February 6, 2008

Donahue Inspires Hard Work Amongst Players

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At least men’s basketball head coach Steve Donahue is honest with himself. He stopped wearing a blazer at games long ago. There just wasn’t a point; it came off too quickly.
“I tried it again,” Donahue said. “Just a couple times this year I had the jacket on. I don’t understand why we have to wear jackets and ties anyway, we’re basketball coaches.”
And that shows Steve Donahue’s coaching personality in a nutshell — he coaches as if he is one step from subbing himself in at the next timeout.
The term basketball coach could mean so many different things to different people. But Donahue talks as if it’s assumed that the definition of basketball coach is defined as someone who is barely different from the status of a player.
“The sneakers were on last weekend, so I really felt like I could move,” he joked, referring to the Coaches vs. Cancer awareness period last weekend, in which most college coaches wore athletic shoes with their suits.[img_assist|nid=27346|title=No finger pointing.|desc=Head coach Steve Donahue directs his players during the Red’s 81-67 loss to Duke on Jan. 6. The Red are 4-0 in Ivy League play this season.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Donahue is constantly out of his seat. One second he’s crouching like a catcher, the next he looks like he’s doing jumping jacks as he gets the point guard’s attention. He’ll flash 10 fingers as high as he can, bouncing his lean frame up and down on the balls of his feet.
He may not always be happy with his antics on the sidelines. He may not even be able to explain them — he’s so calm, composed and soft spoken in his office and after games that you think you’re meeting two separate people — but at least he understands it’s a part of who he is.
“Sometimes when I watch the video I can’t even believe it,” he said, shaking his head and quietly laughing. “I’m talking to my players a lot more than I’m talking to the refs. I’m just trying to let my guys know that I’m there behind them. … When you know the players can hear you, especially when the defense is down at the other end you feel like you can [affect it].”
On the sideline, what Donahue lacks in size and stature — he can’t be more than 5-10 and thin through the waist and shoulders — he certainly makes up for with a burning fervor. He has an intense gaze from huge round eyes accented because they reside in his narrow, angular face.
It’s a passion that arises from a desire to motivate, to push his team to be the best. Players always seem to credit practice intensity after a solid outing.
“I just think it’s the most important aspect of building a program is getting your kids to understand just for those two hours just how hard you have to play,” Donahue said. “That creates the culture around your program.”
And the culture Donahue has strived to create is one of character and hard work.
“I’m sure some of these guys probably think I go overboard with certain things,” Donahue said. “I think some guys don’t ever understand it or believe in it. But I just think if you develop trust and the guys know you’re doing it for their well being and for the team as a whole, they’re more accepting of the motivation. … I’m more positive than anything, but it’s definitely demanding and there’s definitely accountability. So it’s positive, but the results have to be there.”
For Donahue, this philosophy goes all the way back to his high school days in the Philadelphia Catholic League. He had a coach, Skip Werley, who rewarded players who practiced hard.
“To be honest, I wasn’t a very good basketball player,” he said. “… I had to figure out a way just to make my high school team.”
Hard to believe coming from a man who eventually captained not only his high school team, but his college basketball and baseball teams at Division III Ursinus. Given his stature and intensity, however, it makes sense.
“I came to practice every day,” he said. “I understood how hard I had to work. I knew if I didn’t show what I could do in practice, there was never going to be an opportunity for me in the game.”
That’s why it’s not uncommon for Donahue’s comment on a developing player to be, “He needs to give me a reason to put him out there.” And just by watching his substitution pattern, it’s easy to tell Donahue isn’t lying. It’s not uncommon to see three players subbed out in one fell swoop, and then rotated back in minutes later. Just last year, Jason Mitchell ’07 spent three years playing sparingly, but impressed Donahue in practice enough that he started him for the first Ivy League tilt against Penn.
Donahue’s coaching philosophy materialized the most in his 10 years at Penn. He was an assistant under current Temple head coach Fran Dunphy, and worked alongside current Lafayette head coach Fran O’Hanlon. Donahue credits O’Hanlon as his main coaching influence.
“I developed a relationship with him on the playground playing ball with him down on the Jersey Shore,” Donahue said. “We always talked about difference [aspects of coaching]. … We just talked about the way we played ball during our pick up games.”
And it was with O’Hanlon that Donahue advanced his concept of spreading the floor and moving the ball that the Red now uses.
“I have guys who really know how to utilize the space and share the ball,” Donahue said. “As opposed to giving them a set and telling them, ‘This is where the ball should go,’ I try to tell them how to play basketball and read defenses and take what they give you within the structure. That’s the makes a team hardest to defend — if you have five guys who know how to read what you’re doing.”
Nowhere was this more evident than during Cornell’s 66-45 win at Yale last weekend. Often, the offense would set up four players around the perimeter. The post man would pop out and set a ball screen for the point guard, which would open him up to the options of hitting the screener as he rolled off the pick to the basket, rotating it around the perimeter, driving and kicking it out, or hitting a cutter along the baseline.
“I wanted to give them more ‘let’s play basketball’ type of reads,” Donahue said.
But more than any type of specific strategy, Donahue emphasizes character. His recruiting has brought Cornell to a place where it is competing for an Ivy title, and Donahue continues attributes much of that to what he calls “energy givers” — guys who are unselfish and will always put the team and a positive attitude first — instead of “energy drainers.”
“I didn’t get into this to just win basketball games,” he said. “I want to be around good people, I’m selfish. I want to enjoy my life and have other guys have great college experiences. I’m going to be sending a bad message if I’m bringing in a kid that I know our guys are going to question his character, but he’s a good basketball player.”
And if that means not being buddy-buddy with all the players, so be it. He knows that’s more the assistant’s role since he’s been there before.
“My role in their life is to help them mature as much as they can and give them a great college experience and I don’t think I could do that if I was their buddy,” he said. “I think there’s a line there that they have to understand.”
As for the competition, “[i­­t] tears you up,” he said. “But it never affected how I felt about this school. We’re not there yet, we’re still climbing that mountain.”