Advertisement

Terry Donahue’s legacy lives on with the California Showcase for overlooked recruits

Terry Donahue speaks to players attending the California Showcase in an undated photo.
Terry Donahue speaks to players attending a California Showcase event. The family of the UCLA football coaching great considers the California Showcase his greatest accomplishment, and they want to keep his memory alive through it.
(Rick Rawlins)
Share

A smooth white card, covered in elegant handwriting, laid on Terry Donahue’s desk. His wife Andrea found it after he died of cancer in July, leaving behind a loving family and a football legacy as the winningest coach in UCLA history.

She tucked it into a shiny black frame to protect because it represented everything her husband stood for.

“Opportunity is a precious gift,” Donahue had written. “How often we give it to others, and how we respond when it is given to us, can define our lives.”

Months later, the Donahue family is committed to preserving another memory of the UCLA legend: the California Showcase, a one-day combine-like event originally founded by Donahue and the National Football Foundation in 2014. The event hosts hundreds of graduating high school seniors and junior college athletes to work out in front of NCAA Division II, III and NAIA coaches and staff.

The card found in Terry Donahue's desk that his wife, Andrea, put in a frame.
The card found in Terry Donahue’s desk that his wife, Andrea, put in a frame after the UCLA football coaching legend’s death in July.
(Luca Evans / For The Times)
Advertisement

The event is being held Feb. 12 at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. More than 1,000 participants have secured scholarships since its inception. It’s Donahue’s greatest accomplishment, his family said — a manifestation of his belief in the power of opportunity.

“We have to pay it forward,” daughter Nicole said. “Why would you not?”

Dan O’Shea, who coaches Donahue’s grandson Luke Ianni at Corona Del Mar, said the showcase takes on an added significance this year. College roster spots have tightened because of the usual incoming freshman class as well as players who redshirted or are taking advantage of the NCAA’s offer of an extra season of eligibility because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t know if there’s a more important time, frankly, in the landscape of college and high school athletes in the recruiting process,” O’Shea said. “The number of spots has been compressed beyond belief.”

“It’s keeping his spirit alive. It’s my connection to him.”

— Andrea Donahue on the California Showcase

Registration for this year’s event has been slightly lower than in the past after last year’s event was canceled because of COVID, said Donahue’s brother Pat, who has been primarily in charge of the business side since its founding. Reclaiming attention for the event has been a family affair: daughters Nicole, Michelle and Jennifer are all pitching in by calling coach after coach, while Pat has continued outreach for participation and upkeeping sponsorship.

“It’s keeping his spirit alive,” Andrea said of the event. “It’s my connection to him.”

Her voice wavered, eyes shimmering. She was married to Donahue for 52 years.

“It’s him,” she repeated.

A 6-foot, 197-pound nose tackle, Donahue walked on at San Jose State, then Los Angeles Valley College, and finally UCLA. The family says it sees Donahue in every player who receives one of those envelopes — just a kid grinding for a shot.

“The showcase embodies the best parts of my dad, or the parts that made him so successful,” Jennifer said. “It’s giving an opportunity to the underdog.”

An appreciation of former UCLA coach Terry Donahue, the best football coach the school has had. His teams knocked USC off its lofty pedestal.

Pat jokes he fired Andrea on her first day working the event, physically picking her up and removing her from mingling because she was trying to welcome every single player who attended.

But she always stuck around. Andrea’s favorite part is the event’s finale — when players who’d slipped past the eye of Division I schools would swarm into a large tent that housed a quasi-college fair of prospective recruiters. Those selected for a scholarship, which the Donahues estimate is about one in three attendees, receive a crisp envelope, the white manila a sign of a promising future.

Chasen Gempler was a backup quarterback graduating from Vista Murrieta at the time of the inaugural California Showcase in 2014. Every year, the event mobilizes a hundred programs from across the country. Gempler said he spoke to every single one of them.

Now a coach at Shadow Mountain High in Arizona, he says he owes his career to the event.

“I wish I could tell Terry to his face, or I wished I would have reached out earlier to him, that I was eternally grateful to him for what he did and what he set forth for that camp,” Gempler said.

After three Rose Bowl wins with UCLA, Donahue retired in 1995, was in broadcasting for a short time and went on to serve as general manager of the San Francisco 49ers for four seasons after being the team’s director of player personnel, beginning in 1999. But his true love was always coaching and working with younger players, and in the years following his retirement, he’d lost a sense of purpose, his family said.

Terry Donahue, who guided UCLA to its longest run of football glory under a single coach, died Sunday evening at his home in Newport Beach. He was 77.

“It was like something died in him,” Jennifer said.

Watching the young talent at each showcase, Pat said he would see the years peel off his brother’s face. The wrinkles smoothed as he pointed out athletes to coaches, Benjamin Button-ing into the same beaming presence that captained the Bruins through shrewd recruiting.

When they were in college, Terry and Andrea met on a blind date. He tried to kiss her. She turned him down at first, she said with a laugh. She grew with him, back when he took a job at the University of Kansas out of college, watching him shovel snow and eating off training tables.

The California Showcase helped maintain that same Terry Donahue in the final years of his life. The way he was at the end, Andrea said, was the way he was at the beginning.

Advertisement