A lot has changed since Steve Donahue last coached for Penn basketball.
Back then, the Red and Blue were a perennial power within the Ivy League, led by the inimitable Fran Dunphy. However, Donahue left a winning situation to pursue greater opportunities in his own career before Dunphy did the same seven years later.
And with them, Penn’s winning ways eventually left as well. The Quakers have not eclipsed 10 wins in any of the past three years. Last season, they finished dead last in the Ancient Eight, showing every sign of a program in shambles, in desperate need of new blood.
Change is in the air, though, and that new blood has come in the form of a familiar face — Donahue himself. Now, as head coach of Penn basketball, he will be tasked with bringing the storied program back to its stature when he first came up with it 25 years ago.
But how did we end up here — and more specifically, how did Donahue end up here? Well, let’s start at the beginning.
25 years ago, when Steve Donahue first joined the ranks of Penn’s coaching staff, he was not the man that he is today.
In fact, as a 20-something year old brand new to Division I coaching, he was the low man on the totem pole. Coaching wasn’t even his sole gig.
“Not only was he an assistant here, he also had a full-time job at the time selling paint,” said Nat Graham, who has played for Donahue at Penn and coached under him at Cornell and Boston College. “The whale mural over the Schuylkill — he sold the paint for that.”
But what Donahue lacked in tact and experience at the time was more than made up for in professional support and tutelage from no less than Fran Dunphy, the most successful and legendary coach in the history of the program.
“You had a guy that really understood this place,” Donahue said. “And it wasn’t the same after he left.”
Dunphy had only been named head coach a year prior to hiring Donahue, but he wasted no time establishing himself. And in doing so, he gave Donahue room to develop as a coach.
“He was the guy that [the players] kind of went to with whatever issues 18 year olds have,” Graham said. “So it started there.”
In Donahue and Dunphy’s time together at Penn, the team was a force, compiling an overall record of 182-91 and amassing six Ivy League titles in only 10 years.
Unsurprisingly, opportunity came knocking for the up-and-coming coaching prospect, and Donahue ultimately left the friendly confines of the Palestra for the head coaching job at Cornell in 2000. But in the 15 years to follow, Donahue would not forget his fondness for the Red and Blue, even if he temporarily dropped the “Blue” from his wardrobe.
Donahue inherited a Cornell program with almost nothing going for it, and he was not able to turn it around overnight. Far from it.
In his first four seasons with the Big Red, Donahue failed to lead his team into the top half of the Ivy League. He knew that if he wanted to achieve the kind of success he did at Penn, he’d have some growing up to do.
And grow up he did, adopting a more measured coaching style as he gained experience and perspective.
“I thought coaching was one thing, and it’s totally another,” Donahue said. “I was way out of control, and my emotions were to the point that it was detrimental to my coaching.”
And with it came the success he was looking for. In his last three years with the program, Cornell won three consecutive Ivy titles, including an unbelievable Sweet 16 run in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
But, once again, Donahue spent little time resting on his laurels, leaving Ithaca for an ACC coaching job at Boston College. However, for the first time in his career, things didn’t work out the way he had planned.
In his four years before being fired, Donahue finished 22 games under .500 and failed to make March Madness even once. As always, he has not shied away from his relative failures.
“We talked a lot about what we were able to accomplish at Cornell and why,” Graham said. “But also what we didn’t do right — and what he didn’t do right — at BC.”
Following his firing, Donahue took a year off from coaching to regroup. Then, the Cathedral of College Basketball opened its doors.
Objectively speaking, Penn basketball was bad last year. But that didn’t stop Donahue from taking an interest in the program.
As he himself puts it, “There’s only one Big 5.”
He even got to view the program from a unique perspective: as a college basketball analyst for ESPN and Fox. And to hear him tell it, despite their evident shortcomings, Donahue liked what he was seeing.
“My first observation, I did the Temple game last year, and I thought [the Quakers] were pretty talented,” he said. “But you could see it in their expressions that they were beat up.”
