STANFORD -- From the hot seat to the Sweet 16, Johnny Dawkins suddenly looks like a man in control.

Facing an ultimatum -- make the NCAA basketball tournament or get fired -- the Stanford coach responded by not only making the field but also pulling off back-to-back upsets to make the Cardinal one of the Cinderella teams of March Madness.

Dawkins insisted this week he never looked at the sword hanging over his head. And the players say they ignored it, too. But it's clear as Stanford prepares for Thursday's showdown against the University of Dayton that the Cardinal is rallying around a coach they love.

And those who know Dawkins best, going back to his days as an All-America guard, say it's another typically clutch performance from the man coach Mike Krzyzewski still calls, "the best player to ever play at Duke."

"I've known him for 30 years, and from the day I met him, there's never been one second I've doubted Johnny Dawkins, not one," said ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who played alongside Dawkins with the Blue Devils.

"What people are maybe discovering about him now, I've known all along. It doesn't surprise me this has happened. He's brought that program along. Some people wanted it faster, I understand that. But there has never been a time he hasn't shouldered all the responsibility. Not once have I ever heard him put it on the players."

With a victory over the equally surprising University of Dayton (11th seed), the Cardinal (10th seed) would advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2001.

With another victory beyond that, Stanford would advance to the Final Four, something they've done just one other time since 1942.

Dawkins, the man who traded a pink slip for glass slippers, is in no hurry to celebrate. After the upset over powerhouse Kansas last Saturday, the coach urged his players to stay cool: "We're going to enjoy this," he told them. "But we're going to enjoy this at the end of the run."

Translation: You're not done yet.

In the least, Dawkins cleared the bar that was set a year ago when new athletic director Bernard Muir declared he would not tolerate another March disappointment. Dawkins' teams had been solid (94-74 record over his first five years) but developed a reputation for underachieving, for struggling at crunch time.

Before Dawkins' arrival, Stanford had reached the NCAAs 13 times in 14 years. It didn't happen once in Dawkins' first five years at the helm.

So on March 15, 2013, a day after Stanford was ousted in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, Muir laid down the law: "The goal has always been and will not change: We want to play well into March on the grand stage of March Madness. Next year is a critical year for us. We've now had ample time for (Dawkins) to really get us to take that next step."

Dawkins, with an air of bemusement Monday, said that he was only vaguely aware of that proclamation, at least as it was reported. Whatever he gleaned, Dawkins said, he did so not by reading the papers but by reading his players' faces.

"You could just tell," the coach said. "They'll look a little worried about things. I'm like, 'Guys, don't pay any attention to any of that stuff. I don't.'

"I came here with full support. The people who have given me this opportunity have never wavered. ... Bernard's been great to me. I've never felt uncomfortable. I've never felt like I've ever had anything other than full support from the administration."

Josh Huestis, a forward and the team's leading rebounder and all-time shot blocker, said players never discussed their coach's fate. Then again, they didn't have to.

"Everybody knew the pressure facing him," Huestis said. "And therefore then it was on us. We were able to keep it all in check and not let it affect us."

So what changed? How did a coach in danger become one still standing in a tournament that has already ousted Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Bill Self?

Dawkins said Monday that as part of his evolution as coach, he has learned how to maximize his roster. He has recognized that the key isn't making players fit into the system; it's fitting a system to the players.

"A lot of times you might want to do things as a coach, but your team is not built for that," Dawkins said.

That new flexibility is why Dawkins abandoned his beloved man-to-man defense Sunday for a rare dose of zone against Kansas. The goal was to neutralize Andrew Wiggins, a 6-foot-8 forward expected to be a top pick in the next NBA draft, and it turned out to be the key to the upset.

With Huestis and Powell sharing the task of guarding Wiggins on the wings, the Jayhawks offense often looked befuddled. Wiggins scored only four points. He managed only six shots.

Dawkins credited assistant coach Tim O'Toole for the defensive scheme. O'Toole learned nuances of the two-three zone while under Boeheim at Syracuse, so there were times in practice when Dawkins ceded the floor.

"I'm not a big believer in teaching things you don't know very well," Dawkins said. "We had a guy on staff who knew that type of zone inside and out. ... We were able to go out there and articulate that to our kids with confidence."

Dawkins and his staff had already overhauled his Xs and Os on offense, concluding after last season that Stanford operated best with a big lineup on the floor. Chasson Randle, at 6-foot-2 scorer, directs the offense but he's not a typical point guard -- so Stanford doesn't ask him to act like one.

Asked where Dawkins has influenced him most, Randle said, "My aggressiveness .... the sense of urgency you need to have." That response might come as a surprise to anyone fooled by Dawkins' otherwise laid-back demeanor. He is not a screamer on the sidelines. And he's practically guarded in public settings. If Dawkins seeks the spotlight, it's only on nights when things go badly, a ploy for taking the heat off his players. "He has a lot of belief in us," Powell said.

Tactically, Dawkins made some major changes this season. The Cardinal transitioned from a three-guard lineup to an alignment with three frontcourt players. Junior center Stefan Nastic was in, senior point guard Aaron Bright moved to the bench.

The goal was to be more physical, better defensively and more versatile on offense. It worked. The Cardinal averaged 73.5 points heading into the tournament (the highest mark of the Dawkins era). And with four starters 6-6 or taller, the defense allowed opponents to shoot just 42.3 percent.

Krzyzewski marveled Sunday as he watched Stanford break down Kansas' defense with minimal dribbling. The Cardinal simply passed the ball with purpose until it could create a point of attack. Krzyzewski thought it looked seamless and told Dawkins so himself when the two Duke icons chatted on his "Basketball and Beyond with Coach K" radio show Wednesday on Sirius XM.

"The thing that I see in your development ... is that it's yours. You're comfortable being you," Krzyzewski told Dawkins on the air. "I think your players see that."

Dawkins, part of a landmark recruiting class for Krzyzewski, was Duke's all-time leading scorer when he left in 1986 and that mark stood for 20 years until J.J. Redick surpassed him.

But Bilas said in a phone interview that one of his lasting memories of Dawkins came long before they reached campus.

"Before I went to college I took a trip to visit him in Washington D.C. He took me to play at a local playground. He was Superman. We won every game. This was back when if you lost, you sat," Bilas recalled.

"Finally, we lost. But at game point Johnny started arguing that something was wrong with the last possession and we needed to play it over again. It got pretty heated.

"I was from L.A. and I stayed out of it. He argued his way into a do-over and we won and kept the court. He wasn't going to let us lose. It was incredible."

All these years later, Dawkins is getting another do-over. Far from fired, he's still on the court, refusing to let his team lose.

Mercury News staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this report. Follow Daniel Brown on Twitter at twitter.com/mercbrownie.