Terry Donahue wondered what in the world he’d just gotten into.
Here he was, only 31 years old, only 10 years removed from being a member of UCLA’s defensive line, and he had just signed a contract to become the 13th head football coach in UCLA history, following such predecessors as William Spaulding, Red Sanders, Tommy Prothro and Dick Vermeil.
It had been a whirlwind few months for Donahue. After the 1975 season, the promising Bruin assistant had gone up to Oregon State to interview for the vacant head-coaching position there. Donahue had left Corvallis convinced he was going to get the job.
He didn’t. Instead, it went to Craig Fertig, a former USC Trojan.
Disappointed, disillusioned, Donahue came home, only to learn that his own head coach, Vermeil, was leaving to become coach of the Philadelphia Eagles.
From those depths, the late J.D. Morgan, then the Bruin athletic director, brought Donahue back to the heights, throwing in a solid dose of reality. A man with a dominating personality, punctuated by a booming voice, Morgan focused on his new, young coach and said, “Terry, if you make it till you’re 40 here, you’ll probably be a good coach by then.”
And it didn’t get any easier.
Donahue’s first game of his first season was against Arizona State, a team that had ended the previous season by beating Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and was led by Frank Kush, who had been voted coach of the year.
The words of Pepper Rodgers, Donahue’s longtime mentor, gave the young coach a boost in the confidence.
“Donahoo,” Rodgers said, using the pronunciation he had long ago foisted on his protege, “you and Kush aren’t playing. Your players are playing.”
And as it turned out, Donahue’s players were better than Kush’s players that day, UCLA upsetting the Sun Devils in Tempe, 28-10.
Morgan had picked Donahue because, after going through three coaches in six years, he wanted somebody who would stay and grow with the program. But even Morgan might not have expected such rapid growth.
Donahue won his first three games in that 1976 season, tied Ohio State, then reeled off six more victories, going 9-0-1 before losing the crucial final two, to USC and to Alabama in the Liberty Bowl.
Those defeats were painful, but not so bad as to change Morgan’s opinion about Donahue as a coach.
So now, at 51, Donahue is beginning his 20th year as UCLA’s coach, having far exceeded all of Morgan’s hopes of longevity.
“That’s a good run,” Donahue said with obvious satisfaction. “The average in the NCAA is 3 1/2-4 1/2 years. It’s been a great career, but then I started real young.”
Donahue’s accomplishments take up six pages in the Bruin media guide. He has:
--Won a school-record 144 games, double the number won by Spaulding, the No. 2 man on the list.
--Beaten USC the last four times they have met, a UCLA record.
--Won eight consecutive bowl games, one of only two coaches to have done so. The other, Florida State’s Bobby Bowden, has won 10.
--Won three Rose Bowls, 1983, ’84 and ’86.
--Won five Pac-10 championships.
In addition, Donahue’s team has been ranked in the top 20 nine times in the past 13 seasons, and Donahue needs only four conference victories to surpass former Washington coach Don James to become the winningest coach in Pac-10 history with 98 victories.
He has done all this on a campus where strict academic requirements put him at a recruiting disadvantage against most of his conference rivals, at a school where basketball is the major sport, in a town where football is the major sport at the other big university.
No one who has looked at Donahue’s history should be surprised at his ability to succeed when many were predicting failure.
Donahue was a 175-pound linebacker when he came out of Notre Dame High in Sherman Oaks, determined to play at a major college.
He wasn’t greeted with open arms.
Donahue couldn’t even get a scholarship at San Jose State. He played there one season as a walk-on and then walked off, too small and too homesick to continue.
Back home, Donahue took a year off from football to get his body sharp in the gym while trying to keep his mind sharp by attending L.A. Valley College.
It was in the gym that Donahue nearly took a fateful detour from football. He started boxing, sparring at first as a way of getting into better shape.
“I liked it,” he said. “And I was pretty good at it.”
Good enough to find himself in the ring in an amateur bout in a long-gone San Fernando Valley arena named Valley Gardens.
The name of his opponent is lost in time, but Donahue beat a man who outweighed him by more than 40 pounds.
Donahue’s handlers were so impressed that they wanted him to fight another young heavyweight in a few weeks, a fighter by the name of Jerry Quarry.
It might have happened, had not Donahue brought home the trophy he had won in the bout.
When his father, Dr. Bill Donahue, realized what his son was getting into, he insisted that Terry get out.
“If you want to live in my house and eat my food, you will not box,” Bill Donahue said.
Goodby, Quarry. Goodby, boxing.
Beefed up to 197 pounds, Donahue enrolled at UCLA and went out for football. Naturally, he was a walk-on.
But, after redshirting for a year, he made it into the starting lineup as a defensive tackle for his final two seasons, starting 21 consecutive games.
