Ten days ago he was with the Michigan team and its traveling party — 109 in all — when the Ameristar Charter they were on aborted a take-off in high winds at the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Michigan, slid off the runway at a high speed and slammed through a fence and into a ditch.
“It was really, really windy that day — something like 60-mile-an-hour winds — and when we walked out to the charter, it was blowing our 6-10 and 6-11, 250-pound guys around,” Donlon said.
“The power was out in the tower, so they had to use a different one. We were going full speed, getting ready to take off and then all of a sudden you hear:
“ ‘Get Down!…Stay down!’
“You could tell the pilot was throwing on the brakes. And then we took a hard left. It’s not a BMW, it doesn’t take corners like that, but we turned and I was just waiting for the impact. I was bracing for it, just trying to position myself for whatever came next. It was happening so fast and all I could think of was, ‘There are so many families on this plane. So many kids.’
“That was the scary part, but then we crashed through that fence and ran into a ditch and that probably saved our lives. “
As soon as the plane came to rest, the passengers began evacuating down the portable slides.
“Right then you worry about the jet fuel possibly igniting, but Coach Beilein was incredible in his leadership,” Donlon said.
With jet fuel splashed on his face, Beilein guided passengers off the jet.
Although everyone talks about the calm he showed, he admitted later he thought briefly of the past plane crashes that claimed teams from Marshall and Evansville.
And just two years ago he had a player, Austin Hatch, who had endured two plane crashes. When he was 8, he survived one that claimed his mother, brother and sister and left him with severe burns that required several surgeries. Eight years later he was in another crash that killed his dad and stepmom and left him in a coma for two months.
Beilein left it up to his rattled team, but the next morning they boarded another plane for the Big Ten tournament in Washington, D.C., and just a couple of hours after landing, they played — and beat — Illinois while wearing their practice jerseys. Their regular uniforms were still in the damaged plane back in Michigan.
The Wolverines would win four games in four days in D.C. and claim their only Big Ten title. Although they did win another in 1998, an NCAA rules scandal caused that championship to be vacated.
Now Friday, five days after the Big Ten crown, they advanced in the NCAA Tournament. And they look like an entirely different team than the one two months ago that was 14-9 and seemed destined for the NIT.
“I don’t want to take away from how we had been playing better at the end of the season already, but that plane accident definitely did something to our guys,” Donlon said. “It did something to all of us.
“Right now I see a certain blood flow in all our guys’ faces. We’re doing this quicker, easier. There’s a lot of camaraderie. When we gather for films and meetings you can feel it. You can see the look in their eyes.
“I imagine it’s a little like if you go into battle with someone and experience something together that you just never wanted to experience. But when you do — and you come out of it — you can look at each other and say, ‘Yeah, we did it together. We made it.’
“It bonds you more.”
Although Oklahoma State outrebounded them 40-21, the Wolverines turned the ball over only four times, made 11 of 15 three-point attempts (73.3 percent) in the second half, had 16 treys for the game and played some Donlon-inspired defense.
Oklahoma State averages 9.5 three-pointers per game. Michigan held the Cowboys to seven and that includes two in the final 18 seconds — one banked in from deep behind the center of the arc and the other a prayer at the buzzer.
The Wolverines were again led by Derrick Walton Jr. — who had 26 points, 11 assists and was 6 for 9 from beyond the arc — and the high-flying 6-foot-10 D. J .Wilson, who had 19 points and four blocked shots.
While Donlon sat next to Beilein on the bench Friday, his dad, Bill Sr. — who had been on his son’s staff at WSU and had a formidable career as an assistant at places like Northwestern and Providence, where he was a Rick Pitino’s assistant — was in the stands. He had come over from Illinois with Billy’s sister.
Maren, Billy’s daughter who lives with her mom in North Carolina, sent her dad a FaceTime message immediately after the game.
And if it was like some past games this year, Donlon likely got some private Twitter messages from a few of his former WSU players. He seemed warmed to hear that they say they watch Michigan games on TV to catch a glimpse of him.
Donlon speaks highly of his time at Wright State but also said “they hired a really good coach. People should embrace that now.”
He said he’d like to be a head coach again, “but I love where I am. It’s Michigan. It’s John Beilein. I have a great job. A lot of people don’t have a great job. I’m embracing the heck out of it. A year ago I didn’t know what tomorrow held.”
He does now.
Sunday, the Wolverines play Louisville, which is coached by Pitino.
Somebody asked Donlon what he knows about Louisville.
“I know Rick Pitino took me to my first-ever Major League Baseball game at Fenway Park,” he grinned. “That’s when my dad was working for him at Providence. I think they played the Tigers and Jack Morris pitched. I know I’ve been a Red Sox fan ever since.
“I remember I got to go because another assistant had a last-minute cancellation. I was in Alumni Gym and (Pitino) walked in and said ‘We got an extra ticket for Little Billy.’ I went and it was great.
“I was really lucky.”
Nothing has changed.