November 21, 2003

Coach Makes a Believer Out of Me

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It was exactly three weeks ago when I was sitting at home and the phone rang. On the other end of the line was Cornell basketball head coach Steve Donahue. He proceeded to congratulate me and the rest of The Sun’s sports staff for the preseason hockey supplement which appeared in that morning’s paper. But that wasn’t really the motive for his morning call. Donahue wanted something else. He wanted a similar supplement for his team. In fact, he all but demanded one.

You see, that’s exactly what Donahue’s about. He’s always looking for more. He’s always demanding more. Whether it be from his players, from the media, or from the fans here at Cornell, Donahue expects perfection. He expects his players to execute on the floor, he expects the media to provide top-notch coverage, and he expects the fans in Ithaca to cheer until they lose their voices. And it is for that reason that the men’s basketball team will succeed this year and for years to come.

It’s been a little over two years since I first met Donahue during the basketball team’s preseason media day prior to the 2001-02 season. Entering his second year as the Red’s head coach, Donahue had seven baby-faced freshmen on his roster, just a season after finishing seventh in the Ivies with a much more experienced squad. Yet, he sat across the table from me that day, and without any hesitation, told me that Cornell basketball was on the rise.

I believed him. You can’t help but believe every word that comes from Donahue’s mouth. Maybe it’s the fire that’s so very apparent in his steely eyes. Or maybe it’s the tone of his voice, which evokes the passion that he has for his team. He just makes you believe.

Some people are blessed with that ability — they’re able to instill confidence in those around them, they’re able to make others walk to the ends of the earth for them. You know, like Mel Gibson in Braveheart and Russell Crowe in The Gladiator. On the East Hill, I’ve met two men who have that ability. One of them is men’s hockey head coach Mike Schafer ’86. The other is Donahue.

Donahue’s one of the most persuasive individuals I’ve ever met. And I’m not alone. For 10 seasons, he was an assistant coach at Penn. During his decade in Philadelphia, the Quakers won the Ivy League championship six times. While longtime Penn head coach Fran Dunphy receives most of the credit for guiding the Quakers to Ivy dominance, it was Donahue who brought many of those players to The City of Brotherly Love. As the team’s chief recruiter, it was Donahue who persuaded the Ugonna Onyekwes, the Koko Archibongs, and the Andrew Tooles — all former All-Ivy first-teamers — of the world to attend Penn.

And now, he’s brought that to Cornell. Just take a look at Donahue’s first two recruiting classes for the Red. Junior forward Eric Taylor is the best back-to-basket big man in the Ivy League. Streak-shooting classmate Cody Toppert is arguably the most explosive scorer. If he can ever get healthy, Canadian center Chris Vandenberg could be the most imposing defender in the conference. If that weren’t enough, Donahue brought in the team’s recruiting jewel — last season’s Ivy League Rookie of the Year Lenny Collins.

But it’s not who Donahue brings into the fold. It’s how he molds them. His very tough-love coaching style has transformed an immensely talented Ka’Ron Barnes into arguably the best player in the Ivy League. He’s made many of those freshmen that he brought in two years ago into quality Division I ballers.

In my experience as a journalist, I’ve never met a more intense coach than Donahue. No doubt, the players will tell you the same. Coach ‘D’, as they call him, doesn’t mess around. All you have to do is head over to Newman Arena on weekdays during the basketball season to find that fact out for yourself. You might have to cover your ears if you’re sensitive to Donahue’s style of vocabulary, but while you’re there, you’ll also see a master motivator, a meticulous gameplanner.

Unlike the past two seasons when his teams won a combined 14 games, however, Donahue has the horses to carry him to the Ivy League title. He has a legitimate go-to-guy in Barnes. He has quality big men in Taylor and junior Gabe Stephenson that other teams in the conference would die for. And he has two of the league’s best wing players in Toppert and Collins.

That’s why Donahue called me on Halloween. He believes that his team is primed to make a run at this year’s Ancient Eight crown. Like anything else Donahue says, you’ve just got to believe.

Archived article by Alex Ip