From early childhood to his days coaching in the Ivy League, Steve Donahue's life has been encompassed by a vast love for sports. Now, Donahue has chosen to take his lifelong passion to Chestnut Hill.
"I played all sports growing up: football, basketball, baseball, street hockey, whatever we could do at that time," said Donahue, who was hired as the new head coach of Boston College's mens basketball team this past summer.
Donahue, who is one of seven children, grew up in Philadelphia. His late father, Jack, was a local banker and played a big role in his development as an avid sports fan.
"My father was very involved in getting me acclimated to all sports," Donahue said. "He always brought us along to every sporting event that he attended. We went to Big 5 games at the Palestra, we went to Phillies games all the time. I'd go to 30 to 40 games a year. I'd go to Sixers games, I'd go to Flyers hockey games. That was his job and that was what he loved to do after work."
As the years passed, Donahue began to develop a love for one sport in particular: basketball.
"I always gravitated towards basketball," said Donahue. "I always loved the idea that you could grab a ball and you didn't need anybody else and you can just go somewhere and work on your game. It's almost like a release from other things."
More specifically, Donahue became fixated by college basketball.
"Much more college, just because I was always fortunate to have the Big Five and the Palestra," said Donahue. "That's what really pulled me towards that. It was way more appealing to me than the pro game."
Donahue played a lot of basketball growing up and played on his high school varsity team at Cardinal O'Hara in Springfield, PA. After graduating from Cardinal O'Hara in 1980, Donahue attended Ursinus College, where he continued to play basketball at the Division II level for coach coach Skip Werley.
"I had a great experience there," Donahue added. "He's still big part of my life, and you'll see him around here all year. He had a lot to do with where I'm at now."
Donahue was fortunate enough to play for two coaches in his playing career, Werley, and his high school coach, Bud Gardler.
"Buddy was a huge influence on me," said Donahue. "I had a great admiration for him. I really thought I would be a high school coach. I loved the idea of the impact that he had and just thought it was great that he could be in that environment teaching and coaching. I just thought it was a great life." Werley also had an important impact on Donahue's life.
"Skip is different in a lot of ways," Donahue said. "On the basketball side of it, I thought he gave me another view. Skip probably took me under his wing early on... I think he showed me different thoughts. I never thought how do you go about being a coach in terms of going up the ladder and if you want to do it for a career. I thought Skip was great for me and my development as a coach, but not only that, but also showing me how to do it."
Donahue graduated from Ursinus in 1984 with a degree in Business Administration and Economics. His degree may not have had anything to do with basketball, but Donahue insists that his undergraduate training benefits him to this day.
"I had a very good liberal arts background at Ursinus," he said. "I think dealing with those things and being educated in those items. I also think, with the business administration, there's a lot of correlations between success in business and success in coaching and leadership. So I always looked at it as a chance to get better as a person and a professional. When I took those courses, I always had a spin on it how I would use this. Really, what I was thinking of coaching rather than the business world."
After college, Donahue finally broke into the coaching world. His first job was as an assistant to the varsity coach, who happened to be Gardler, at Springfield High in Pennsylvania from 1984-87.
But that was just the start of Donahue's coaching duties at Springfield High.
"Midway through the year, the ninth grade coach got very ill, so I took over his job," said Donahue. "During that time, the ninth grade girls coach did a sabbatical of some sort so I took over her job for a couple of weeks. Then, our JV coach had some issues and he left. At one point, I was coaching ninth grade boys, ninth grade girls, JV boys and assistant varsity. I thought it was great."
Even with ample opportunity to prove himself, it wasn't easy for Donahue to break into coaching at the college level.
"Obviously, coming from Ursinus college, it wasn't like I had a great pipeline to high-level coaching opportunities. I had to find a way to better my trade, make myself a better coach, and at the same time try to get out there and get to know people."
He eventually would get a better coaching opportunity, but he had to be patient. While coaching at Springfield, Donahue was cutting grass to get by until he could find another coaching job. He eventually got a job in sales at a paint company in Philadelphia.
Donahue split his time between sales and coaching for ten years. In that time, Donahue served as an assistant basketball coach at Monsignor Bonner High School (1987-1988) and Philadelphia University (1988-1990). At Monsignor, Donahue served under head coach Fran O'Hanlon, who is now in his 16th year as the head coach at Lafayette.
"Fran was a great friend and a great coach," said Donahue. "He was my biggest influence on me in terms of the X's and O's in basketball. I think we think a lot alike."
Donahue served under another great coach at Philadelphia named Herb MaGee. In his astounding 43-year coaching career, MaGee has a record 907-354.
"Herb's won the most games in NCAA history, literally," said Donahue. "He has more than Dean Smith and Bobby Knight. A great, great coach and great experience." (Ironically, Donahue's first unofficial win at Boston College came against MaGee in an 85-58 win over Philadelphia in an exhibition last Saturday.)
In 1990, Donahue accepted a position as an assistant coach at Penn University in the Ivy League, where he would remain until 2000.
