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Last season, Steve Donahue coached a team of mostly freshmen
It’s a Thursday afternoon in September in the Power practice gym on the second floor of Conte Forum. The sounds of thumping leather and squeaking shoes on the glossy hardwood have momentarily come to a halt. Six members of the Boston College men’s basketball squad are clustered around the far basket. They’re listening to a short middle-aged man in black high-tops, baggy maroon shorts, and a gold T-shirt. It’s Coach Steve Donahue, former point guard and 1984 team captain for Ursinus College, now 50 and in his third year as head coach of the Eagles. He’s got two hands on the basketball, feet planted, and is about to make a move in the low post.
Donahue lowers his shoulder, swings the ball around, and steps recklessly toward the basket. That’s a good way to get called for an offensive foul, he says. And it violates a fundamental rule he’s been emphasizing in practice sessions through the summer and fall: “Catch and look.” Don’t catch, turn, put the ball on the floor, and then look up. “That’s what we did last year,” he tells the players. Then he re-enacts the move the correct way. He cleanly pivots, swings the ball around low, head up, ready to either pass, dribble, or shoot.
The reference to “last year” is not lost on anyone. With mostly freshmen on the floor, the Eagles compiled a 9–22 record in the 2011–12 season, the most losses in team history, and ended up at the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). Yet to Donahue “last year” represents not only the team’s inexperience but also a mistake on his part. He believes he got things backwards by trying to teach offensive plays and defensive strategies at the expense of the basics—footwork, ball control, court awareness. This year he’s breaking the game down into pieces before he tries to get his team to put it all together.
Practice resumes. Donahue is on the floor, working up a sweat, as are his three assistant coaches, Nat Graham, Akbar Waheed, and Woody Kampmann. This is hands-on coaching, and Donahue is like a wiry field marshal, directing the action but with a quiet down-to-business style. He’s neither effusive with his praise nor harsh with his criticism. Not the histrionic type. If he likes what he sees, it’s “there you go, there you go.” If he doesn’t, he stops the action for a moment of instruction, or he pulls a player aside for a brief tutorial. There’s no need for a ref’s whistle. Donahue signals the starts and stops with a piercing whistle through his teeth. Between drills he pulls a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and reviews his plan.
How does a coach go about picking up the pieces after a 9–22 season? To gain insight into the project of rebuilding a basketball team—or, really, a basketball program—I checked in with Donahue regularly over a six-month stretch, starting with a practice in April just weeks after the Eagles lost in the opening round of the ACC tournament in March to North Carolina State, 78–57. I sat down with him in his office in June and again in September, and attended several practice sessions that month.
The first thing to know about Donahue is that he is in familiar territory. In 2000, he started a decade of coaching at Cornell University with a year of 7–20 followed by a year of 5–22. From there, Cornell’s record improved steadily as the Big Red took three straight Ivy League titles, in 2008, 2009, and 2010, making it to the NCAA round of 16 in that final year. He got off to a strong start at Boston College, with the Eagles going 21–13 in 2010–11, his first season. But that year he was heading a team he inherited from Coach Al Skinner. Last year he had a mix of his own recruits with a few holdovers. This year it’s his team, 100 percent.
When we spoke in June I mentioned the just-concluded NBA championship series, in which the Miami Heat had bested the Oklahoma City Thunder. Donahue didn’t dwell on losing his junior point guard, Reggie Jackson, to the Thunder in summer 2011. Instead, he said he admired the way Oklahoma coach Scott Brooks built a championship contender over four seasons. And he recalled something Brooks said after his first season, when the Thunder went 23–59. “We’re not really losing,” Brooks had said, “we’re just learning how to win.” That’s exactly how Donahue says he felt when the Eagles’ season ended last March.
The tiniest part of a coach’s job is the part fans get to see. They watch him on the sidelines—pacing in front of the bench, drawing up plays on a clipboard during timeouts, shouting to players, yelling at referees—and some may assume the rest of his job consists of doing pretty much these same things during practices. The element that few people see, or even get to know about, is the job of recruiting young players with an eye to how they might fit into the coach’s plan in three or four or five years.
By the time I sat down with Donahue in June in his office just a few paces from the Power gym, his roster for 2012–13 was almost in place. He’s got a corner office that has the feel of a modest executive suite—a window view of the Flynn Recreation Complex behind him, a desk, and two leather-seated chairs for visitors. (Down the hall is a video library with four walls’ worth of tapes and DVDs of Eagles games going back into the 1990s.) He had eight sophomores who were part of last year’s trial by fire and one junior, 6’6″ guard Danny Rubin. In May he snared junior Alex Dragicevich, a transfer from the University of Notre Dame, who will practice with the team this season but won’t be eligible to play until next year. He had also recruited two freshman guards, 6’2″ Joe Rahon from San Diego and 6’4″ Olivier Hanlan from Quebec.
