Donahue reaches for new heights at BC
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Steve Donahue took a gamble that none of his key players at Cornell would get hurt as seniors.
He didn't pursue higher-profile opportunities he said were available to him, instead waiting to see if the end of his three-year Ivy League championship run would result in a major coaching jump.
The plan worked perfectly for him professionally and personally. Actually, it exceeded all his expectations. Led by seniors Jeff Foote, Ryan Wittman and Louis Dale, the Big Red earned a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament, beating Temple and Wisconsin before falling to No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Sweet 16. Cornell's historic run led to Donahue being hired at Boston College after 10 years with the Big Red. He was also able to keep a promise to his daughter that she wouldn't have to start high school this fall and then move a year later.
Donahue's name was hot even before Cornell was bounced by Kentucky. He was seen as a player in the two New York openings at St. John's and Seton Hall and probably would have been at Rutgers if that job had opened earlier.
"There were other opportunities, but I didn't even listen, didn't want to go before this run," Donahue said. "I thought we could be very, very good and if this opportunity had happened the year before it would have been torture for me."
But the best fit for him was probably where he landed after Boston College fired its all-time winningest coach Al Skinner after 13 seasons. Donahue was the first to interview for the job and was the most likely choice. The Eagles were rebuffed by Richmond's Chris Mooney and Dayton's Brian Gregory and made an obligatory call to alumnus Bruce Pearl of Tennessee. BC also interviewed former Eagles assistants Bill Coen of Northeastern and Ed Cooley of Fairfield, but those moves were largely ceremonial.
To land the job at BC, Donahue still had to have quite a year.
"It was a magical year, I know that," said Donahue, sitting in his new office with the walls blank, a coach and a desk overrun by paperwork. "I never thought this could all happen. The whirlwind hasn't stopped. I haven't taken a breath since Selection Sunday and to believe I'm coaching in the ACC at Boston College is mind-boggling. I never thought it could go this well."
BC is much closer to an Ivy League-type school at an ACC level than the two New York-area Big East schools. The recruiting pool is much smaller. Graduation rates are extremely high. And the Eagles traditionally have had to recruit nationally to fill their roster, given the limited number of Division I prospects in the immediate area and a neighbor to the south in UConn that has traditionally recruited the New York area well under Jim Calhoun.
Donahue said he knows how important Cornell's Sweet 16 run was to make his new players at BC believe in him over the past two weeks in the three workouts he's had with his new team so far.
"I'd be lying if I didn't think that it didn't," Donahue said. "It helps the guys in the locker room accept my word. The whole key in coaching is that they have to believe in me. If I had won two titles at Cornell and didn't do anything they may look at me crazy while I'm trying to preach the things I'm preaching. With the results we just had, they're on board."
Reggie Jackson, BC's star sophomore guard, didn't even contemplate transferring. While junior guard Rakim Sanders is out and will likely go to Fairfield to play for Cooley and freshman guard Brady Heslip is also going to transfer out, Jackson bought Donahue's success from the Ivy League without hesitation. Donahue's offensive changes of opening up more passing and shooting opportunities in a spread-out offense -- in contrast to Skinner's tight, inside-the-lane flex offense -- were an easy sell because Donahue had won with that system.
Donahue's first move was to hire a staff that mirrored his success, staying with Ivy League coaches. He brought Nat Graham with him from Cornell and hired Columbia head coach Joe Jones, a one-time Villanova assistant under Jay Wright. Donahue also brought in Penn assistant John Gallagher, but he resigned Thursday to accept the head-coaching job at Hartford.
Donahue saw no issue with going all-Ivy with his staff (although it's unclear where he'll turn to replace Gallagher). He said recruiting the Ivy League is harder than many would think since coaches have to cast a wider net.
"I have 2,000 more contacts than the same ACC guy," Donahue said. "For the last 20 years [10 as an assistant at Penn, 10 as head coach at Cornell] I've had to get to know every high school coach. I know every AAU guy and recruited the same teams, maybe not their ACC guy, but their third guy."
