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Home-court advantage: Daemen coach hits 100 wins in every NCAA division, all in same city

Mike MacDonald has not had to travel far to achieve success in every NCAA division. MacDonald has recorded 100 wins as a head men’s basketball coach in Division I, II and III, all while living in the greater Buffalo area. Daemen College photo

Most days, Mike MacDonald steps out the door of his family’s house in western New York and walks the half-mile to his office at Daemen College. The short path to work was an added bonus when he became the Wildcats men’s basketball coach in 2014. MacDonald had been a college coach for more than two decades at the time, and his office had never been so close to home.

But it also had never been very far.

Before coming to Division II Daemen, MacDonald coached at Medaille, a Division III school about 5 miles away in Buffalo. And before that, he coached at Division I Canisius, essentially across the street from Medaille.

MacDonald has coached at three colleges in three NCAA divisions over a span of 31 years — 22 as a head coach — all while living in the same community. What makes his college coaching journey even more rare? This year, as he has guided the Wildcats to their best season in program history, he hit an uncommon milestone: MacDonald has collected 100 wins as a head coach in each NCAA division.

After most of those wins, MacDonald has retreated to the same house in Amherst, New York, the one he and his wife, Maura, bought in 2004, with a basketball hoop firmly cemented into the driveway and enough space for four growing boys and a dog.

“Buffalo is the place we call home,” MacDonald says. “Our kids can come back here and say this is where their roots are. We thought that was important.”

Now in his fifth year at Daemen, the coach is on the verge of leading the Wildcats to their first NCAA tournament berth. The team is 24-4 and ranked second in the Division II East region heading into the East Coast Conference championships this weekend.

“It’s a little surreal, to be honest with you,” he says.

Daemen was in the process of joining NCAA Division II from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics when MacDonald took the job. He viewed the offer as an opportunity to build a program from the ground up, something he did at Medaille. In Daemen’s first season as a full-fledged member of Division II in 2015-16, the Wildcats overcame a slow start and a string of season-ending injuries to win 14 of their last 18 games. Last season, the men were .500 by the winter holidays but again worked their way to a winning season — and almost eked into the NCAA tournament. They’re looking forward to a different outcome this year.

MacDonald credits his success to “good players.” He says the student-athletes he has coached in each division have had the same competitive mentality, if not quite the same height or weight.

He’s quick to deflect praise from his recent milestone. “I never took a shot,” he says. “I never dribbled the ball. I never played defense or got a rebound. It’s the players that win games. That’s the key.”

Still, his coaching record — and even more, his reputation in Buffalo — speaks to his influence.

“His stature in the community has played a huge role in this,” Daemen President Gary Olson says. “He is a much-loved member of the Buffalo community. I think that his coming to Daemen, at a time when we were transitioning to the NCAA, really gave us instant credibility.”

MacDonald landed in Buffalo shortly after graduating from St. Bonaventure, about 75 miles away. He worked his way up from a graduate assistant to an assistant coach at Canisius first under Marty Marbach, then John Beilein.

It was at Canisius that he met his wife. Maura’s father had played basketball at Canisius, and her younger brother, Michael, was being recruited by Mike. Maura accompanied her brother to a basketball camp on campus while Mike was working the registration table.

Michael eventually enrolled at Navy, but Maura stuck with Mike. Today she laughs when she thinks about how they met; of course, it was on a basketball court.

“I think our first date was July 3. We saw fireworks on July 4, and then he went recruiting on July 5,” Maura says. “So it was like, really early on, this is how it’s going to be.” 

From the beginning, Maura embraced all that comes with being married to a college basketball coach. Both she and Mike assumed that would include relocation — an almost expected occurrence in the world of coaching. But nine years as an assistant at Canisius led to nine years as a head coach, and by the time Canisius opted for a coaching change in 2006, the MacDonalds had established roots in Buffalo. Their sons Matthew, Patrick and Nicholas were all in school, and Maura had just given birth to their fourth, Mark.

MacDonald briefly considered other job opportunities in business but knew his heart remained in coaching. So when the Medaille athletics director called, he seized the opportunity — and the challenge. The program had been 4-46 over the previous two years.

“I took what was maybe the worst job in the entire country in terms of record and success,” MacDonald says. “I figured, let’s see what we can do and build it.” Within two years, the Medaille men’s basketball teams had made it to the postseason. By year three, they were in the NCAA tournament. 

Over the decades, MacDonald has become known in the Buffalo community as more than a basketball coach. For 10 years, he and several of his players have teamed up with the Drug Enforcement Administration on an eight-week summer program for at-risk youth. He runs popular youth camps and has coached his sons’ Little League teams.

Maura says every year on Father’s Day, her husband is inundated with calls and texts. “The players he recruits, we’re with them forever,” she says.

Wherever the former players go, they know they have someone to call in Buffalo. 

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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