During the summer, Donahue brought on Andrew Van Nest, a 6’10” power forward who played for Harvard and will be a Boston College graduate student this year. He filled out the roster with 5’10” guard Steve Perpiglia, a freshman walk-on who is, like Donahue, from the Philadelphia area. (Perpiglia’s high school coach is an old friend of Donahue’s.) The addition of Van Nest gives the Eagles another big man to complement sophomore centers Dennis Clifford, a seven-footer, and K.C. (Kyle) Caudill, who is 6’11”. They’ll have size as well from 6’8″ sophomore star forward Ryan Anderson and 6’7″ sophomore forward Eddie Odio, who is an explosive leaper.
When you talk with Donahue about his recruiting strategy, you don’t hear anything about a player’s superstar potential, or whether he even has the makings of an NBA prospect. He’s looking for a lot more than raw athletic ability. In Donahue’s formulation, “We look for high-character kids who are skilled and tough.” Included in the “high character” category is the athlete’s dedication to academic work and his potential as a leader. Speaking of freshmen Rahon and Hanlan, Donahue said, “Both those kids were incredible leaders on their [high school] campus, teachers raved about them, opponent coaches talked about them in great terms, they were great teammates, both were captains.”
Coach Al Skinner racked up a 247–165 record at Boston College in 13 seasons, but he was not known for active recruiting—he delegated that job to his assistant Bill Coen (who left in 2006 to become head coach at Northeastern University). Donahue’s style is the opposite. Though he sends his assistants Waheed, Graham, and Kampmann to do preliminary scouting, Donahue believes it is critical for the head coach to be talking to high school coaches, watching games in high school gyms, and meeting prospects early.
Donahue had all the players on his current squad of 14, including Van Nest, on his radar when they were in high school. When I asked why he reeled in Dragicevich after he announced his desire to transfer from Notre Dame, Donahue noted that he’d seen Alex when he was recruiting for Cornell. “I saw him play, he’s a good student, our type of kid, our type of player,” he said. The big advantage Donahue has now is the ability to offer athletic scholarships—an option he didn’t have in the Ivy League, at Cornell. According to Izzi Metz, director of basketball operations, the NCAA allows Division I teams to have 13 players on basketball scholarships, and the Eagles will have 11 this year.
For his part, Dragicevich says he is grateful Donahue re-entered his life, after a tough couple of years at Notre Dame, where he felt he wasn’t finding the kind of role on the team he wanted. Dragicevich told me he was drawn to Boston College because he sees Donahue as someone who “leads by example” and who teaches while he coaches. “There are some coaches where you can’t really ask a question during practice,” Dragicevich said. “He teaches a lot. I don’t think you find a lot of coaches at this level who do as much teaching. He knows as much about the game as anyone I’ve met.”
I asked Ryan Anderson what it was like being recruited by Donahue. “I was a pretty highly recruited player out of California,” Anderson said. “He really just showed me clips from his Cornell days of forwards playing in his system that, no knock to them, but were less athletic and a little less skilled than what I am and they were having tremendous success. And he just pitched to me that if you work at it, with your talent level and your athleticism, playing for me is going to be the most successful time for you.”
Sometimes, of course, events don’t break Donahue’s way. After a September practice session, Donahue mentioned that he’d be out of town recruiting for the next two days. He was flying to Chicago, where he would rent a car and drive downstate to Peoria. It was clear he had high hopes for a recruit, though he didn’t name the player, since rules restrict coaches from publicizing their prospects. He planned to have dinner with the young man’s parents and said he hoped to play the Mariano Rivera role, referring to the famed New York Yankees closer.
The next week I asked Donahue how it went. His enthusiasm for the player was undiminished, but he seemed to have sensed it wasn’t going to happen. He mentioned Valparaiso University in Indiana as a strong competitor. Sure enough, news broke a few days later that 6’7″ forward Alec Peters, considered one of the top 10 high school players in Illinois, had signed a letter of intent with Valpo.
Was it a big deal? Aren’t there dozens, even hundreds, of high school basketball players in the country who will make great college players? Donahue assured me it’s not so easy—there may be hundreds of good basketball players, he said, but not many have all the qualities he is looking for. “There aren’t a lot of guys with the ability to play in the ACC physically, [who have] athleticism and size, and all those other characteristics that are critical to us. There’s not a lot. Trust me. We scour the world for kids.”
