Everything Always Points to Success for the Man Who’s Ratings Rise Faster Than Nielsen’s . . . : T H E S H O W DONAHUE
Somewhere, J.D. Morgan was smiling the night that Terry Donahue became the winningest coach in the history of UCLA football.
Somewhere, he puffed out his chest and gave a nod of approval, proud of his young protege and proud of himself. He had played a hunch and he was right, again.
J.D. didn’t live long enough to see Donahue set the record, but he lived long enough to see that he had been right about Donahue.
He’d had confidence in the 31-year-old assistant coach whom he promoted to head coach in 1976.
Ten years later, Donahue has a record of 77-30-6 and has broken Bill Spaulding’s record for most victories by a UCLA coach.
Donahue has nurtured a strong and reputable program at UCLA.
For three straight years, he has won a bowl game on New Year’s Day. No one else in the country has done that.
He has also beaten the age-old stigma of being the little guy in town. He has beaten USC three years in a row. Until he came along, that hadn’t happened since 1955.
Along the way, Donahue has become one of the premier college coaches in the country.
So when Donahue broke Spaulding’s record of 72 victories with one over San Diego State at the Rose Bowl earlier this season and accepted, in commemoration, a little crystal Bruin, he had the late J.D. Morgan high on his list of people to thank.
He said that Morgan had given him an opportunity when, perhaps, he wasn’t even ready for it.
“Oh, I never would have admitted it at the time, because at the time, I thought I was ready,” Donahue said. “There was no question in my mind at the time that J.D. hired me, that I could do the job.
“What I am trying to say is that I certainly was not the most qualified for the job. When J.D. gave me the opportunity here, he could have selected umpteen-hundred coaches who were basically more qualified at that point in time than I was to be a head coach.
“The reason I got it was because, at that time, there was no search committee. I was 31, an assistant. A search committee would have gone out and found a big-name coach or someone with a lot of experience, an older assistant coach. J.D. didn’t have to do that.
“I never felt I couldn’t do the job, but as I reflect back on it 10 years later, I wasn’t as far along as I thought I was--just as a lot of players aren’t as good as they think they are.
“J.D. took an unbelievable gamble. He took a big chance hiring me with no proven credentials, no track record as a head coach.”
Now that J.D. has been proven correct, it seems like an easy enough choice. But it wasn’t always so.
A lot of things have happened in the 10 years that Donahue has been the coach at UCLA, most of them good. Some, of course, have not been so good, and some have been downright embarrassing. Donahue has handled them all, good and bad, one game at a time. And there is lots of game-playing in the coaching game.
Donahue has a way of chalking up victories. Any kind of a setback is, at least, a moral victory in some way. Or a steppingstone to a victory on another day. In every case, Donahue, himself, emerges with his impeccable image intact.
There were some who thought that Morgan had made a stop-gap decision or a too-quick decision when he promoted the young assistant coach three days after Dick Vermeil had quit in February of 1976 to take a job with the Philadelphia Eagles.
It was the height of the recruiting season, a week before signing day. A quick decision was needed. But Morgan obviously had had his eye on Donahue for years.
Even at 31, Donahue had a strong reputation among coaches. And he had already proven his grit at UCLA.
Donahue grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a physician, one of five boys, and always wanted to play football for UCLA. When he wasn’t recruited at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, he started to work his way in. He walked on at San Jose State and then at Valley College and then, finally, at UCLA.
Bill Barnes was the Bruin coach who gave the 6-foot, 190-pound defensive tackle his first chance, red-shirting Donahue in 1964, but Tommy Prothro was the coach when Donahue started in the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day, 1966.
His start in coaching was much the same. Soon after Donahue had been promoted to head coach, Pepper Rodgers told this story:
“When Terry graduated from UCLA, he wrote me and said he wanted to come to Kansas as my graduate assistant. He said he’d work for nothing to prove his ability. It’s hard to refuse a man who makes that kind of offer. Too many people in the coaching profession are too concerned about their position or how much money they’re going to make before they prove themselves.”
Donahue was an unpaid assistant for one season. Kansas went to the Orange Bowl after that 1967 season and Rodgers made him a full-time member of the staff the next season. He had responsibility for the defensive line and, at 23, he was one of the youngest college coaches ever.
Donahue returned to UCLA as a member of Rodgers’ staff when Rodgers was hired as head coach after the 1970 season.
Rodgers said: “When I left UCLA for Georgia Tech in 1974, I wanted to take Donahue along, but J.D. Morgan told me that was the one coach I couldn’t take.”
Donahue not only had strong recommendations from Prothro, Vermeil and Rodgers when he applied for the job, but other assistants told Morgan that Donahue was the best choice.
