- Tom Archdeacon columnist
As a basketball player — first at Toledo Central Catholic and then the University of Dayton — Don Donoher wasn’t known as a shot blocker.
But now, at 85, he’s become a real Senior Citizen of Swat, as good at deflection off the court as Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell and Anthony Davis have been on it.
The former Dayton Flyers head coach agreed to meet the other day over breakfast, ostensibly to talk about the U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2017 Dean Smith Award he’ll be presented with at a celebratory affair Wednesday evening at the University of Dayton River Campus.
Seth Davis, the former Sports Illustrated writer and current CBS college basketball analyst, will emcee the event.
John Feinstein, the longtime Washington Post sportswriter, author and commentator who has a unique connection to Donoher, will be a guest speaker.
Also at the podium will be Donoher assistant coach Dan Hipsher and former Flyers players Don May, Mike Sylvester, Rex Gardecki and Anthony Grant, now the Flyers head coach.
The award isn’t just for what Donoher did on the court in his 25 years as the UD coach: 427 victories and 15 postseason appearances, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s title game in 1967 and a championship in the still-mighty NIT a year later.
It’s also, according to USBWA criteria, about coaches’ “principles of honesty and integrity, for treating all people with courtesy and respect, for accomplishments off the court, and for the impact they have made on their community and the lives of their players.”
And Donoher, by the way, is still touching the lives of young players.
Although he last coached at UD in 1989, he has assisted Pat Kreke at Bishop Fenwick High School in Middletown the past 13 years, breaking down game films and instructing Falcons players during the week.
A few hours before Fenwick’s practice, we settled into a booth at Bob Evans and I began asking about the qualities that had gotten him the Dean Smith Award.
That’s when he turned Hakeem the Dream on me.
He redirected my efforts with unfamiliarity — “I don’t understand much about the nature of the award” — and humor, and especially stories about other people in his orbit.
He spoke with pride of Grant taking over the UD job this season.
He talked warmly about the late Donald Smith and his bond with Sylvester. They roomed together for four years and that was still a black-white rarity back then.
And he told a couple of colorful stories about his late friend, Rick Majerus, who coached at Ball State, Utah and St. Louis.
When Majerus was at Utah, Donoher said he lived in a hotel near campus and paid for a prime parking spot at the Huntsman Center, the Utes’ 15,000-seat arena.
Donoher was visiting on a game night and Majerus told him they’d meet at 6:45 in the hotel lobby. That was just 45 minutes before the tip, but Majerus always let his assistants handle pregame duties and he’d just come in for the final talk.
“It was snowing like hell and when we got to the parking lot some fan had parked in Rick’s spot,” Donoher said. “Well, Rick hadn’t said a word the whole ride over because he was tensed up about the game and now he goes roaring around the lot until he sees an empty spot behind two orange cones.
“He drives right over them. I get out and try to straighten them up and he yells to leave them. We head toward the arena and next thing I turn and he’s not there.”
Donoher went looking for his 300-pound pal and finally found him at his old parking spot, down on all fours, letting the air out of one of the interloper’s tires.
“I was embarrassed and walked way on ahead and it seemed like it took him forever,” Donoher laughed, “Finally here he comes and I said, ‘How many tires did you flatten?’
“He said ‘two,’ and I said, ‘Why two?’
“And he said, ‘Because the guy’s got only one spare!’ ”
Donoher takes real delight in telling stories about Majerus, who died of a heart attack five years ago.
In turn, every time I saw Majerus along the college basketball trail he’d ask me about “Mick.”
He thought the world of Donoher:
“I love the man,” he once told me at UD Arena. “Anything I am as a coach and any part of me that’s a good person goes back to Mick.”
A lot of other folks in the basketball world feel similarly about Donoher.
Last Sunday, as I walked off the court with Ben Howland following Mississippi State’s 61-59 victory over UD at Humphrey Coliseum, the Bulldogs coach promptly — and without solicitation — began to sing the praises of Donoher:
“Coach Donoher is one of my heroes. What a great coach, a great person and a great man.”
A few years ago when I interviewed May — the Flyers’ two-time All-American who is No. 2 in career scoring and rebounding at UD — he gave a candid account of his old coach, a man he said he considers a father figure:
“He’s as good as they get. I love the guy. I try to use him as an example of what to do and think and how to treat people.”
Then, with a moment’s thought and a smile, he tacked on an amendment:
“It was the first day of practice and freshmen weren’t eligible so we worked out on one of the side courts at the Fieldhouse and the big team got the main court. I was feeling good. I was a college basketball player. A Flyer.
“We broke off into layup lines and I’m standing there talking to (Bobby Joe) Hooper and not paying attention that my one foot is on the main court. All of a sudden I hear this yelling and screaming.
“It was Donoher and his whole face was red.
“I looked at Hooper and said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’
“And he said, ‘He’s yelling at you, you dumb a—! You’re on the (main) court!’
“I was thinking, ‘Mick, Hey, it’s me. Your boy Donnie!’
“But he was making a point. He did it with a lot of guys over the years. It was meant to straighten you out and put you in your place. We had to earn our way. He didn’t want to see you or hear you. Freshmen were low-lifes. They were dirt.”
And yet from that dirt, Donnie May grew to be the greatest Flyers player ever.
Donoher said his coaching mentors were Larry Bondy, his high school coach in Toledo, Tom Frericks, whose Chaminade High staff he joined after serving in the Army and briefly working as a salesman, and then Tom Blackburn, the legendary Flyers coach he played for, served as an assistant to and then replaced when cancer finally claimed him.
“Larry loved being around kids,” Donoher said. “He would go to the pool hall and shoot snooker with us. He was just such a good guy, the most optimistic person. A real confidence builder.
