It’s evident that Kevin Donley needs a bigger office. The one he occupies a few steps away from the football field that bears his name looks like it belongs on the TV show Hoarders.
From framed newspaper articles to autographed photos to displayed footballs to trophies of every shape, size and metal element, the Saint Francis coach couldn’t throw a three-yard spiral without hitting some kind of football memorabilia. And then there are the numerous plaques presented to him that cover the walls, and some even bolted to the front of his desk like displayed, hand-painted Elvis plates.
Among all of this, inches from the ceiling and between the two narrow office windows, is a mounted silver shovel, with the inscription, University of Saint Francis Stadium groundbreaking; March 17, 1998.
Saint Patrick’s Day.
Luck of the Irish, says Donley, who revels in his Irish ancestry.
Moving on up
After 33 years of coaching at four universities – Saint Francis being his longest (and likely final) stay, going into his 15th season – luck, alone, can’t explain 254 victories. And good fortune isn’t why the 61-year-old Donley edges closer to the top of the list of all-time NAIA coaching wins.
He needs two victories to equal the all-time NAIA record of 256 held by the retired Frosty Westering, who coached 40 years – the last 32 at Pacific Lutheran, near Tacoma, Wash.
A season-opening win over Texas College in Tyler, Texas on Saturday would tie Donley with Dickinson State’s (N.D.) Hank Biesiot, making them the active NAIA coaches with the most wins, each with 255. Dickinson State opens its season later that same day.
Among the all-time victories list of all coaches at all levels, be it NAIA or NCAA, Donley ranks 20th, three spots ahead of former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz (249), seven ahead of Ohio State legend Woody Hayes (238) and nine ahead of Michigan’s Bo Schembechler (234).
No matter what the level – people look at this that we’re a small level – coaching’s coaching, and football’s football, said Donley’s son, Pat, who is also the team’s offensive coordinator. You’ve got to know what the heck you’re doing to be successful, no matter what the level.
Secret of his success
Donley sometimes wonders what the future had in store had he gone big time.
He had his chance. Back in 1978 when then-Ball State coach Dave McClain got the head coaching job at Wisconsin, he wanted to take Donley, then the offensive coordinator at Anderson, with him. But Donley stayed in Indiana.
I was offered the head coaching job at Anderson, so I chose to be a head coach, Donley said. Obviously, I didn’t quite make the money that I would have had I gone there. My life would have been completely different, I think, had I gone there.
The seasons passed; four at Anderson, 11 at Georgetown, Ky., where he won the NAIA national championship in 1991, and four at California, Pa., where the Donley magic never caught on and his teams were a combined 11-33.
It was the summer following his first losing season – a 2-9 record at Georgetown in 1982 – when Donley, an Ohio State fan while growing up in Springfield, Ohio, visited Woody Hayes in Columbus.
I was a young coach – 32 years old, Donley says. I had my first losing season in the fall of ’82. I idolized the guy and wanted to pick his brain.
We sat down at a card table in his office in the corner of the old Military and Science Building, Donley recalled. He’s right there, in your face. You can smell his breath. And he starts to draw up his full house backfield.
I say, Coach, I’m not here for the X’s and O’s. I want to know the secrets of your profession.’
And Woody told him it was all about relationships: Relationships with players, assistants, administration and supporters.
It was about being direct, Donley says. Saying what you believe and being firm, yet show love. Don’t walk around the edges.
Years later, after Georgetown, and after the four seasons in Pennsylvania, Donley had heard that a small school in Fort Wayne was about to start a football program. He was intrigued. Not only did he know the area from his days at Anderson, he also knew the area was untapped, and that it was rich with football talent.
After the interview, and after getting the job, it was on Saint Patrick’s Day, 1998, when a select few wielding ceremonial silver shovels turned the first clumps of earth to build a football stadium. And while the facility was later named for Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese Bishop John M. D’Arcy, the playing surface carries the name of the school’s only head coach.
Less than two years after the stadium’s construction began, Donley and the Cougars, in Saint Francis’ second season of football, won the first of nine Mid-States Football Association Mideast League championships. And for the coach, it was the first of six MSFA Coach of the Year awards. He has also been named national NAIA Coach of the Year twice.
He put them on a national scale in the second season, said Saint Xavier coach Mike Feminis, who led his team to the NAIA title last season. There’s no question that Saint Francis set the tone for a lot of us a long, long time ago.
‘He builds men’
In his crowded offense, Donley shrugs off the individual accomplishments and sends the credit elsewhere.
When you get right down to it, football’s the ultimate team sport, he says. There are a lot of variables in that, with players and coaches and administration and support. I’ve got all of those right here.
But talk to Matt Smith about his coach.
Smith is a 5-foot-10, 290-pound senior defensive tackle out of Chicago who says, Coach D is a real person.
He’s willing to help out any one of his players if they’re going through a hardship or a hard time. He’ll be there for them, Smith said.
The legacy that he’s got here is you have to give it your all; you have to go out and show you’ve got heart.
Coach D doesn’t only build a team; he builds men. Because of Coach D, and because of the coaching staff he built, he builds more men rather than just players – rather than just athletes. He builds men to be strong-minded, strong-willed, and to have passion for everything they do, and not just football.