Bob Fischer, who was then Morgan’s assistant athletic director, remembers that Dick Tomey, who also was considered for the job and who later became the head coach at the University of Hawaii, told Morgan that, “Terry was a great selection and that Terry would turn out to be the best coach UCLA ever had.”
Fischer said: “I had a vote, and I voted for Terry. I don’t know how much weight that carried with J.D., but when we looked over the various candidates, I definitely thought that Terry was on top--especially as far as promise was concerned.”
Those who had worked with him had seen beneath Donahue’s beguiling facade of charming, youthful innocence. They had known the hard-driving intensity, the ruthless singleness of purpose, the perfectionist’s ego, the defensive attitude toward anything and anyone challenging him.
All are fine qualities for a football coach. They are the kinds of qualities Woody Hayes always admired in field generals.
But they are not necessarily the qualities that Donahue sets before the public.
Even at football practice, Donahue--although briskly businesslike--maintains a gentlemanly demeanor. He doesn’t bark obscenities or rip off helmets. He gives nods of approval or icy stares.
The other day, without raising his voice, he stopped a player cold just by using a menacing tone.
Upperclassmen clue the freshmen early: Don’t be misled. Donahue is no pushover, and you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Period.
There is a relaxed and friendly camaraderie among his coaching staff but there is no question who is calling the shots.
Donahue is usually accessible to and cooperative with reporters. He can be very charming and personable. On his terms. But don’t press your luck, and choose your adjectives carefully. He once threatened to boycott a whole group of visiting reporters because he had a year-old gripe against one of them. He got his apology before any other reporter saw him that day.
Donahue is sensitive about his image. He knows what he wants it to be. And, of course, he has been successful in making it just that.
Terry Donahue: A winner. A great guy. A gentleman. A family man. A religious man. A moral man.
The administration considers him one of the university’s proudest assets. The alums love him. His players respect him. Mothers entrust their sons to him. Other teams would love to have him.
And he really seems to live that role. If he doesn’t, he’s done a very good job of keeping his slips private.
The Santa Monica Evening Outlook, after finding no one who had a bad word to say about him concluded that he must be “a saint in coach’s clothing.”
It’s hard to say just exactly what Terry Donahue really is or really is not. But one thing is for sure--he’s not stupid.
All things considered, Donahue has done a masterful job of putting all the pieces together. He has done what he has had to do to win in the cut-throat competitive world of college football, and he has come away with people thinking he’s a saint.
Now, that is a masterful accomplishment.
Of the hundreds of young men who have played for him over the years, very few publicly criticize him.
Recently, Michael Young, now a receiver for the Rams, talked about some of the negative feelings that players have about him. Dokie Williams, a receiver with the Raiders, has said that he thought Donahue didn’t use him much at UCLA just to make a point, to show that anyone who crossed him--in his case by skipping spring football to run track--would pay.
Others have complained, off the record, about Donahue’s negative approach. They resent the way he never praises his own players, never promotes them for All-American honors or bowl games, and always seems to be afraid of losing instead of looking forward to winning. They say he manipulates and holds grudges.
But then there is Rick Neuheisel, the quarterback who walked on at UCLA and eventually led the team to a Rose Bowl victory. He butted egos with Donahue as often as anyone, saved a season for Donahue and never got much thanks or credit, but counters with the argument: “What good does it do for anyone to speak against him? You have to give him respect for what he accomplishes. We won. I won a Rose Bowl game.”
Now, that’s what Donahue would call a reasonable statement.
Presented with some of these ideas, Donahue said, “I’m not always nice. I can be hard to deal with at times. I’ve never tried to project myself as a saint.
“People who are reasonable--and I’m talking about the majority of people; most people are reasonable--realize that there are no perfect human beings. We all make mistakes. The last perfect guy was put on a cross and crucified.
“People who are reasonable realize that anyone who is in a responsible position of authority or decision-making is going to be faced with certain choices. The only thing that they can do is evaluate the information to the best they’re capable of and then go with their honest-to-goodness feeling of what is in the best interest of the team or the program or the individual.”
Donahue seemed troubled by the idea that he holds grudges. He thought about it for a minute before saying: “I’m not sure what that refers to. . . . I would think that my basic philosophy would not agree with that kind of approach. I would hope I don’t do that. I don’t think you can keep score. People make mistakes. You don’t want a scorecard--don’t judge lest ye be judged.”
And yet, the coach of a major college football program will be judged constantly. It comes with the territory. That was one of the main things that Donahue had to get used to when he became head coach.