With September being a month in which coaches are allowed to contact high school players and their families, Waheed and Graham were, that very day, on their next recruiting mission. Donahue will move on to Plan B, or C, or D, in the competition for talent, all with an eye toward the chemistry of a team several years down the line. “Recruiting is so fluid,” he said. “The reality of it is, things change almost daily. There’s so many variables that go into it that we’re constantly talking about where we’re at with certain guys and where are we going with it.”
Due to an NCAA rule change earlier this year, men’s basketball coaches were allowed for the first time to hold summer workouts. (Previously, players could only practice on their own, without coaching.) Donahue led practice sessions in the Power gym for the 12 players who were on campus enrolled in summer courses. In August, the entire team took a 10-day trip to Spain, where they competed in four exhibition games against Spanish professional teams (the Eagles’ record: 0–4). Donahue saw the trip, a first for Boston College’s program, as more than just a way to get in some scrimmages. When players and coaches bond away from the practice gym, often the result is greater team harmony and trust in one another—intangibles that coaches know make a difference in team sports.
By September, Donahue had reviewed video of the games in Spain with each of the players. Back in the Power gym, he was leading them in drills with a sense there was little time to waste. In the preseason, as in the summer, coaches are limited to two hours a week of “skill instruction” with each player. In early September, they are permitted to work on skills with four players at a time (full-squad scrimmaging practices don’t start until mid-October). So on early September afternoons, Donahue would work twice a week with part of the team for one hour and with another group for the next hour.
The scoreboard clock in the gym, set for 60 minutes, counts down the time. Donahue starts with footwork drills, then moves on to two-on-two and three-on-three exercises. He’s got players passing out of double-teams, or grabbing rebounds and making an outlet pass, or passing to a player behind the three-point line.
I noticed at one point that there was no such thing as casual shooting in these workouts. Every time a player would clang one off the rim he reacted as if he had just missed an important basket. At the end of one practice session, it became clear why. Donahue walked over to the scoring table and received a sheet of paper from a student assistant that looked like it was written in code. It was a record of every shot a player took, with a circle for misses and a marked-in circle for makes. “Our philosophy is, once you walk in between those black lines, everything matters,” Donahue explained later. He tracks shooting percentages in practice, and he’ll sometimes have a player shoot baskets on his own with an assistant keeping accounts.
Donahue wants a sharpshooting team, including from the three-point line. He said he keeps another statistic that hardly anyone else pays attention to: how many of his team’s baskets are assisted. He doesn’t expect the team to succeed with great one-on-one play; he wants good passing, which he believes makes for good shooting. “My first year here, we assisted on 60.4 percent of our baskets. That was number one in the ACC,” he said. The league average, he said, was about 53 percent.
Another expectation of Donahue’s is that his team play at a fast pace. “If you can get early offense before the defense is set, you have a better chance of scoring the basketball,” he said. But isn’t that a much harder way to play? Haven’t some teams succeeded by slowing down the pace? “That’s just not something I believe in,” he said. “I want us to be hard to guard. I want them to be on their heels. I want to be able to utilize the court as a whole, so there’s more space for us to make quicker passes and bigger shots.”
You can see in Donahue’s practice sessions that there’s a fine line between playing an up-tempo game and getting hurried and reckless. There are times he reminds players to slow down, or, as he put it on one afternoon, to “slow ourselves down mentally as we get to the execution area.” There’s a tricky balance to be sought between thinking and thinking too much, between playing by instinct and, in a catchphrase often repeated by his players, showing a good “basketball IQ.” Coaches can begin to sound almost mystical when they talk about that balance. As Donahue explained it, “There’s got to be a fastness about the game that you can slow down to your pace. That’s what great players do. The game goes slower for them, even though they’re playing fast.”
I asked Donahue what kind of win-loss record he’s expecting this season. That’s not the kind of target he sets, he said. “There’s a certain vision we all want and I talk about it with our guys. I want to be an NCAA tournament team. That’s what we all should be shooting for. That is out there. That is front and foremost. But more than that, I want to play a certain way, and win a certain way, and do things a certain way that will be a lot harder to put your finger on.”
He sees it as a great advantage that 11 out of his 14 players are likely to be with him for at least three years (four years for the four freshmen). “When you’re building a team, my goal is to have that team attain their own independence and accountability,” he said. “So it’s not just the coach putting down the whip, and saying it has to be that way. To be honest, if a coach has to consistently do that, you’re really not going to maximize your potential. The potential will be reached when that group of guys wants nothing else than to impress and please their teammates first and foremost.”
Dave Denison is a writer based in the Boston area. BCM has previously featured his profiles of Sheriff Andrea Cabral ’81, novelist Chuck Hogan ’89, and Ponzi scheme whistleblower Harry Markopolos MS’97.
Read more by Dave Denison