Penn coach Steve Donahue believes struggles paved his NCAA path

Steve Donahue raises the net after the Ivy League tournament final.

WICHITA, Kan. — You’ve noticed Steve Donahue’s successes. He’s the only Ivy League coach to take a team to the NCAA Sweet 16 since 1979. (Crazier, he did at Cornell, nobody’s idea of a traditional hoops power.) Now, Donahue is the only coach to take different Ivy schools to March Madness.

The mistake that Donahue himself does not make, as the Penn Quakers prepare to face Kansas on Thursday in the NCAA Midwest Regional opening round, is assuming it’s all been one sweet ride since Fran O’Hanlon hired him, a young Cardinal O’Hara High and Ursinus College graduate, stealing Donahue away from Springfield High to join O’Hanlon as an assistant at Monsignor Bonner before both joined Fran Dunphy’s Penn staff. Each time O’Hanlon got him a job, Donahue would joke, it paid him less money. It wasn’t supposed to work like that.

The money and expectations eventually changed. Between Cornell and Penn, there was Boston College. One winning season. Three losing seasons. Then, no more seasons.

“There’s a lot to do with my success here because I’m a failure at BC — there just is,” Donahue said. “That was very difficult, particularly on my family. There’s been the highest of highs and lowest of lows. I’m the national coach of the year [in 2010, at Cornell], and I’m told I’m not good enough to coach at this school. You can take it one of two ways: Man, they’re wrong and you’re bitter and you don’t learn anything from it. Or you move on.”

Camera icon Michael Dwyer / AP
Boston College coach Steve Donahue, front left, standing with his team during a moment of silence before a game in February 2014.

Still getting paid by BC, Donahue took a one-year break before getting the Penn job in 2015. More than moving on, he dedicated himself to studying what had and hadn’t worked, even what had he gotten away from as he moved from Cornell into the deep waters of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“I wasn’t going to let that happen to me again,” Donahue said of things going south. “Now, something else might. But I knew what I needed to look at.”

Some of it was straight X’s-and-O’s.

“I’ve been known as an offensive coach for all these years — we were still No. 1 in effective field-goal percentage in the ACC my last year, better than Duke, better than Carolina, yet I didn’t win,” Donahue said. “I wasn’t going to let offense determine our fate anymore. We were going to guard. I thought at Cornell, we guarded first and then the offense came.”

It was natural to think that in the ACC you could guard to your best ability and it still wouldn’t decide things. You’d better score. But you can see personnel decisions at Penn being made with both sides of the court factored in. Maybe holdover Quakers such as Antonio Woods and Darnell Foreman didn’t fit the exact offensive system Donahue was putting in. But they could play ball and do it at both ends. Max Rothschild proved his worth as a defender who was one of this team’s best passers. As important, those guys brought grit on top of skills.

The intangibles were what Donahue really focused on, making sure he paid more than lip service. Speaking earlier this week in his office, he pointed to a wall across from his desk.






“I had such a great group at Cornell, I never thought about my team core values and what I was about,” Donahue said. “They were so good, they spoiled me, and I probably skipped some steps at Boston College.”

Those words, everybody wants them in the people around them. Do words on a wall translate to wins and losses?

“I probably assumed everybody was for team first,” Donahue said, noting that unity was at the center of those words for a reason. “I didn’t give examples. I didn’t live it. I didn’t try to get those guys to really understand it. I just assumed. Here, we’d talk about each of those things for an hour.”

Donahue brought up what Jay Wright has built up at Villanova — “Somehow Jay creates that. I didn’t create that at BC. I wasn’t going to let that happen again.”

Camera icon David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Coach Steve Donahue prepares to board a bus as the Penn basketball team leaves campus for the NCAA Tournament.

Penn assistant Nat Graham, a former Quakers player who had been an assistant at Cornell and BC, noted that he sees an ease about Donahue now, a comfort level with the players even more than at past spots. His players almost all have faced their own struggles, just getting on the court, or losing more than they ever thought they would. Facing Kansas in Kansas is not the worst thing in the world to players who have lost to Dartmouth at Dartmouth. Woods was out of school on academic suspension, transporting bodies from the hospital to the morgue. Guys have moved down the bench only to suddenly get meaningful minutes. (Or vice-versa).

Intrust Bank Arena was full of Jayhawks fans Wednesday for the shootaround, 90 minutes before the Jayhawks even took the floor. The lower bowl filled up as Penn took shots and they opened the upper deck. That’s supposed to faze this group? The Quakers’ past struggles made this trip, too.

“We’ve talked quite a bit about utilizing adversity,” said Joe Dowling, the team’s peak performance and mental strength training coach. “That’s really the hallmark of peak performance. It’s what can I learn from this, not why did it happen. Everything is an opportunity for learning. Of course, you have the human emotion when something doesn’t go your way. There’s disappointment. You’re going to meet it head-on.”

So they talk about “next play,” a big thing at Penn. They just try to take it to a level, Dowling said, so that even a turnover is seen as a catalyst for something special to happen, a great play at the other end. “I have an opportunity to go play great defense,” he said.

If you think about it, that’s what the head coach has done here. Maybe you didn’t notice the turnover up at BC. You can see now, though, how it was a catalyst for something special to happen back in Donahue’s hometown.

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