After years in the headlines, he now can say: “I hope I have more friends than enemies. But once you’ve been successful, you have critics. When you’re down, people criticize. When you’re up, people pick at you. It’s mediocrity that just rolls along, unnoticed. I’ve been successful. I have my critics. That beats the alternative.”
Donahue has had to develop lots of working philosophies. He used to listen to tapes of other coaches’ ideas as he drove between UCLA and his home in Westlake Village. Now, he spouts some of his own. He likes to call it growing.
He was young when he became the coach, and he had to do a lot of learning on the job, thinking on his feet.
“No one is born a head coach,” Donahue said. “You’re an assistant coach, and then all of a sudden one afternoon, you’re elevated to head coach. And when they elevate you they don’t give you a manual that tells you how to become a head coach. There isn’t one. Maybe there ought to be.
“So you’re given what we used to call in the service, on-the-job training. You learn as you go along and if you’re good enough and lucky enough, you survive.
“What happens is that you learn to grow with the job. When I first got the head coaching job here, I thought I got it because I was the best technical coach on the staff. I thought I got the head coaching job because I was a good coach--and it was (the reason), in a sense.
But the more you work as the head coach, the more your time is taken away from the pure technical aspects to other aspects. It took me a long time to learn to like those other aspects.
“I wanted to coach. That was what I was best at. That was what I liked. It took me a long time to learn to spread myself among three areas.
One is the technical aspects--the X’s and O’s and the plays you run.
The second is the administrative aspect, which involves everything from dealing with the school’s administration to dealing with the media, speaking, dealing with the students, answering correspondence, whatever, A to Z.
And then the third is personnel. There are two types of personnel, those currently on your team and those you need to go out and bring to your team.
“It took me a long time to formulate my philosophy and figure out when to have emphasis on one area, when the other area and how to disperse my time over the three fronts.”
Of all the adjustments Donahue has made over the years to make himself a success as the football coach at UCLA, the most telling is the change that he made with his offense.
“We were 9-2-1 our first year and it would be very hard for anyone to convince me, from a technical standpoint, that the veer offense wasn’t any good,” Donahue said. “Lou Holtz was going to bowl games with it. All kinds of people were winning with it. It’s a good offense. Not only that, we had won the year before and gone to the Rose Bowl with it.
“Pepper had been a wishbone coach. Dick was left with wishbone personnel. He didn’t want a wishbone team so he went to the veer. The veer took us to the Rose Bowl his second year. So when I got the job, my thought was, ‘Gee, we just went to the Rose Bowl with it. Plus, all my background had been veer offense.’ So we continued with it. But I got the label of being a boring, conservative coach.
“I tried to take a good, hard look at the criticism that was leveled at me, and I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough just to win here. I was winning, and I was on a pretty good pace in terms of past UCLA coaches, in terms of percentages. But it obviously wasn’t enough. There was a great deal of unhappiness.
Maybe in this town, it’s different. Maybe in this town, you have to do it with some flair and entertainment.
“I’ve learned that you have to be flexible, adjustable.”
And you have to learn how to handle adversity. Take negatives and make them positives.
During Donahue’s reign at UCLA, by far the most embarrassing episode has been the saga of Billy Don Jackson.
Billy Don was one of the best defensive tackles in the country when he was recruited from Sherman, Tex. He was a freshman All-American for UCLA in 1977, eventually transferred to San Jose State and finally, in 1982, was sentenced to a year in jail after pleading no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the fatal stabbing of a drug dealer. The judge called Jackson a functional illiterate and blasted the whole system of college athletics.
Actually, Jackson had a reading disability, similar to dyslexia. But he was a bright young man, and he was enrolled at UCLA in courses that stressed oral skills--speech, sportscasting, an African language that is spoken but not written. He also was supposed to be working with a reading therapist.
Donahue still shakes his head sadly when the subject comes up. “Billy Don Jackson--years later you can’t escape it,” he said. “Obviously, it was the darkest hour for our program. It was a dark hour for UCLA. I didn’t let him in school, I don’t let anyone in school . . .
“But I was the head coach, so I was involved. He had a reading deficiency, something we thought we could correct. For whatever reason, Billy Don didn’t do his part of what was supposed to be done.
“Consequently, he left school and later became involved in this tragic drug deal. It was a terrible scenario of events. There’s no question that to this day we look back on that situation and the only thing I can do is try to learn from it.
“The university learned from it. From that point in time, we shifted philosophies. The admission process was ahead of the support process, then. There were lots of special action admissions, high-risk students. . . . By support I mean tutorial, curriculum, adjustment of the athletic department to these problems. It was a whole new world, and we were just getting into it.