So when former coach Jerome Allen was relieved of his duties last March, Donahue jumped at the opportunity.
“I had a seven-hour interview with [Athletic Director Grace Calhoun],” he said. “I think she figured out that, one, I understand what’s at stake here.
“I probably explained it to her more than she told me.”
Calhoun would eventually decide to bring Donahue on as the program’s new head coach, making the announcement less than two weeks after Allen’s departure. After 25 years, Donahue’s career has finally led him back to where he started.
But for a man making the transition to take over at a place that he knew like the back of his hand, Donahue has already faced his fair share of adversity here at Penn.
Unwilling to uproot their current living situation back in New England, Donahue was forced to leave his wife and children back in New England and move to Philadelphia alone. Meanwhile, his team, already in a state of flux, took another major hit recently when senior captain Tony Hicks — Penn’s leading scorer last year — decided that he would not take to the court in Red and Blue this season.
Donahue may have come home, but it doesn’t seem like the place was kept particularly clean while he was away.
So how would Donahue endeavor to re-establish stability amidst all of this tumult? By embracing the very thing that he was seemingly forced to leave back in New England: family.
“Our team motto – whanau – it means family,” senior guard Jamal Lewis said. “Looking after your brother.”
And Donahue hasn’t just talked the talk, he’s lived it. He’s a family man through and through.
“I remember a few times at Cornell, his kids coming up to him while he was engaged [during games] and tapping him on the shoulder,” Graham said. “And he turned around and completely changed, and was a dad for two seconds.”
Although he was unable to bring his wife and children with him to Philadelphia — at least for this first season — he has nonetheless maintained his close family ties in a surprising way: by moving back in with his mother.
When he goes home after a long day of work, he sleeps in the same room where he slept while living with his mother in his younger days.
There’s no question that for Donahue, family comes first. And he has tried to bring this philosophy with him every day to the Palestra, with his second family, as it were.
With any family, there’s going to be a certain element of tough love, and Donahue has not shied away from using this with the Red and Blue. To hear him tell it, from the beginning, one of his major objectives has been to bring accountability back to the program.
“When I got here, I think there were certain accountability issues at times,” he said. “I addressed it. ... And since that early time, we haven’t had one sidestep with this group.”
All of which is well and good, but it leaves one question unanswered: How is it going to translate to the court?
Hitting the Ground Running
When Jerome Allen was hired to coach Penn in 2009, the expectations were clear. As a former member of the program, he had been hired to bring the program back to the successes of its glory days, when he was tearing up the league in the Quakers’ backcourt.
Needless to say, he did not live up to these expectations.
In many respects, the situation that Donahue faces is similar. He too has returned to Penn with the expectations that he will turn the program around and, just maybe, get it back to where it was when he first walked the sidelines of the Palestra as an assistant.
But unlike Allen when he was first hired, Donahue has been through this before. He’s dealt with success — both its trappings and its spoils — and he’s dealt with disappointment. The expectations are nothing new to him.
In his brief time with the team thus far, his influence is palpable. Tellingly, none of the program’s incoming freshmen recruits de-committed over the offseason, despite the coaching change.
And it’s easy to see why buy-in for the new coach might be high, given the amount of intensity and enthusiasm he brings with him to practice every day.
“There was a loose ball by the bench, and he was literally like this,” said Graham, who then emphatically hit the deck, full body spread out on the ground. “He was on the floor and just screaming and stuff. The energy every day never wanes.”
Harvard’s recent string of success in the Ancient Eight is undeniable. Nonetheless, Donahue and Penn basketball at large should know better than anyone else just how quickly an Ivy power can be overtaken.
Moving forward, the Ivy League, much like that loose ball, is up for grabs. Donahue’s mission is simple: Go out and win it to restore the program’s past greatness.
Because in order for his career to truly come full circle, Penn basketball as a whole will need to do the same.
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