There’s just something about Steve Donahue. As head coach of the men’s basketball team, Donahue is the type of man you’d feel comfortable trusting your kids with, though not necessarily the type of person you’d want to meet in a dark alley.
He’s at the same time both fatherly and tough, gentle and intense.
Exactly the type of man the Red will rely on to lead it in its quest for its first NCAA tournament in 15 years.
“He has so much passion for winning, the energy just transfers over to us, and makes us want to win so much more,” said senior guard and co-captain Ka’Ron Barnes.
“We trust that he knows what he’s doing and he’s going to help us get the job done,” junior forward Gabe Stephenson said.
Having the respect and admiration of his players is one of the hallmarks of Donahue’s coaching philosophy — getting the most he can out of his team every single day.
“My job as a coach is to motivate our guys and the staff to perform at the highest level possible every day,” he said. “Whether it’s practice, whether it’s school — my job is to get the most out of every single guy that is underneath me.”
So far, Donahue’s drive for success has yielded little success — but if you ask his players, all that is about to change.
“We really weren’t expecting to win it two years ago, we weren’t expecting to win it last year, but this year it’s a different type of thing,” said junior guard Cody Toppert. “It’s what we’ve been building for.”
And Donahue is ready for the breakout season. It’s been something he’s personally been building for his entire life.
“In ninth grade, my high school coach was my English teacher, and I just admired the heck out of him, I thought it was an incredible position to be in, to have such a huge impact on someone’s life,” he said.
After that experience, Donahue’s life-long love affair with the sport continued to burgeon. He was a four-year letter winner at Ursinus College, and was the team captain his senior year. Following his college career, he moved directly into coaching. He served as a coach at various high schools in the Philadelphia area before landing an assistant coaching job with Philadelphia Textile. After two successful seasons there, including a trip to the 1989 NCAA Division II tournament, he got his big break — an offer to join Penn coach Fran Dunphy’s staff.
“The number one thing I learned from him is that every single day you have to come ready to really push guys and be ready for practice,” Donahue said.
During his 10 years at Penn, Donahue played an active role in the day-to-day function of the team. He was the recruiting coordinator, responsible for bringing in five of Penn’s top 20 all-time scorers, including recent graduates Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong.
“Both Steve and Fran O’Hanlon who have both moved on to other Division I head coaching jobs have done a lot of the things that a head coach might do, from the planning of practices to a great deal of the recruiting, the offensive stuff that we did, the planning of defensive strategy,” said Dunphy. “Everything that a coach would do, Steve did.”
The transition from top assistant to head coach was simplified for Donahue. When he was named the Robert E. Gallagher ’44 Coach of Men’s Basketball in 2000, he inherited a team from former Red coach Scott Thompson that was loaded with talent, but lacking the results. Since then, Donahue has made it his business to change that.
“I was extremely impressed with what the potential of this place was. I was coming from a place that really understood how great basketball could be and was doing it for years,” he said. “I think everyone’s been tremendously supportive of all the ideas that I’ve done and everyone has done, and we’re extremely close to starting a great tradition here. Things that we took for granted at Penn had to be talked about and thought over, and after you do some things, and finally it’s accepted.”
In his three years thus far, he has picked up where he left off at Penn, brining in some of the more talented players in the Ivy League.
“I think when he recruited us as a group, he expected certain things, and I think now especially among the guys who are still here, he’s found those things, which is people who really care about turning this program into a winning program,” said Stephenson, who was the first player to commit to Donahue and Cornell.
The relationship he has with his players has been equally notable.
“My relationship with coach Donahue has been great,” said Toppert.
“He’s the most intense coach I’ve ever played for, but I like that a lot,” Stephenson concurred.
As Donahue enters his fourth season with the Red, the expectations will be as great as ever, and Donahue will be more than ready to make the move to the top portion of the Ivy standings.
“I don’t care what day of the week it is, I go to work every day of the week, and I look forward to every day, Donahue said.”
“He’s a good man and a good coach, and I think he’s got a really good program going on now at Cornell,” said Dunphy. “He’s got his mark on the program, he’s got his guys there and the future looks very, very bright.”
Archived article by Owen Bochner