“Jackson, in a sense, brought everybody to look at that whole process more carefully. In the long run, the tragedy of Billy Don Jackson helped the university. Now the academic process and the support is stronger. It’s so much different and so much better.”
At the time of sentencing, Jackson’s attorneys attempted to show what kind of a person he was by showing how many friends had come to the courtroom to support him. He asked everyone there in support of Jackson to stand. Among them was Donahue.
After Jackson was released from jail, Donahue helped him catch on with a USFL team.
The only other black mark on UCLA’s record since Donahue became coach is a year’s probation in 1980. UCLA was one of five Pacific 10 schools caught up in a scandal involving unearned school credits and falsified transcripts in 1977.
If the forfeits in 1977 are factored into Donahue’s record he has not broken Spaulding’s mark. The Bruin record was adjusted from 7-4 to 0-9 with 2 no contests. Donahue’s record would then be 70-35-6. However, neither UCLA nor any of the other Pac-10 schools take this added factor into mind when reviewing Donahue’s success ratio.
Nothing like that has come up lately. The program has been clean. Donahue credits the change of philosophy after Billy Don Jackson for that, too.
“Because of the shift in policy at UCLA in the last five years or so, the kinds of people that we’re generally recruiting are easier types of people to recruit,” Donahue said. “When you’re dealing with intelligent people from stable families and backgrounds, the whole recruiting process is upgraded.”
At this stage of the game, UCLA’s program is so strong, and so successful, it sells itself. Donahue has always been known as a top recruiter, but he admits it’s getting easier. Not easy. Easier.
“I think we’re to that point,” Donahue said. “I think the UCLA football program has been built to that degree. That doesn’t mean I expect us to win the championship every year. I don’t. But I expect us to be representative.”
Donahue is careful about not being drawn into discussions speculating on whether he might take other jobs--especially when that speculation is based on the rumor that just won’t die, that he’s the obvious successor to Gerry Faust at Notre Dame.
Donahue considers it “absolutely inappropriate and totally unacceptable” to discuss a job that is not currently available.
“That happened to me after the 1979 season,” he said. “People were speculating on who would be the next coach at UCLA. That bothered me. It bothered me a lot. It bothered my family. I’m not going to do that to another coach and his family.”
But it’s hard to resist the urge to speculate. With Faust in the last year of his contract at Notre Dame and with the Irish losing too many games, the job is likely to be available soon. Figure in a highly respected Irish Catholic coach named Terence Michael Donahue, who went to Notre Dame High School, no less, coming off a season in which he became the winningest coach in his school’s history.
True, Donahue does have a contract with UCLA. Last March he signed a three-year extension that keeps him signed to a five-year deal. He does that every third spring. But that contract does not preclude him from moving on if he wants to.
Tommy Prothro had a contract with UCLA when he moved on. So did Pepper Rodgers. So did Dick Vermeil.
Athletic Director Pete Dalis has flatly stated: “Of course we don’t want to lose Terry, but if he has an opportunity that he thinks is better for him, we won’t stand in his way. That has always been the policy at UCLA.”
In the past, Donahue has expressed more interest in pro jobs than in other college jobs. So it remains to be seen whether he would make the move to snowy South Bend, Ind., even if the job were offered. He’s Southern California born and reared.
If the Notre Dame opportunity presented itself, Donahue would be in a no-lose situation. He could take what is considered the premier position in college football and start over, or stay in one of the very good positions in college football where he’s already a winner.
He just might stay. He turned down Arizona State last season. And he’s talked to lots of others without being swayed.
“I’m not saying that I would never consider another job,” Donahue said. “You know that I have considered others. But I am saying that I like what I’m doing at UCLA. I’m proud of what we have accomplished here. I feel a sense of satisfaction. I also still feel a sense of challenge.”
Donahue wasn’t the only one who thought of J.D. Morgan when he set the record. Fischer was conjuring up the same images.
Fischer said: “J.D. was very proud of Terry. He got to see Terry five years before he died. You can imagine how happy he was from the very beginning when they went down and played Arizona State in their very first game. (UCLA won Donahue’s opener in a nationally televised game at Arizona State.)
“Terry has done just what J.D. knew he would do. He has really developed the program. Terry might not want to say it himself, but I think it’s extremely important that he has beaten USC year after year. He has established great pride, and pride in the university covers a tremendous area.
“Not only has he been winning, but the program has been clean and the incoming student-athletes’ academic standards, slowly but surely, have risen every year.
“You know, they say that in the service or in corporations, any organization like that, that after about three years any institution or program will reflect the personality of the guy in charge. I think that’s true. I think that’s why we have such a fine football program right now.”