Commentary

Slow and steady, Cornell rose to the top of the Ivy

Originally Published: March 12, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

A no-nonsense coach from the old school of hoops, Skip Werley doesn't soft-pedal much. He believes in facing your warts head on rather than spending time floating in the clouds. He is brutally honest in a profession now dominated by the slick sale.

Steve Donahue is used to Werley's blunt words of wisdom. Donahue played for Werley at Division III Ursinus College and got his first coaching job, a jayvee position at a suburban Philadelphia high school, when Werley hired him.

So when Donahue, then a longtime assistant at Ivy League power Penn, told his mentor that he was considering the head coaching job at Cornell University eight years ago, he knew what was coming.

"I told him, 'You know what happens to everyone in that league except the guys at Penn and Princeton? They work just as hard and they get fired. Are you sure you know what you're doing?'" Werley recalled saying.

[+] EnlargeSteve Donahue
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSteve Donahue's efforts have brought Cornell from Ivy-mediocrity to the NCAA tournament.
Donahue didn't, he admits now, but his ignorance -- coupled with a slight dose of ego and a heaping portion of hard work -- allowed Donahue to prove even his well-intentioned mentor wrong. While everyone else dukes it out this week to get off the bubble and into the tournament, Donahue and Cornell can casually watch the games from afar.

The Big Red locked up their place in the NCAA bracket before the madness of March even rolled around, as they won the school's first Ivy League title since 1988. Cornell clinched the championship on March 1, dismantling Harvard 86-53 to turn the usually hockey-loving Ithaca, N.Y., campus into a hoops haven.

"We've made our school proud," said sophomore Louis Dale, the Big Red's second-leading scorer.

Cornell winning the Ivy League -- or Columbia, Brown, Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth for that matter -- is about as likely as Barack Obama winning Texas.

Werley's assessment of Donahue's job security was spot-on. When Donahue signed on at Cornell in 2000, the Ancient Eight was basically six dead-end jobs and Penn and Princeton. In the 53-year history of the Ivy League, the Quakers or Tigers have won 47 titles. And for the past 20 years, the rest of the season swirled around like some sort of B-grade warmup act for the season finale when Penn and Princeton determined whose turn it was to dance.

Donahue knew all of that. He spent a decade alongside Fran Dunphy at Penn, helping establish a league stronghold that was almost laughable. When Cornell beat both the Quakers and Tigers to become the only non-P school to go 14-0, it also became just the fourth team to complete the road-trip sweep since 1957-58, when the Ivy League went to its travel partner system.

But Donahue has never had anything handed to him. He played D-III ball and coached everything from ninth grade girls hoops on up. Even Werley originally tapped the newly minted 22-year-old college graduate as a volunteer assistant jayvee coach at Springfield High School. Donahue got the jayvee head job only when the original coach quit.

Your ego tells you that you're going to go in there and show them how it's done. In reality, there's a reason they haven't won in a long time, and very rarely is the head coach the problem.

--Steve Donahue

Going to Cornell, where the Frozen Four means a whole lot more than the Final Four, was frankly right up his alley.

"I had been a finalist for a lot of jobs, and when I went up there I thought I saw a lot of potential," Donahue said. "These are the types of kids I'm comfortable with and to have an opportunity to coach Division I basketball, I thought that was just amazing."

Werley worried about him -- not just about Donahue's job security but also whether he fully appreciated the size of the task in front of him.

But Werley also had watched Donahue for years. He saw a coach who "has no baloney in him" and easily relates to players.

"He has so much confidence and so much enthusiasm," said Werley, who will be in the gym wherever Cornell plays the NCAA first round.

Both took big hits initially.

"Your ego tells you that you're going to go in there and show them how it's done," Donahue said. "In reality, there's a reason they haven't won in a long time, and very rarely is the head coach the problem."

Donahue found at Cornell what a lot of coaches find at schools with long droughts -- facility issues and an attitude stuck in a losing rut. Donahue made small but significant changes in improving the practice times and locker rooms.

The payoff for those sorts of changes rarely comes quickly, and Donahue didn't see immediate results. Instead he slogged through back-to-back seventh-place Ivy League finishes, convincing himself that the turnaround was imminent.

[+] EnlargeJason Hartford
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOregon-native Jason Hartford is an example of Donahue's ability to recruit players from all over the country.
It wasn't.

Slowly, Donahue shelved his own ego and made other necessary changes. The first few years at Cornell, Donahue stubbornly visited his recruiting comfort zone, convinced he could pry Ivy-caliber athletes and students away from the two Ps. Now he has wisely stopped banging heads and has culled talent from the Midwest and the South.

Of the Big Red's starting five, only one player -- Alex Tyler of Maryland -- is from the East Coast. Ryan Wittman, the Ivy League Rookie of the Year last year and first team all-Ivy this season, is the son of Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Randy Wittman and a lifelong resident of Minneapolis. Dale, recently named the Ivy League's Player of the Year, hails from Alabama; Adam Gore from Indiana and Jason Hartford from Oregon.

Cynics would argue that the Big Red's rise this season fortuitously timed with Penn and Princeton's simultaneous crash. There's no doubt that the traditional powers face unprecedented lean times as they make their way through difficult coaching transitions.

But to say that Cornell is winning simply because Penn and Princeton are not is to discredit Cornell. The Big Red's rise is right there on paper, a steady climb from nine wins in 2002-03 to to this year's 22.

And the Big Red don't appear to be a one-hit wonder. Cornell has just one senior on its roster, and the bulk of its talent lies in the sophomore class with Wittman and Dale, the two leading scorers.

"I want to build this so it's every year we're challenging for the championship," Donahue said. "My thing is, if we don't get better, the league will jump over us. We're not in a situation now where we can just say, 'Here we are,' and dominate the league. We have to keep working at it and continue to build."

Should he forget that, Werley will be right there to remind him.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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