END OF AN ERA: DONAHUE RESIGNS : Donahue Calls Screen Play : College football: After 20 years as UCLA's head football coach, he resigns to become an analyst for CBS.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nobody could be absolutely certain what Terry Donahue was going to say.

Not UCLA Chancellor Charles Young, seated to the left of his football coach in the press room at the J.D. Morgan Center on Monday afternoon, waiting to see if Donahue would really follow through on his decision to resign after 20 years on the job to accept a position with CBS as a college football analyst.

Not Athletic Director Peter Dalis, seated next to Young, waiting to learn if he had been right in feeling since the start of the season that this was how it was going to end.

Not Andrea Donahue, Terry's wife, seated to his right along with the couple's three daughters, all of them dabbing at the tear-stained makeup on their faces. They had all spent an interminable night in the family's Westlake Village home, crying their way through a decision to leave that they had hoped would not be made.

Not Marc Dellins, the sports information director who had prepared two news releases, one saying Donahue would leave, another saying he would stay.

Not the several hundred reporters, friends and relatives of Donahue who had come to see if he would really go through with it.

And, truth be told, not even Donahue himself, who confided that he might imitate Larry Brown, who once agreed to become UCLA's basketball coach only to decide he would remain at Kansas once his news conference began.

But not this time, with this coach.

With his face a tight mask of bottled-up emotion, Donahue took a deep breath and said, "After a great deal of reflection and soul-searching, I've made a decision to . . . "

Pause, during which 200 bodies leaned forward at the same instant.

" . . . retire and step down as the head football coach at UCLA."

Most people never thought they would hear those words from Donahue. Not now.

Even Donahue, 51, had envisioned finishing out the remaining three years on a contract that pays him about $367,000 a year.

"This came a little sooner than I thought," Donahue said.

He had long flirted with the idea of eventually trading in his coach's playbook for a broadcaster's spotting chart. When CBS, returning to college football next season after a five-year absence, offered him the chance to become its lead analyst, teamed with play-by-play man Jim Nantz, Donahue couldn't resist.

"It was a chance to start at the top," he said.

And that is certainly the position from which he leaves Westwood.

Donahue is the winningest coach in Pacific 10 Conference history with 98 victories. He is the winningest coach in UCLA history, with either 151 or 152 victories, depending on how the Bruins do in their one remaining game under his direction, the Aloha Bowl in Hawaii on Christmas Day against Kansas, the school at which he started his coaching career as an assistant under Pepper Rodgers 29 years ago.

But it is UCLA with whom Donahue has been identified since he first stepped onto the Westwood campus, barely noticed, as a 175-pound walk-on defensive tackle from L.A. Valley College.

By the time his Bruin playing career was over, Donahue had gained 20 pounds and a great deal of respect, having earned the starting job over his last two seasons. He then went to Kansas to coach for four years, returning to UCLA with Rodgers in 1970 as offensive line coach.

When Dick Vermeil resigned from the head coaching job after the 1975 season, J.D. Morgan, then the athletic director, surprised many by plucking 32-year-old Donahue out of the ranks of his assistants to take over one of the most high-profile jobs in the country.

"Terry, if you make it till you're 40 here, you'll probably be a good coach by then," Morgan told Donahue the day he hired him.

Twenty years later, sitting in the building named for Morgan, Donahue was confident he had lived up to the expectations of his mentor.

"I promised J.D. I would stay and build the program," Donahue said. "I feel I've met my commitment."

Yet despite all that, Donahue might well have decided not to leave had he not beaten USC in his final regular-season game. That gave Donahue five consecutive victories over the hated Trojans, a winning streak unequaled in the 65-year history of the bitter rivalry. It also gave Donahue the 98th conference victory he needed to break a tie for the top spot with former Washington Coach Don James.

"That was icing on the cake," Donahue insisted Monday. "I didn't need one more victory over USC to go into broadcasting."

The final hurdle for him to overcome in order to make it to the booth was his immediate family.

"This has been my family's life for 25 years," he said.

After wife Andrea came to terms with the decision at a Sunday night dinner, Terry still had to work on 24-year-old Nicole, a UCLA graduate who, Donahue insists, knew about the Bruins while "still in the womb;" 21-year-old Michele, a UCLA junior, and 17-year-old Jennifer, a high school student who wanted to go to Westwood while her dad was still the coach.

Even after talking to all of them, Donahue still wanted to sleep on his decision with what was left of Sunday night. The only similar time he did such a thing, in January of 1987, he drifted off thinking he would accept the coaching job of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons, but woke up deciding to turn it down.

A year ago, Donahue seriously considered becoming coach of the Rams, but changed his mind when he learned they would be moving to St. Louis.

In making the decision to leave this time, Donahue talked to both Vermeil, who made a successful transition from the sidelines to the broadcast booth, and Bill Walsh, who did not. Donahue also kept in mind the career moves of his cross-town rival, USC Coach John Robinson, who gave up coaching to become a sportscaster, only to return to the coaching profession.

"I have some apprehensions," Donahue said. "This is a new arena. I had something I'll never have again. You won't get [the high from coaching] in any other job. I know that, but I had that and I'll cherish it."

Perhaps no one in the press room Monday could better identify with Donahue's decision than KCBS sportscaster Jim Hill, who was an NFL defensive back before becoming a broadcaster.

"You are not concerned about how the team on the field did," said Hill, in describing the transition process. "But you are concerned with the team in the broadcast booth. It's the same highs and lows. But you just get there different ways."

But having gone the way he has, would Donahue definitely rule out ever returning to coaching?

"I wouldn't say that at all," he replied.

But for now, at least, he is excited.

"Let's tee it up," he said, "and kick off."

Still, even in the midst of his euphoria at having finally resolved the situation, Donahue, for one brief instant, wavered.

"I can't believe I'm holding this press conference," he said. "What are you all doing here?"

Until those 11 words of resignation came out of Donahue's mouth, no one was absolutely sure.

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