"For five of those years, I was a volunteer assistant," Donahue noted. "I didn't make a penny coaching until I was 33 years old."
Donahue finally got a shot in 2000 when he was hired as the next head coach of Cornell's men's basketball team. The rest, as they say, is history.
In 10 seasons at Cornell, Donahue had an overall record of 146-138 and 78-62 record in the Ivy League. His stay at Cornell was highlighted by his final three seasons, when he led the Big Red to 72 wins and only 21 losses.
Cornell finished first in the Ivy League and made the NCAA tournament in each of those seasons. Donahue gained national attention last year after he guided the Big Red to an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to No. 1 Kentucky, 62-45.
"It is," Donahue said when asked if last year's team was one of his best memories at Cornell. "But what I take out of it was an incredible journey. I enjoyed my teams, even early on when we were struggling. I almost appreciate those guys more than I do the most recent in the sense that they really helped me build this program. We got better every year if you look at it."
The Big Red struggled mightily in Donahue's first two seasons, going 7-20 in the 2000-01 season and 5-22 in 2002-03. His third season was not much better, as Cornell finished in a tie for firth in the Ivy League with a 9-18 record.
In the 2003-04 season, Donahue finally notched his first double-digit win total, leading Cornell to an 11-16 record.
And just like Donahue said, his teams got better from there on out.
In the '04-'05 campaign, Cornell was 13-14. In 2005-06, the Big Red posted a similar 13-15 record. In 2006-07, Donahue led Cornell to a 16-12 record. After that, Cornell rattled off its three straight tournament appearances, ending with last year's convincing tourney run.
"We had great kids and I learned a great deal about how to coach and get the most out of kids," said Donahue. "I think it's going to help me down the road (at Boston College) in terms of building a program the way I want to build it."
On April 6, 2010, Donahue took the next big step in his coaching career when he was hired by Boston College. Donahue had been brought in to replace Al Skinner, who was let go after four somewhat mediocre years (an average record of 18-14 over his final four seasons).
Rebuilding a program can be stressful for some coaches, especially when it comes to building player-coach relationships. And if some players don't like Donahue, that's alright, as long as they respect him.
"I think anytime you're in a position of leadership, there has to be respect there," Donahue said. "I don't really necessarily worry about a relationship in terms of if he likes me, does he get it. In this point in their life, they may not understand it. I'm trying to provide great leadership to them, show them that I care, show them I'm going to work as hard as I can for them. That is critical that they know that you are with them on everything that they do."
But if trouble does brew up with a player, Donahue is more than capable of handling it. That being said, Donahue has high expectations for his players.
"There's not very many rules that I have, but there's a great amount of expectations," he said. "I expect a great deal from these guys, and I try to talk about those things daily. There's a lot of expectations that I expect from a Boston College basketball player: student, being a teammate, just everything that we do representing yourself, your family and the program. In that sense, yeah, I expect a great deal."
In short, there is a bar that players must live up to at Boston College. "This is a privilege to be a part of this program, and expect guys to understand that and behave in a certain way," Donahue said.
Donahue will be tested himself, as he is making the jump from the Ivy League to one of the nation's best basketball conferences in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Still, it's a test he is confident he will pass.
"I think there's a lot of differences," he said. "What I will say to you too is that my twenty years in the Ivy I think has prepared me for this level. There's a great amount of coaching that goes in at that level. You have to maximize every ounce of talent with that team and figure out ways to be successful, when physically they don't have the necessary (skills)."
Even so, Donahue knows it won't be a walk in the park.
"We're going to have better athleticism at this level, and you're going to play against better athleticism," said Donahue. "I think I'm going to have to learn exactly what's going to be successful in terms of trying to teach these kids how we're going to be. I sense that I experienced a great deal coaching at Cornell and playing against this type of level, which we did quite often, and I have my ideas of what we have to do to be successful at Boston College."
Donahue is undoubtedly a talented coach, but he will be matching wits with some of the best in the history of college basketball in the ACC, in Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina's Roy Williams.
"I don't know anybody really well in our league," Donahue said. "I've had a great admiration for Roy Williams over the years. I think his story is great. I don't think people understand how much time and sacrifice he put in to get to where he's at."
Donahue feels the same way about Krzyzewski and Duke, saying that he's "done an incredible job building that program."
But for Donahue, having his name revered alongside those of Krzyzewski and Williams isn't all too important.
"I never even think in those terms," he said. "I would love my players to care and look back that I did everything I could to help them be successful at a very critical part of their life. That's the way I go about it."
And when push comes to shove, Donahue thinks that his role as a life coach is more important than that of a basketball coach.
"I think very little has to do with the basketball side of this," said Donahue. "I could be doing anything that involves this young age and trying to do things. The vehicle is basketball at this point. That makes it fun and makes it exciting. But, in reality, what I get out of it is bringing a unit together and figuring out ways for us as a group to overcome all sorts of obstacles during this journey to be successful."
"That's the motivation for it. The life coaching is really why all coaches (do it). If you don't, I don't understand why you're in it."