That Northwestern bench sure would look familiar to the Northbrook community this winter –– and make them awfully proud –– if I believe what will and should happen does indeed come to fruition.
For many reasons, Billy Donlon, the former Wright State head coach and current Michigan assistant coach, is a logical choice for Northwestern coach Chris Collins to fill the open position on his staff. Collins has an opening due to the departure of Pat Baldwin, who on Tuesday was named the head coach at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Collins and Donlon were both all-state guards at Glenbrook North in the 1990s and have been close since their childhood days. While Collins was the 1992 Mr. Basketball winner in Illinois, Donlon was a freshman at Loyola Academy. Donlon then transferred to Glenbrook North and two years later became an all-state guard himself.
This hire would only enhance the Glenbrook North-to-Northwestern pipeline.
Their coach at Glenbrook North? Brian James.
All three former Northbrook natives would be on a bench together as James is also a Northwestern assistant coach.
It would all come full circle for the three.
James made the unconventional coaching jump from high school coach to NBA assistant coach after Donlon graduated from GBN in 1995.
It was Chris Collins’ legendary father, Doug Collins, then the head coach of the Detroit Pistons, who hired James as an assistant in 1995. He embarked on a NBA coaching career that included stints with the Pistons, Wizards, Raptors, Bucks and 76ers.
If the move were to materialize, Donlon would come to Northwestern with a load of coaching experience, both as an assistant coach and as a head coach at Wright State.
By this time in their lives it’s way more than just an ultra-respectful basketball kinship and respect between Collins, Donlon and James. There is a friendship, even a family-like bond between them. Most importantly, there would be the much-needed trust every successful coaching staff needs.
Donlon had success as a head coach. He had three 20-win seasons at Wright State and averaged 18 wins a year there in his six seasons. He finished his six years at Wright State with a 109-94 record, while his lone poor season –– 11-20 in 2014-2015 –– was marred by losing four starters to injury for the majority of the season.
After Donlon was fired as the head coach at Wright State –– after a season in which he won 22 games, went 13-5 in the Horizon League and played in the conference tournament championship game –– he turned to Collins and James. Aside from family, it was Collins and James who helped, guided and comforted Donlon following a firing that was criticized and questioned by many in college basketball from around the country.
He landed on his feet as an assistant coach at Michigan and now comes home, where family lives and as an assistant coach of a rising program he grew up watching –– his dad Bill Donlon, Sr., was an assistant coach at Northwestern from 1987 to 1994.
A look back at the Glenbrook North days with James, Collins and Donlon
With a rising star in the program in junior Chris Collins, Brian James leads Glenbrook North to a 20-6 record.
Behind senior Chris Collins, who averaged 31.2 points a game, and coach Brian James, Glenbrook North finishes the regular season ranked 12th in the state in Class AA.
The Spartans beat Weber in the sectional championship on Kyle Garman’s buzzer-beating shot off a Collins miss. GBN then loses a super-sectional heartbreaker to Stevenson and Chris Coleman in triple overtime as the Spartans finish 27-3 on the year. Collins scored a whopping 40 points in the loss.
The magical season for Collins included a 50-point performance in a win over Deerfield. Collins went on to play in the McDonald’s All-American game and was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball before heading off to Duke.
With Collins at Duke, Glenbrook North had an even better season the following year, thanks in part to the arrival of Billy Donlon. The sophomore guard teamed up with Brian Culhane, Jamar Holcomb and Kyle Scott to go 28-3 and reach the Elite Eight in Champaign.
In the super-sectional win, the Spartans beat Matt Heldmann and Libertyville in double overtime before falling to Danville and future NBA player Keon Clark in the state quarterfinals.
Glenbrook North went 23-6 and won a regional championship behind Donlon, who had then become a star in his junior season. But the Spartans fell in overtime to Weber in a 48-45 sectional semifinal loss.
As a senior, Donlon dazzled as a 6-2 point guard who averaged 22.5 points and 7.2 assists a game while being an all-state selection. He led Glenbrook North to the Elite Eight for the second time in his career. The Spartans headed to Champaign with what was then a school record 29-1 record, with the only loss coming when Donlon was out with an injury.
Donlon and James were matched up against all-stater Gary Bell and Joliet Twp. and fell 42-39.
In three years with Donlon leading the way, Glenbrook North went a combined 80-10 with two trips to the State Finals in Champaign.
Donlon went on to play at UNC-Wilmington while James headed to the NBA as an assistant for Doug Collins and the Detroit Pistons.
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