October 18, 2000

A Man With a Mission

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Ask Steve Donahue about how things are going with his family or how Ithaca’s treating him, and he’ll lean back in his chair and let his guard down, unafraid to shoot the breeze for a while. But question him about his basketball team, and he’ll sit up, his eyes will gleam, and a sense of clarity will come about him. Having been hired as the men’s basketball team’s head just over a month ago, Donahue is none too shy to spout off on his vision for the future, a future could bring an aura of excitement to a team lacking any such quality, at least in recent memory.

Originally picked to finish third in the Ivy League last year, the Red limped to a dismal 3-11 record in the conference. Factor in the July 28th resignation of former head coach Scott Thompson due to his battle with colon cancer, and Cornell basketball was in need of a dire pick-me-up.

But if Donahue’s execution can match his rhetoric, the Cornell need look no further.

A former assistant at perennial Ivy-stud, Penn, Donahue is no stranger to winning championships, having collected six titles in his 11 seasons in West Philadelphia. And he unabashedly believes that he can bring the crown back to the East Hill for the first time since 1988.

While that would have been a laughable notion in the midst of the Red’s six-game losing streak last year, Donahue is nonetheless convinced otherwise.

“Guys are healthy; attitudes are right; the league is falling into place where I think we can compete,” he remarked. “I couldn’t ask for more.”

Logic (and common sense) would say that the Red is in for a surprise if it thinks it can hop from the Ivy cellar to its ceiling in just one season, and rightly so. The squad was buried near the bottom of the Ivy table in nearly every team statistic in 1999-2000 and it had to wait seven games before finally scooping up an Ivy League win. Going by the numbers, even die-hard fans would be hard-pressed to throw the Red’s name into the Ivy title hunt.

But consider that Penn and Princeton, who essentially owned the conference in the ’90s are currently the weakest they’ve been in years. While the Quakers lost Michael Jordan and Matt Langel (both All-Ivy First-Team last season) to graduation, the Tigers have to cope with the departure of head coach Bill Carmody, and two of his assistants as well as Mason Rocca and Chris Young, two of the league’s premier big men.

AND don’t forget Cornell returns its top-three playmakers from last year in Ray Mercedes, Wallace Prather, and Greg Barratt.

What may make the final difference, however, is just how hell-bent Donahue in his intention to push the Red back into the conference’s elite.

“I’m preparing our to challenge for the Ivy League,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t have taken the job had he not thought it was plausible.

“For the first time I’ve been in the league, it’s wide open,” Donahue continued.

Cynics would brand his enthusiasm as idealism, and even he admits that he won’t be able to right the ship overnight. After a Midnight Mania practice session that witnessed only a handful of fans in the stands, Donahue acknowledged that building excitement around the program will have to be a gradual task.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “I wasn’t under the illusion that there was going to be 4,000 people there.”

Rather than aiming for instantaneous success, Donahue has already begun to look to the future, to a day when regular season tickets will acquire the type of reverence as the stubs at Lynah. But even for that, he is aware that the team has to do its job first.

“You can’t expect people to be 100% excited about men’s basketball right now, until we prove something. [Then] I think the [fans] will come out.”

After dealing with a team on the skids the few years, Donahue’s convictions – though they could be regarded as wishful thinking – are refreshing nonetheless. This is a man who’s waited nearly his whole life to become a head coach.

“Since high school,” he says. “In ninth grade I was coaching younger kids. I always admired the coaches I had.”

Now that’s it’s finally his chance, now that he at last is at the helm, his enthusiasm and sunny outlook should be welcomed. He may not bring a title to Ithaca (this season at least), but the way he’s going Steve Donahue will very soon erase the ominous clouds that have been recently hanging over the men’s basketball team.

Just look for the gleam in his eye.

Archived article by Shiva Nagaraj