Twenty-four years ago, Danny Manning's legacy in the sport of basketball began at the expense of the hearts of many Oklahoma sports fans.
In 1988, after experiencing the most successful season in Oklahoma college basketball history, the 34-7 Oklahoma Sooners were heavy favorites to win the first national championship in school history. Behind future NBA standouts Mookie Blaylock and Stacey King, the Sooners faced a University of Kansas team many regarded as simply fortunate enough to have made it as far as the National Championship Game.
When it was all said and done, the Jayhawks had defeated the heavily favored Sooners, 83-79, handing Oklahoma one of the most shocking and disappointing losses in state history. After scoring 31 of the Jayhawks' points and hauling down an astronomical 18 rebounds, it seemed as if one man was responsible for the suffering of Oklahoma basketball fans: Danny Manning.
What a difference nearly a quarter-century can make.
After successful careers as a player in the NBA and an assistant coach at his Alma Mater, Manning has returned to Oklahoma -- this time to help cultivate basketball in the state he once unwittingly devastated. Though Manning is set to embark on his inaugural season as head coach of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane men's basketball team, it's difficult to ignore the legacy Manning has already established in the state of Oklahoma.
"We just wanted to play hard and enjoy the moment," Manning said of the '88 championship game. "We weren't expected to be there. We had a comfort level with our opponent -- having faced them during the regular season -- and we had a great coach in Larry Brown."
Fitting for an already successful coach, Manning is fortunate to have been surrounded by some of the greatest collegiate and professional coaches in the history of basketball. During his career, he played for the likes of legendary NBA coaches Lenny Wilkens, George Karl, Jerry Sloan and Don Nelson. While Manning credits Brown -- who happened to be both his former college coach and the first coach he had at the NBA level -- for much of his success, the most influential coach he's had was perhaps the least publicly celebrated.
"My father was actually the biggest influence on me," said Manning. "He coached me up until college. He played in the NBA and didn't receive the recognition he deserved. He had intangibles that went unnoticed (in his era)."
Manning's father, Ed, was an NBA forward in the early '70s. In 1985, he took an assistant coaching job at Kansas under Brown and played an integral part in the development of his standout son, Danny. With Brown, Ed Manning found a perfect formula for motivating his soon-to-be standout son.
"He was my biggest fan and my biggest critic," Manning said of his father. "He saved me with criticism, rather than ruin me with praise."
One of the most interesting aspects of Manning's adult life has been the similarity. Between generations Manning's son, Evan, and his daughter, Taylor, have chosen to follow in their father's footsteps and become athletes at the University of Kansas.
With Taylor Manning entering her third year as part of the Kansas volleyball team, her younger brother Evan recently joined the KU basketball squad as a walk-on for the 2012 season. Though Manning admits he's disappointed to not have the opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps and coach his own son at the collegiate level, he is nevertheless a proud father, and is quick to commend his children for realizing their dreams of becoming NCAA athletes.
"They grew up in Kansas," Manning said. "It's home. Ever since they were kids, they've dreamt of going to KU. They've both worked extremely hard to realize their dreams. It's impressive. I'm very proud of how hard they've worked."
It would seem difficult for a man with such deep roots in a particular school to venture out and embark on a career elsewhere. Fortunately for Manning, however, his greatest coaching mentor at Kansas was none other than former Oral Roberts and Tulsa head coach Bill Self. Having spent a considerable amount of time in Tulsa, Self served as a great source of information for Manning's relocation to Tulsa.
"Bill talked about what a great program Tulsa is," Manning said. "He talked about the support from the TU administration, the history of the program, the tradition and the great support from the fans. It was all love for Tulsa."
The arrival of Manning at the University of Tulsa ushers in a new era of Golden Hurricane basketball. While Tulsa has experienced six consecutive winning seasons, it hasn't earned an NCAA tournament bid in a decade. Though Manning is quick to praise his predecessors, it is clear that he brings a new blueprint for success. According to Manning, his philosophies are simple. Like most any other coach, Manning stresses the importance of playing the game hard. He expects his squad to be relentless on the court, dictating the game's tempo with a fierce attack. In describing his vision for TU basketball, however, Manning goes beyond the court.
"We want to help create accountable young men," Manning said. "We want them to go out and be better fathers, better husbands -- better people."
Given the impeccable track record of Manning, it seems impossible to think his methods couldn't improve any basketball program. In his 46 years, Manning has won NCAA national championships as a player and coach, been the first pick of the 1988 NBA Draft, been an NBA all-star, won an NBA Sixth Man of the Year award, and won a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, Korea. When asked about his success, Manning is humble and gracious.
"I've been very fortunate," Manning said. "I've been blessed to have been surrounded by so many caring people. Throughout my life, whether it was my family or friends or coaches, I've always had great people in my life."
Once, Manning's name was synonymous with one of the most heart-breaking events in Oklahoma sports. Today, Manning's name deservedly rings of optimism for the Golden Hurricane basketball program and the city of Tulsa.
"I still hear about (the 1988 championship game), but not very often," Manning said. "The support here has been overwhelming. Everyone has welcomed me and treated me (wonderfully)."
Given the level of character Manning possesses, it's difficult to believe he could have ever been anything short of loved by anyone.
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