April 8, 2010

Steve Donahue: A Unique Coach

Print More

Around 9 p.m. on March 31st, after interviewing for the Boston College head coaching position, Steve Donahue sent a text message to a group of Cornell student reporters. It read, “You guys are awesome.”

The four words didn’t take much effort or likely much thought, but that act of reaching out to a few mere aspiring journalists which was second nature to Donahue, is symbolic of what sets him apart in a business where anyone else would have already had one foot out the door. There is no other Steve Donahue in college basketball.

His job, when he took it ten years ago, was to coach a basketball team, make it respectable and bring the winning tradition he had been a part of at Penn.

His success on the court in the decade is undeniable, his original goals, no doubt, long fulfilled. Before and after snapshots paint the picture of one program that finished with a winning record just twice in the 12 years before the Donahue era, and another that has been to three consecutive NCAA tournaments as he departs.

But coaches all around the country make a living off of miraculous 180-degree turn-around efforts.  What makes Donahue unique is his ability to energize an entire community with his caring and authenticity.

Steve Donahue is not one to hold back tears, and the man who wears his heart on his sleeve made no exceptions during his last run at Cornell. In a post game press conference following a win over Drexel last November, Coach D broke down while talking about the emergence of senior captain Jon Jaques. When a win over Wisconsin secured the Big Red a spot in the school’s first ever Sweet 16, Donahue again got emotional. And after his final game at the helm, Donahue answered questions red-eyed, having said just goodbye to the 8 seniors that have helped to transform Cornell Basketball.  But the passion and emotion that Donahue has shown emanates far beyond the team’s official members.

He’s fostered close relationships with members of local Special Olympic groups. He’s connected with students, faculty and staff. Most of all, Donahue has garnered and cherished support from Ithaca as a whole. In a town in which strained student-resident relationships often hold court, Donahue has created an environment each of the last few winters at Bartels Hall with equal support: townie and Newman Nation.

There’s no replacement for winning. Fans generally don’t flock to losing teams. But Coach D’s teams go far beyond the victories. They play hard. They play smart. They have fun. They play a brand of basketball and carry themselves on and off the hardwood in a manner that the entire community can be proud of.

He’s put a premium on recruiting “good guys” and you’d be hard pressed to find a nicer, more polite, more modest team in the country, no doubt a tribute to the players, but equally so, a tribute to the guy who brought them all together.

As Coach Donahue leaves East Hill for Chestnut Hill, one of the main questions surrounding his coaching ability centers around just that, his recruiting. Simply put: Can he recruit ACC level athletes? But to anyone that has been around Donahue and the Cornell program in recent years, this uncertainty must seem absurd. Without athletic scholarships or the major conference frills, Coach D recruited and developed a team that competed on a higher level than Boston College this past year. With athletic scholarships to offer in addition to the high profile league, anything short of top tier recruiting classes in terms of athletes, students and all-around people would be shocking.

Donahue’s ingenuity in recruiting young men extends to his coaching staff as well. His former assistants are currently head coaches as Monmouth College in Illinois, Hobart College and West Point, and head assistants at the University of Washington and the Naval Academy. More than holding highly sought after positions though, Donahue’s protégés act in a way that truly mirrors his dedication.

The day after committing to follow Coach D to Boston College, former assistant Nat Graham drove 10 hours to support a pair of graduating seniors, Ryan Wittman and Jeff Foote, as they played in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. Graham’s commitment to his players’ futures even after he left the program and they had played their last games for the Big Red is indicative of the attitude that Donahue has coached with and projected upon all of Cornell Basketball for the last decade.

Ten years ago, Donahue took over at a school that struggled to put 100 fans in the arena for games. As he leaves, Cornell is truly a basketball school and nobody more than Coach D deserves credit for that transformation. For that feat, Donahue deserves a text message too, signed by the entire Cornell and Ithaca communities: We wish you the best of luck. You are awesome.

Original Author: Sam Aleinikoff