they’re going to dunk. But it doesn’t matter because of the obvious fact that winning trumps everything else. Not many fans will notice the high-flying ways have gone if you’re winning.  

“We’re not going to care about how we win—just that we’re doing it,” Ken Kavanagh says.

And that’s what Dooley will tell this team and every one here beyond it. He’s seen it elsewhere. Now, it’s time to lead a winning program himself.

“The area has embraced the program,” Dooley says. “I tell the guys, ‘We can’t let Southwest Florida down.’”


Related Images: