BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – It’s unusual for a mid-major men’s college basketball program to hire a man who has coached in the NBA, but that’s the case at Samford. 

Bob Thronton served as an assistant coach for multiple NBA franchises like the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies. Thornton, who competed in the NBA for eight seasons, worked as an advanced scout for the Oklahoma City Thunder and helped them draft stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. 

Now, the 60-year-old acts as Samford’s NBA Liaison and Director of Advance Scouting and Strategies. Thronton’s gone from flying in charter planes to taking over eight-hour bus rides. But, it’s a one-of-a-kind title for a man who said he has the greatest job in the world. 

“I get to walk into the basketball gym every day,” Thornton said. “I’ve been very, very blessed to do this as long as I have. So I’m very thankful to coach and to the school to be here.”

Samford head coach Bucky McMillan and his staff knew Thornton was a basketball expert and that the program’s players would give instant respect to him, so the staff worked to find a spot for him. Thornton assisted the Mississippi State women’s basketball team during 2021-22 under an interim head coach. 

When Samford extended a job offer to Thronton, he said he accepted because of the high-level staff that is doing something special. Last season, the Bulldogs finished third in the Southern Conference at 10-8 and went 21-11 overall. They are now tied for first in the conference at 12-2 with four games left in the 2022-23 regular season. 

Thornton wasn’t brought in to enhance “Bucky Ball” – McMillan’s fast and aggressive style of play. Instead, Thornton said he provides a scouting report that includes tendencies and defensive schemes on Samford’s upcoming opponent. It’s then up to McMillan on how the Bulldogs will attack and exploit their opponent based on the scouting report. 

Samford head men’s basketball coach Bucky McMillan (Courtesy of Ronald Gaines)

“He could coach 99% of what we do,” McMillan said. “But what makes him unique is to be a guy that’s seen it all and been to the big show is that he’ll just do whatever is necessary for our team to win. So maybe it’s watching tape with the players to point out things they got to get better at, and maybe it’s doing scouts, maybe it’s individual breakdown, maybe it’s analyzing what our best offensive, defensive situations are.

“So that’s what makes him so appealing is he’s so well rounded, and then his humility.”

McMillan said you can only have so many voices in the room, but Thornton doesn’t have to be out in front pumping his chest. He said Thronton isn’t a self promoter because his work speaks for himself. 

In fact, Thornton said he normally sits back when he watches practice and games and then inserts his input at meetings. Thornton noted he learns from the rest of the staff because the college level is different from the NBA, though McMillan said Thornton taught the other coaches also with him knowing how to manage different egos from the NBA. 

“It’s just walking around, talking to the players, keeping their heads in it and whatever it takes,” Thornton said. 

When Samford’s coaches see an action they’re struggling with, McMillan said he asks Thornton how to defend it because he’s seen them all in the NBA. McMillan said Thronton’s ideas are always 100% spot on. 

Yet, game planning is different in college compared to the professional game, McMillan said. That’s because it’s more difficult to get college players on the same page about how to recognize certain plays. 

“He’ll say this more than anyone, ‘let’s go through and let’s see what they can pick up on and let’s go with that,’” McMillan said. “That’s the difference, and I think [Thornton] would probably say that, it’s in the pros, this is how they guard this. There, you got to figure this out, and they’ll figure it out. 

“With our guys, they’re not pros. You got to go out there and be like, ‘this is optimal, but what can they figure out and adapt?’ That’s what makes him a good coach, because he’s able to adapt.”

The scouts Thornton does for players is just the right amount of information they can retain, McMillan said. In his NBA Liaison role, Thornton said he can talk to his connections in the league for feedback and information if Samford’s players are receiving attention at the next level. 

When McMillan received an email about when student-athletes have to declare for the NBA Draft Combine and NBA Draft, he consulted Thornton. McMillan said most programs can’t advise players when it comes to these matters, but Thronton knows how to approach it with their players. 

“Everybody these days thinks they’re a NBA player,” McMillan said. “Just a good part about Bob is if I tell them that they’re not and Bob tells them that they’re not or they are, it’s going to mean more coming from him because he’s seen it, right? So it makes communication easier with our players.” 

If the Bulldogs win the Southern Conference Tournament – which takes place from March 3-6 – they will make their third NCAA Tournament appearance in program history. The last time they were in the Big Dance was in 2000. 

So far, Samford is scoring 3.2 more points per game than last season. The Bulldogs are allowing 3.1 less points per contest, as well. McMillan said three points is usually going to be the difference when you reach the conference tournament. It was in 2022 when Furman downed Samford, 71-68, in the semifinals. 

McMillan said Thornton is good at giving him the confidence when it comes to sticking or changing defensive schemes, which could lead to three-point swing. The work is all worth it for the basketball lifer who doesn’t plan on leaving the court soon.

“I want to stay in until they rip the jersey off of me,” Thornton said. “That’s it. Just want to keep coaching. I’m not tired of it.”