After graduation, Donahue wanted to stay in football as a coach. Rodgers, who had been an assistant at UCLA while Donahue was a player, had become head coach at Kansas. Donahue asked Rodgers for a job.
“I don’t have a job for a 23-year-old assistant,” Rodgers told him.
“Let me work for nothing,” Donahue countered. “I’ll eat at the trainer’s table and I’ll work with the freshman team.”
Donahue had a deal.
By the second year, Donahue was on the payroll as the defensive line coach.
He stayed at Kansas for four years, met his wife, Andrea, there, then came back to UCLA as an assistant when Rodgers returned as head coach in 1971.
He was an assistant for nine years before Morgan made him the head man.
“It’s still fun,” Donahue said. “It’s fun when you win. It’s fun preparing the game plan. It’s fun to see it come to fruition. It’s fun to see the kids come in and mature and achieve. It’s all fun.”
Well, not quite all.
Donahue has been the target of criticism over the last 20 years. And it all has seemed to revolve around one word, conservative.
He got that tag early in his career and spent years trying to crawl out from under it. He has often been portrayed as a coach playing not to lose, rather than to win, a coach afraid to open up his offense, a coach reluctant to go to the air, a coach who has stuck to a game plan of three yards and a cloud of controversy.
“In football, the interesting thing is, the word conservative has negative connotations,” Donahue said. “Some of the best and most successful football coaches in the history of the game have been very conservative--Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler. Conservative coaches generally are coaches that lean more toward the running game than the throwing game.
“When I got this job, I leaned more toward the running game. The No. 1 reason was, I knew it better. No. 2, it’s not a bad way to play if your personnel is [strong] that way. We were in a running offense and I got tagged as being a real conservative coach.
“And in 1976 to ’79, it was true. I was conservative, and maybe more conservative than I should have been. I was not experienced in the throwing game. I wasn’t.”
Things reached a low point in 1979. The team finished 5-6 and Donahue heard rumors that a repeat performance would get him fired.
“As we went into 1980, my wife was convinced that I was just enduring my job,” Donahue recalled. “I was not enjoying it.”
Rodgers had been telling him for some time to take the headset off and let someone else call the plays.
“Hire an offensive coordinator,” Rodgers said. “You be the head coach.”
In 1980, Donahue hired Homer Smith, a man known for designing potent, well-balanced offenses, as his offensive coordinator.
“The reality was, that in order for me to exist, I had to change,” Donahue said. “I had to adapt. I had to find a way to succeed. I wanted to learn more about the throwing game. I wanted to make a conscious effort to have a balanced offense. So I brought Homer in. And he brought with him a vast knowledge of the throwing game.”
The results were spectacular. UCLA went 9-2 in 1980, beat USC for the first time in five years--on a pass, of course, late in the game for 58 yards and a touchdown from Jay Schroeder to Freeman McNeil--and Donahue hasn’t been in real danger of losing his job since.
That season, the turning point for Donahue, and the ensuing seasons should have put to rest the talk of his conservatism, Donahue maintains.
“We basically have been in the same offense, changing only little things, since 1980,” he said. “The throwing game was a part of football I had to learn, I had to get upgraded in. And I did. I worked very hard at it over the last 15 years. My teams at UCLA own just about every passing record at the school. It’s pretty hard to say I’m a conservative. And I do think my image has changed.
“When we run a play and it’s not successful, there are still some people who say I’m conservative. No matter what I do, it’s never going to go away for them. Hey, if I win, I don’t care what they say.”
The biggest change Rodgers, now coaching the Memphis Mad Dogs in the Canadian Football League, has seen in Donahue over the last 20 years is his ability to finally relax and enjoy his time away from the field.
“Terry used to worry all the time about what people thought of him,” Rodgers said. “He thought that if he went off to play tennis, they would think he wasn’t working hard enough. He felt like he had to work 24 hours a day so it would look like he was doing the job. I told him, ‘Coaches don’t get fired for playing tennis. They get fired because they didn’t win enough.’ ”
Twice in his 20 years, Donahue has been tempted to leave Westwood for pro ball, once in the 1980s with the Atlanta Falcons and once last off-season, when the Ram job was open. But once Donahue learned that the Los Angeles Rams were about to become the St. Louis Rams, he lost interest.
“I don’t have an insatiable appetite [for a pro job],” Donahue said. “I don’t think, ‘Boy, I’m missing a key part of life.’ ”
Said Rodgers: “For Terry to go to the pros, everything would have to be perfect. That’s the way he is. And nothing’s perfect, so he’ll never go.”
How long will he stay at UCLA?
“I’d like to do this job another 10-15 years,” Donahue said. “But it’s not going to happen. It’s too hard to keep people happy.”