Sitting fixed and focused at his desk, leaning forward in his chair with an assured disposition as the noise of gym construction resounds outside his office’s walls, UCF head basketball coach Johnny Dawkins works fervently to build a winning program and a team laced with his hard-working DNA.
Dawkins grew up in Washington, D.C., with a family whose work ethic and drive was woven into how he approached the books and the hardwood.
“It definitely shaped who I am as a person and as a player,” Dawkins recalled. “I grew up in a time where I had both parents — both were working — and they set great examples for me and a great work ethic just watching them as my family members. They instilled in me to work hard for the things that you want to accomplish; one, you want to be a terrific student and two, you want to be a great player … so [those] things I really focused on throughout my youth.”
Growing up, Dawkins looked up to his father, Johnny Dawkins Sr., who taught his son that, “Whatever you choose, you know you’re going to have to work at it — that’s going to be a nonnegotiable.”
As Dawkins began taking to basketball, he looked up to Hall of Fame player New York Knicks guard Walt “Clyde” Frazier for his tenacious style of defense.
Simply watching great NBA players play the game, though, wasn’t going to gain him respect on the D.C. courts.
“I grew up in a city where the sport of basketball was really big, so I grew up in an area that was so competitive you had to earn your stripes growing up as a player,” Dawkins said. “You couldn’t just go walk out on the court and be accepted: You had to prove yourself, and I think that helped make me competitive. The only way you could stay on the court was to win, so that really helped mold me there.”
One of the first people to witness his drive and determination was his former Duke teammate and current ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas.
As an 18-year-old Duke freshman, Bilas made a pit stop in Maryland on his way back to Durham, North Carolina, to meet Dawkins, who was an incoming Duke Basketball recruit.
“I went over to his house in Rockville Maryland [and] met him,” Bilas said. “I didn’t even know what he looked like. I had never seen him before. I actually mistook him for somebody else. I thought, ‘This can’t be Johnny Dawkins, this skinny little kid.’ I was kind of disappointed, honestly, when I saw him.”
But once the two of them reached the playground, to play basketball, Bilas witnessed Dawkins go from Clark Kent to Superman on the court.
“When we got to the playground he was Superman — I mean, it was ridiculous,” Bilas said. “It was me, him and a few of his friends, and we didn’t lose the whole day … It was way before that, but he was like Allen Iverson. I didn’t ever see anything like Johnny Dawkins before or since until Iverson.”
Heading into Duke, Dawkins embraced the chip he placed on his shoulder, making sure he outworked everyone else in the gym even though he was a McDonald’s High School All-American. If anyone understood the importance of never becoming complacent with success, it was Dawkins.
“I tried to come in and be the best teammate I could be,” Dawkins explained. “I tried to lead by example; I tried to always show a great work ethic, because I thought that’s what’s going to be the key to our success. I tried to compete every time I hit the floor, whether it was a drill, on the track, whether it was on the court in a game or practice — I always tried to go with max effort.”
When Dawkins made it to Durham, Bilas knew who the best player on the floor was.
“It was no question when he got to campus who the best player was, it was him, and everybody knew it,” Bilas said. “It didn’t take very long to figure out. I think he did things that even though you knew how good he was, he still did things that left your jaw on the floor.”
Following a disappointing 11-17 record as a freshman, Dawkins helped to lead the Blue Devils to a 84-21 record over the next three seasons, including three NCAA Tournament appearances and a near national championship his senior year, coming up short versus Louisville. He finished as Duke’s all-time leading scorer by 1986, which he held until J.J. Redick came on the scene some 20 years later.
By then, Dawkins was was on the Duke coaching staff, where he worked under head coach Mike Krzyzewski, or Coach K, one of the great college basketball coaches of all time. Dawkins would go on to serve as head coach at Stanford before accepting the head coaching position at UCF. He replaced former coach Donnie Jones, who worked with the Knights for six seasons before being dismissed this past March.
“I think from the very beginning when I coached him I knew he was smart,” Krzyzewski said. “Not only that, but he loved the game, and he wasn’t a one-positional player. He was a great player, not a good one. He wanted to get better off the court, and in his preparation, he wanted to get better on the court.
“He studied the game and, as a result, really was our first national player of the year here. I knew he would be an outstanding pro and a coach someday, that’s why I hired him whenever I could because I knew he was that good.”
Known for more than his coaching skills, Dawkins holds a high standard of character.
“Johnny has the highest of character,” coach Krzyzewski said. “I say all of the great things about him as a player, but Johnny’s a great man. Amazing family, wife, kids — classy. Character will show up every day. The good days, the not so good days, character can be trusted, it can influence a team or a group in a very deep level to help make the Xs and Os run even better.”
A “stud” in every aspect of his life, Dawkins’ focus on student-athlete’s character is one of his greatest strengths.
“The X and O stuff is important, but that other stuff, just as a parent you’re like, ‘Holy cow, how lucky am I?’” Bilas said.
This week, youth basketball players grades one through 12 filled the CFE Arena to work on myriad basketball skills in Dawkins’ first basketball camp as head coach. One of Dawkins’ primary goals is to build the character traits that will extend beyond just basketball.
“We’re teaching them more than regular basketball skills,” he said. “When we have our camp, hopefully it’s some life skills involved in what we teach, and we teach it through basketball, but there is always life lessons in our sport. That’s why I love team sports, because team sports is like a microcosm of our society. You have every type of young person in there, just like you have every type of person in the workforce.”
Sitting on a table in Dawkins’ office is a poster that reads, “Work hard, play harder.” When Dawkins was hired in March, he said his first order of business for the team was to gain an identity. Little did they know that UCF’s identity arrived in the form of a thin-framed, soft-spoken man hailing all the way from Washington, D.C.