Samford Rolls the Dice on High School Coach Bucky McMillan—and Hopes It Struck Gold

You don't often see coaches go straight from high school to an NCAA head job. Have the Bulldogs found the next success story?
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Martin Newton isn’t delusional enough to think he’s found the next John Wooden. There is no next John Wooden.

The next John Thompson? No.

But Newton is daring to dream that he might have found the next Bob McKillop. That would be a monumental triumph in its own right.

The athletic director at Samford hired Bucky McMillan last week to be his new basketball coach. McMillan’s previous college coaching experience: not a minute.

The 36-year-old had been the head coach for 12 years at Mountain Brook High School, just a few miles away from Samford’s campus in Birmingham, Ala. Before that he coached the Mountain Brook junior varsity team at age 22, and as a teenager he led a couple of local AAU teams. That’s hardly the tried-and-true path to a Division I head-coaching job.

Wooden did it, going from South Bend Central High to Indiana State in 1946 (with a two-year Navy hitch in World War II interrupting his high school tenure). After two years in Terre Haute, he moved to UCLA. You may be familiar with his work there.

Big John went from St. Anthony High School in Washington, D.C., to Georgetown in 1972. He became the first African American coach to win an NCAA tournament title.

Across the current D-I landscape, McKillop stands out as the shining star of the prep-to-college leap. He spent a decade as the coach at Long Island (N.Y.) Lutheran High School before being hired by Terry Holland at Davidson, where he has won 594 games and advanced to nine NCAA tournaments in 31 seasons. His career is worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

There aren’t many other role models out there for McMillan. Danny Hurley went from St. Benedict’s Prep in New Jersey to Wagner in 2011, but he’d previously spent four seasons as a college assistant at Rutgers. Jack Donohue, who coached Lew Alcindor at Power Memorial in New York, vaulted to Holy Cross and had a good run after Alcindor joined Wooden at UCLA.

Shakey Rodriguez and Bob Wade were hired at Florida International and Maryland, respectively, on the hopes of replicating what Thompson did at Georgetown. Namely, taking local prep hegemony up a level. Didn’t work out for either man.

The famous football example was Gerry Faust, who went from Moeller High School in Cincinnati to Notre Freakin’ Dame. That was a bust. So was Tony Sanchez’s recent tenure at UNLV after overseeing a powerhouse local program at Bishop Gorman High.

It’s a rare route for a reason.

Recruiting is a brand new job requirement. Players are older and less likely to be swayed by High School Harry motivational schticks. The transfer portal, the NCAA rulebook, campus politics, alumni input, players living away from their parents—there are plenty of different dynamics in play.

The learning curve gets steeper when you factor in the dead halt at which things stand right now, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. And the competitiveness of the Southern Conference, which has had at least three Top 100 teams in the Ken Pomeroy ratings each of the past three seasons. Samford has never had a winning record in league play since joining the SoCon in 2009, and has just one winning season overall in the last 14.

Newton knows all of that. So does McMillan. Neither are outwardly worried about making this ambitious transition work.

“If I was in my 40s, it might be a different story,” said Newton, the son of famed coach and athletic administrator C.M. Newton. “But at 59, and having the advantage of watching Bucky and being around him and seeing him in this community, that took the trepidation out of it.

“I’ve watched him for many years, and I was impressed. I wanted someone with head coaching experience, someone who can ignite the Birmingham and Samford community, someone who is aligned with the values of our university. I feel like he can do it.”

McMillan is putting together a staff with plenty of college experience. That includes his old college coach, Duane Reboul, who at age 71 is coming out of retirement after a stellar career to be a special assistant to his former player.

There is a lot to like about McMillan from a Samford perspective. The record jumps off the page—332 victories in 12 seasons, including five state titles, at a school that had scant basketball heritage. That includes a state championship threepeat with star player Trendon Watford, who went to LSU for one season and has now declared for the NBA draft.

But beyond that is McMillan’s familiarity with what he’s getting himself into. He’s a Birmingham lifer.

McMillan grew up going to Samford basketball camps, back when the coaches were John Brady (before he went to LSU) and Jimmy Tillette (who took the Bulldogs to their only two NCAA tournament appearances). He played collegiately at nearby Birmingham Southern College when that was a D-I program, becoming a solid contributor despite modest physical attributes.

“I kind of gave myself to the game,” McMillan said. “To be a skinny white kid, not very athletic, from the suburbs—to try and make it in the game, it had to be nonstop.”

Before McMillan even got to college, he was coaching a 14-and-under AAU team. Then, while in college, he moved up to leading the Alabama Ice 17-and-under team.

During that stint, he invited a Birmingham Southern teammate to come with him to a practice. He called McMillan late that night and told him, “You need to coach the rest of your life. You’re made for it.”

So he did. When Birmingham Southern dropped down from Division I, McMillan contemplated a transfer to a bigger program. But he wound up becoming the Mountain Brook JV coach instead, at age 22.

Two years later he moved up to the varsity, and everything built upon itself. Modeling much of his strategy on what Rick Pitino did, Mountain Brook became a pressing, running, three-point shooting phenomenon. The wins and titles piled up.

It was not lost on Martin Newton that his father hired Pitino at Kentucky in 1989, a move that resurrected a blueblood program and put Pitino on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Nor was it lost on him that C.M. Newton also made a bold hire of a coach from a lower level in another sport—he grabbed football coach Hal Mumme out of Division II Valdosta State, paired him with star quarterback Tim Couch and saw them jump-start the modernization of the college passing game.

Mumme never felt the jump from D-II to the Southeastern Conference was too big for him. McMillan sounds the same way.

“Samford wanted someone with head-coaching experience, and I’ve always been a head coach,” he said. “There’s never a time when I wasn’t a head coach. When you get that job and you’ve never called a timeout? You’ve never managed a program? That’s a bit adjustment.”

McMillan said he wants his Samford teams to play with unstinting effort and unselfishness—traits you will hear from every coach at every level of the game. But he also mentioned a need to “play with massive confidence.”

Bob McKillop, the most successful current prep-to-college coach, has some advice for McMillan when it comes to that dynamic. Confidence is fine; overconfidence is deadly.

“I was incredibly arrogant,” McKillop said, looking back upon his arrival at Davidson. “I thought I could wave a magic wand and lead Davidson to the Promised Land, and get the Knicks job or a top college job. I was incredibly misguided.”

After winning big in the high school ranks on Long Island, McKillop was an early flop at the college level. His first Davidson team went 4–24. His second one went 10–19. His third went 11–17. If it weren’t for the forbearance and guidance of Holland, it might have ended right there.

“The first year, I blamed the players,” McKillop said. “The second year, I blamed the dean of admissions and the budget. The third year, I blamed myself. My confidence was fractured. I was brought to my knees.

“I have a tremendous amount of regret that I never gave those players the kind of coaching they deserved and worked so hard for. No matter how much you believe in your coaching, you have to show the players you care about them.”

By year four, McKillop started to figure it out. Davidson went 14–14 that season, and has never won fewer than 14 games since. That includes 16 seasons with at least 20 wins. The peak was, of course, a 29-win season in 2007–08, when Stephen Curry took the Wildcats within a shot of the Final Four.

Today, at age 69, McKillop owns a streak of 19 consecutive winning seasons. At another small university in the South, a guy 33 years younger is just embarking on his own preps-to-college journey. At Samford, they’ll take a single winning season and try to build from there.