Donahue's point is based on how hard he's had to recruit in the Ivy League. He said the starting five on a typical top Ivy League team all gave up scholarships at some level and had to be recruited throughout the year when openings occurred at scholarship schools.
"What he did in the Ivy League was amazing, nothing short," said Jones, who wrestled with the decision to leave Columbia, saying that he wanted a new challenge in the ACC.
The task this offseason is critical and will likely determine the early success of Donahue. He made a major jump in the Ivy, taking over one of the worst programs in the league in 2000 and turning it into a three-time league winner. He takes offense at the suggestion that Cornell's success was the result of good timing, that the Big Red capitalized on coaching changes and down years at perennial powers Penn and Princeton.
"Penn and Princeton were Princeton and Harvard this year with three teams that won 20 games. It was a great league that challenged us and no one played as good defensively and prepared us better for the tournament than Princeton," Donahue said.
Donahue has two major tasks at BC: He has to keep the Eagles together in some form and make a postseason run in 2011. BC was erratic all last season, finishing eighth in the ACC at 6-10, 15-16 overall.
"There are a couple of key guys we can build around and Reggie [Jackson] is one of them," Donahue said. "We can build around his personality, he's not just a great player but he can help us in recruiting other great players."
Jackson praised Skinner but also said Donahue would allow the team to run more. He elaborated on the Eagles' chances next season, though was a bit unrealistic when he said, "This team has one year together to make a run at the Final Four. We've got high hopes and have a new coach pushing us to the max."
Jackson and senior forwards Corey Raji and Joe Trapani are solid ACC players. More playing time for forward Evan Ravenel will help, too. But losing Sanders hurts BC offensively. Role players Cortney Dunn, Dallas Elmore, Josh Southern and Biko Paris still haven't proved they can be effective at this level. Signed recruits Kevin Noreen, a 6-10 center out of Minnesota, and 6-9 Papa Samba Ndao out of Florida are unlikely to attend now that Skinner is out. That means the Eagles will be thin next season and with five seniors on the roster, recruiting this summer for 2012 is critical.
"We understand the landscape of college basketball that you have to put out a winner soon," Jones said. "We have to bring in some guys here in the first class that can help and continue to make the program better. If not, in the ACC, you can get buried quickly."
Jones said he's banking on BC's national name and reputation to bring in smart, tough kids, but he said, "We need to win pretty soon."
Donahue added, "The first five recruits we get have to be as good as we can get because they will be the lifeline of the program."
Boston College can't afford to fade in the ACC or, as Jones said, it could get buried. Duke and North Carolina aren't fading. Under Gary Williams, Maryland is still Maryland and a major player every season. Georgia Tech is always one of the most talented teams. Virginia Tech and Florida State have been solid middle-of-the-pack teams in the league. Miami and NC State should rise up next season with talented underclassmen and solid recruiting classes. Virginia is rebuilding and coaching changes at Clemson and Wake Forest mean those programs are headed in a new direction as well.
"I would have had no problem staying at Cornell and still building that program with the kids that we had there, great kids who listened to what you did," Donahue said. "[Cornell] supported me and I was well-compensated. And if the right job didn't come up, I could have easily stayed."
But the right job did come up and Donahue now has his chance to prove he can compete at the highest level. Beating high-major teams on the road and in neutral courts has prepared him to go against the best in the ACC.
"I feel very confident that from what I've learned over my 20 years in the Ivy will benefit me well," Donahue said. "I have a sense of how good we have to be, how we have to play. We're not going to get the best players in the league. We need really good four-year players for the most part."
Donahue and his former mentor, Fran Dunphy, whom he worked for at Penn, talked about making the jump from no scholarships at the Ivy level to full rides at a high level. Dunphy was able to be a success at Temple without a hitch.
"Obviously [the argument against Ivy coaches] holds no water," Donahue said. "But I understand why it's out there. But people don't know what we did in recruiting in the Ivies."
Now it's up to Donahue, like Dunphy at Temple in the A-10, to prove everyone wrong again and win in the ACC.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.