“With him, there was no such thing as a bad shot.
“I remember we played Delphos St. John’s in a March of Dimes benefit at the Sports Arena in Toledo and I threw up a left-handed hook. I should not have been shooting a left-handed hook, but it hit the board and went in.
“When I came back to the next huddle, Larry says, ‘Let me see that left-handed hook again.’ ”
Donoher started to laugh: “Now Tom Blackburn would have said, ‘You can take that left-handed hook and stick it up your a—!’
“After playing for Larry, coming to play for Blackburn was like going into the military. He wasn’t one of the boys. He was a tough guy.
Just as Bondy gave lessons on human embrace — “And I wasn’t real good at it,” smiled Donoher — he said Blackburn provided a tutorial of toughness when dealing with players.
The sum of the parts produced Dayton’s winningest coach and, right from the start, UD got more than its money’s worth.
In fact, Donoher’s first salary at UD was $186.40 a week and that only came, he said, after he did “some negotiating.”
In his first six years at Dayton, his teams went 130-43. Five went to the NCAA Tournament — including one to the national championship game and two others to the Sweet 16 — and his other team won the NIT.
That 1966-67 team led by May is the most famous in UD history. Its run through the NCAA Tournament electrified the entire Miami Valley and dramatically changed the UD basketball program and, in some ways, the university, too.
The success launched the building of UD Arena, which opened Dec. 6, 1969, and that first season averaged crowds of 12,982, the fifth-best attendance in the nation.
Along with more fans came more revenue and far more recognition.
In the 48 years since, nothing has changed.
The Flyers are still the hottest ticket in town.
It was during that ‘67 NCAA Tournament run that Donoher first came to know Dean Smith.
His Flyers team, led by May’s 34 points and 15 rebounds, beat the Smith-coached, No. 4 North Carolina, 76-62, in the tournament semifinal at Freedom Hall.
Over the years the relationship between the two coaches included some give … and take.
“I remember bumping into Dean at the Dapper Dan Classic, the big, high school all-star event in Pittsburgh,” Donoher said. “We were exiting at the same time and he said, ‘You want to get something to eat?’ When we did, he said, ‘Well, why are you here?’
“And I said we were looking at a kid in the first game, a guard (from Penn Hills High) — named George Karl.
“He said, ‘I love that kid. This is the first time I ever saw him.’ ”
“We’d been recruiting him and I had worked at the same office equipment company his father worked for in Pittsburgh. We thought we had him. But George ended up at North Carolina instead.”
Karl played for the Tar Heels from 1970-73 and then went into the NBA and ABA, before winning over 1.000 games as an NBA coach.
If that ended up a “give” by Donoher, then he also was a “taker” on a couple of occasions when Smith invited him to come down to Chapel Hill to watch drills and talk basketball.
Once he went with his buddy Bobby Knight and once on his own.
In 1984, when Donoher assisted Knight in coaching the U.S. Olympic team to gold, he again was in contact with Smith, who had two stars — Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins — on the team.
Now comes the Dean Smith Award, which Donoher admitted he was proud to receive, but also said, “Really it’s an award for the university, not me.”
Grant understands Donoher’s reluctance to bask in glory:
“It’s not something he’s comfortable with, but he does it because he realizes how many other people appreciate it and how important it is to them.”
‘Always there for you’
Feinstein is going to introduce Donoher on Wednesday.
Donoher said their connection goes back to the 1968 NIT at Madison Square Garden:
“After one of the early games my wife Sonia said ‘I just sat next to the cutest little boy from New York. Johnny Feinstein is his name. He’s 12 years old and a real basketball fan. His dad takes him to the NIT every year and he was rooting for the New York teams.”
The Flyers beat Fordham, 61-60, in a quarterfinal and Saint Peter’s and Long Island were in the tournament that year, as well.
“Sonia said, ‘I think I’ve got him rooting for Dayton when we’re not playing a New York team,’ ” Donoher grinned.
Sixteen seasons after that, Donoher won over another young guy in Grant.
“I was 17 years old when I left Miami and came here,” Grant said in his office the other afternoon. “I was 1,000 miles away from my family and friends and I had a lot of growing up to do.
“He helped me with that in a lot of different ways, whether it was on the court in terms of tough love or simply having me have accountability and responsibility to grow up as a man.”
Donoher recalled how his freshman year, Grant rarely played:
“He was behind Roosevelt Chapman, and in a 40-minute game, Roosevelt played 45.
“But it went back to Anthony’s roots. He was from such good stock. His parents had six kids and they all got degrees. He was taught to work hard and it paid off. The next year he took over Chapman’s spot and held that position for three years.”
He said you saw his work ethic daily:
“In pre-practice our guys worked with the assistants. Each player had his own ball and at the end of the period, no one could use Anthony Grant’s ball. It was water-logged from sweat. If the ball dropped on the floor, ‘Plop!’ It had air in it, but didn’t come back up until the next day. That’s how hard he worked.”
That dedication made him a co-captain and team MVP as a senior.
Donoher has been there for Grant in the best of times and the most difficult, including the loss of an unborn son in 1999 and the death of his mother a decade prior.
“I’ll never forget how Coach reached out to me in those times,” Grant said. “He was just showing that he cared. Other times he might just call and say, ‘Hey, I was thinking about you and wanted to say hello.’ He did that periodically and I appreciated it.
“And when you also hear that coming from several of his other players from over four decades, you get the theme of who he is as a man. He’s a guy who’s always there for you no matter what.”
Well, unless you are Rick Majerus, who’s down on all fours, letting the air out of some fan’s tires.