Off the Court

UCF head basketball coaches on their passion for the game and mentoring student-athletes.

Excerpt from video interview

Coach Dawkins: How did basketball become a passion?

Coach Abe: My mother really wanted me to be a swimmer, but my dad saw I was getting tall, so he shot basketballs with me. I swam in high school and won state championships, but my father passed away when I was about 12 so I wanted to continue [playing basketball] for him. I played in high school and because I was 6’3″ and super strong, I started getting recruited by a lot of schools, so I had to pick between swimming and basketball. We didn’t have the money to send me to college, so through basketball, I got to go to school for free, and that was huge.

Coach Dawkins: I got into basketball at an early age. My father and his brothers would go out and play pickup ball quite a bit, and I was always intrigued by these great stories about what they accomplished. I just wanted to get involved, so on those Saturday mornings, I would literally go sleep downstairs in front of the door so they couldn’t leave without me, and then I was able to go see them compete, and I just became more fascinated by the game. I love to compete, and it just kind of grew from there.

Coach Abe: Why did you become a coach?

Coach Dawkins: I’ve always loved this game. I started playing at an early age and was able to have success, which was great. I realized how fortunate I was. Coaching was a way for me to give back to the game. It’s my way of saying thanks to all the coaches that came along in my career to help motivate me, not just in how I shot the basketball or defended it, but in the type of person I became. Coaches play an instrumental role in young people becoming great citizens, not just terrific basketball players. Now, the story of how I actually made the transition is kind of interesting. I was at Duke University studying to be an athletic director and about six months into the program, Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] came to me and said, “Hey, Johnny, you ever think about coaching?” As you know, when someone’s coaching you, they’re your coach for life, and so I said, “Well I guess I’m coaching now.” I transitioned pretty much that week to coaching, and I’m just happy he saw that in me because now that I’m in this profession, I can see how much I can affect young people’s lives.

Coach Abe: Besides Coach K, who’s your biggest role model?

Coach Dawkins: My father. [He] started me off playing basketball. I really [paid attention to] what he showed me on the basketball court [and] his work ethic. My father has gone through a lot. He was a Washington, D.C., bus driver in the ’70s and ’80s. He was military, a Green Beret, so [it was] a little disciplined in our household, and I appreciate everything he taught me.

Coach Dawkins: What got you into coaching?

Coach Abe: It’s funny because I went to Duquesne University to get my master’s [degree] because I wanted to be an athletic director. I wanted to stay in sports, but I did not want to be a coach. Most of us who have played the game at a high level don’t want to coach because we see what our coaches go through. But I felt like a lot of young women weren’t very empowered, and I could see they didn’t have a lot of great role models as women. When I got into [coaching], I found that I could really empower these young women and try to help them academically and [athletically]. I really wanted to give back. It’s not about the wow factor or being on TV or about you or me. It’s about these young people.

Coach Dawkins: Absolutely. Talk about your core values for your program.

Coach Abe: Number one — family first. And that’s not my family — it’s the university family, it’s the Athletics Department family. It’s our women’s basketball family. I try to lead that way in terms of how [my team] views themselves. Academics is second, and basketball is third.

Coach Abe: Why did you pick UCF?

Coach Dawkins: It wasn’t difficult to choose UCF, to be quite frank. The potential this university has — I’ve watched it from afar, and it has everything. This place was built for success, and I mean built to win. And I don’t mean just in our sport, but it’s built to win in everything — academically, athletically. What’s not to like? It’s in a beautiful location in Florida. The people here have been amazing. The community is behind the programs. … It’s a place where you can really leave your legacy. For a coach like me, those are things I look forward to. If anybody’s ever watched my career, I don’t jump from place to place. I like to make a place my home, and I think that can happen because I really believe in what I think we can accomplish here.

Coach Dawkins: How about you, coach?

Coach Abe: I found out you were coming [to UCF], so I had to come so I could work with you. To be honest, it’s the exact same reasons that you [mentioned]. I’ve always wanted to live in Florida, so when I got the call, I was really intrigued. There’s so much new energy. I talked to some of my role models, and Joanne McCallie at Duke said, “You have to work with [Dawson].” I’m going to sneak in and watch some of your practices — I want to learn from you.

Coach Abe: How do you motivate your players, and how do they motivate you?

Coach Dawkins: One, I think we try to live what we do. When student-athletes see adults do things the right way, they want to emulate that, so I think that’s a motivation. … If you’re thinking of tactical motivation, we’ve had amazing guest speakers, such as the Navy SEALs, come in and [talk to our student-athletes about] some of the things they’ve gone through. I’m really big about [instilling in players that] in this life and in this game of basketball, it’s about getting outside your comfort zone.

They motivate me every day. … You don’t become a student-athlete here without earning it. You earn it not just because you are a good basketball player but because of what you’ve done in the classroom. … It’s difficult to do all the things they do and to live up to everyone’s expectations, and so that really motivates me.

Coach Dawkins: How do you determine student-athlete success?

Coach Abe: For me, it’s making sure they’re empowered when they graduate. I want them to be able to leave this university with a lot of apples in their basket, and not just [having come] to UCF and played basketball. … We do a lot of mentoring for our young women on “What are you going to do the next 55 years of your life?” It’s not just these four years. How are we going to use this great university to propel you into your future? I want them prepared for life. That’s success to me.