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Appreciation: In the UCLA football galaxy, Terry Donahue was as good (and good looking) as it gets

UCLA coach Terry Donahue is carried off the field after the Bruins defeated Nebraska at the Rose Bowl in 1998.
UCLA coach Terry Donahue is carried off the field after the Bruins defeated Nebraska 41-28 at the Rose Bowl in 1998. The victory was Donahue’s 100th as UCLA coach.
(Reed Saxon / Associated Press)

In a city where men who look like Terry Donahue become movie stars, Donahue became a football coach. And a pretty good one, at that.

When the seemingly ageless Donahue died of cancer on the Fourth of July — with a birth certificate that added up to 77 and an image of somebody 50-something — those of us who are occasionally called on to define legacy are left struggling. We are more accustomed to football coaches who have noses like Knute Rockne‘s and growls like Ed Orgeron‘s. We don’t know how to measure George Clooney in spikes.

Donahue got the UCLA coaching job in 1976, when he was 31. He had chosen football over boxing, of all things, when his father, a doctor, nixed the sweet science. Donahue reportedly was in line to box another amateur, some guy named Jerry Quarry. That would have ended the movie star good looks right there. Father certainly knew best.

We also are used to our defensive linemen being first in line for dinner. Also, breakfast and lunch. Donahue started on the Bruins’ defensive line for two years and never made it to 200 pounds. And so, with that story, and his ascendency to the coaching job, the “Gutty Little Bruin” became a non-erasable image. That stuck, even when most of the teams of Gutty Little Bruins that Donahue put on the field were neither little, nor needing to be particularly gutty. They were usually large, talented and tough.

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This was Hollywood, of course, where fact seldom gets in the way of image. A series of Donahue teams winning repeatedly and convincingly — in a city where the Trojan horse had ruled forever and lived to stomp on the little guy across town — allowed for some temporary headline grabbing. In one span, Donahue’s teams beat USC five times in a row to start an unthinkable streak of eight straight. During this time, there were reports of some Troy faithful, especially those car dealers in Orange County, pondering midnight walks into heavy Newport Beach waves.

Donahue had 20 years in the big football chair in Westwood, and while the job he managed to do was incredible — a UCLA record 151 wins, a Pac-10 record 98 wins, an NCAA coaching record of seven consecutive bowl game wins — getting a permanent foothold on the front page of the local sports section was no easy task.

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.

First, he was coaching at the school where John Wooden had won 10 NCAA basketball titles and was the closest thing to the pope that the sports world had, and has. UCLA was a basketball school, always will be, the image said. Then, just a few miles away, there was this school with a place called Heritage Hall, its lobby packed with national football championship hardware and Heisman trophies. Donahue disrupted the Trojans gold rush for a while, but silencing that dominance for a long time was a bit like silencing Dick Vitale.

Donahue retired in 1995, and most would agree, as would Donahue himself in later years, that he stopped too soon. He went into sportscasting, where it helps to be showy, or at least a little glib. Donahue was neither. He did OK, but network sportscasting is not a place where OK has them sending limos and circulating glossy photos.

And he had been so good at being a football coach.

He respected his players and they overwhelmingly respected him. He was measured in his public words and reasonably accessible to the media. He loved UCLA and loved being its football coach. Along the way, he had several discussions with other schools about jobs, but those always ended up with him balking at the end.

He was a religious person, a daily Mass and Communion practitioner, so when Catholic school Notre Dame was struggling with its program during the Gerry Faust years and Donahue was building and winning at UCLA, a move to the Fighting Irish appeared to be a natural. In the end, there was never evidence that Notre Dame had offered anything. And by then, there had been plenty of evidence that Donahue wasn’t moving out of Westwood.

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College athletes are about to be compensated for their fame because of a movement started in California by Nancy Skinner, Ed O’Bannon and others.

Perhaps the biggest downer in his head coaching career was the Billy Don Jackson case. Jackson was a defensive lineman and a good one on Donahue’s early teams in the late 1970s. But Jackson couldn’t measure up in school and transferred to San Jose State. Along the way, he got involved with some bad actors and killed a drug dealer with a knife. When the judge sentenced him for voluntary manslaughter, he called Jackson a “functional illiterate” and used the case to verbally lambaste the image of college sports performers as “student” athletes. That hit UCLA, a school with high academic standards and pride in that, like a load of bricks.

Donahue was visibly upset and faced the aftermath, rather than ducking it, although any UCLA action in the Jackson case was way too late. It turned out that Jackson had a learning problem that limited his ability to read. UCLA, which had recruited him and let him stay in school and play for three years and then sent him away with bad grades, had, in Donahue’s mind and in his later statements, failed the young man. Donahue sought better tutoring practices for his players and closer admission monitoring. He got both. But the episode had happened under Donahue’s watch and he, contrary to UCLA’s wishes, kept in touch with Jackson for years after the former player got out of jail. That wasn’t procedural. It was humane.

Nothing that bad took place under his watch in ensuing years.

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Then, when Bob Toledo inherited the job after Donahue went to TV, the infamous handicapped-parking placard scandal hit a Bruins team that was good enough to win a national championship. As with the Jackson case, it was embarrassing for the school. Able-bodied Bruins football players had somehow acquired, and were using, handicap placards to park, taking spots away from people in wheelchairs and on crutches.

Johnny Juzang announced Wednesday that he would return to UCLA next season.

The public was disgusted, and the Bruins faithful even more so, when Toledo’s team, which had the school’s best shot at a national championship since the Dark Ages, disintegrated before their very eyes in a 1998 game at Miami in which the Hurricanes scored at will. It was a situation that could have used Terry Donahue handling, but he was gone. All too soon.

In recent years it has been difficult not to think about Donahue as UCLA’s football team has struggled before thousands of empty seats in its Rose Bowl home. The ghosts of Troy Aikman, Jonathan Ogden, Carnell Lake, Kenny Easley, Gaston Green, Rick Neuheisel, Ken Norton Jr. and so many others are needed to float around the stadium and inspire a return to Bruin greatness. And they aren’t even dead.

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So should the ghost of Terry Donahue, who, sadly, is.


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