The trouble with Terry Donahue as a football coach is, he doesn't look like one. When he runs out on the field with his team, you wonder what he did with his helmet. Did he forget to suit up? Is he going to play in shorts and a T-shirt?
We all know what a football coach is supposed to look like. And sound like. And act like. Black-bearded, gravelly voiced--and old. He shouldn't have a full head of black hair and have a perpetual look on his face of a small boy coming downstairs on Christmas morning. He should look mean. Aloof. Frown a lot.
He should have a nickname. "Terry" doesn't quite get it. "Bo" would be more like it. "Bear" has a nice ring to it. "The Rock." "The Old Man." "Pop," as in Warner.
He should be hot-tempered like Vince Lombardi. He shouldn't even have hair like Knute Rockne. Rockne looked 60 when he was 30. Donahue will look 30 when he's 60.
Maybe he should go to Central Casting and get made up as a football coach. Study for the part. Manuals from the German general staff would help.
Rockne distanced himself from the troops, the players. He was shouting down orders like Moses on the Mount. Red Sanders actually used to coach from a tower. It was like getting the word of God from on high.
Donahue's down on the field. Trading blocks with his offensive linemen, showing his receivers how to get open. He pleads with his players as much as he orders them.
Football coaches, like four-star generals, have to have a mythic quality about them. After all, war is a general's medium, football is a coach's.
The facts of the matter are, Donahue is as good a coach as anyone in the game. He knows X's and O's as well as Rockne ever did. He can motivate. He can recruit with the best of them. You look at the UCLA Bruins in the pros and you know Terry Donahue can recognize a quality player from a hovering blimp.
He was an overachiever as a player. He was a "walk-on" at UCLA. English translation: Who asked him? He wasn't one of those blue-chippers a hundred coaches fight over.
He was a 190-pound defensive tackle. Match that around the conference. But he held his own against the Goliaths of the league. UCLA's record was 17-3-1 in his two seasons as a starter, including an unbelievable victory over unbeaten Michigan State in the 1966 Rose Bowl game. He was not the original, but the epitome of the storied "gutty little Bruin." The phrase was invented for guys like Terry Donahue.
In a sense, he was a walk-on as a coach too. He served as assistant to Pepper Rodgers for four years at Kansas. He came west to UCLA when Rodgers did. He served under Dick Vermeil and became head coach in 1976 when Vermeil left for the pros.
Most people thought it would be an interim position. Most thought he would fill in until they found someone who looked the part.
But not Donahue. He was only 32 years old, but he set out to win right away. He was 9-2-1 his first season. But everyone said "Oh, it was Vermeil's team." Then, he went 7-4 and 8-3-1--and with Donahue's team.
But, he lost to USC four years in a row and, when he lost, 49-14, in 1979, the "Bye Bye Terry" banners were out.
He got the message. He never lost to SC by any similar wide margin again. In fact, he never lost to the Trojans much at all. The next year he beat them, 20-17, and has more or less made a habit of it since. When he did lose it was by 22-21 (1981) or 17-13 (1985), 17-13 (1987), 31-22 (1988) and 45-42 in 1990.
In the meantime, he was beating them, once by 45-25 (1986). He made an art form of beating SC.
Terry Donahue is 51 years old now and looking to go over the wall. He has won more conference games (98) than any Pacific 10 coach. He has won 151 games altogether. A Bruin team is competitive, never dull and usually better at the end of a season than the start.
But he's listening to the siren call of that painted strumpet of the red light district, television. It's tempting not to have to go on the road and sit in the living rooms of swaggering young men with an outsize sense of their own importance and try to lure them into playing in exchange for an education they don't want. It'd be nice to be able to discuss a dropped pass in the end zone dispassionately, instead of thinking "Oh, my God, there goes my job!"
But Terry Donahue has been there 24 years, 20 of them as a head coach. He loses with dignity, wins with modesty--and beats SC like a drum. You'd think they'd want him around.
If only he'd get a little older-looking. Get gray, get wrinkled, get cantankerous. And get a ladder and coach from up there.