Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette Saint Francis football coach Kevin Donley notched his 319th victory Saturday, tied for eighth on the all-time wins list.
Tuesday, September 18, 2018 1:00 am
Legend continues to grow
USF's Kevin Donley among sport's most successful
Reggie Hayes | For The Journal Gazette
Winningest college coaches
John Gagliardi 489
Joe Paterno 409
Eddie Robinson 408
Bobby Bowden 377
Ken Sparks 338
Larry Kehres 332
Bear Bryant 323
Pop Warner 319
Kevin Donley 319
*May include wins vacated by NCAA
Famous college football coaching names scroll by as the Saint Francis scoreboard displays an electronic listing of the greatest winners of all time.
Soon enough, “Kevin Donley” appears on the screen. This seems fitting, considering it's at Kevin Donley Field in Bishop D'Arcy Stadium.
“You see Bear Bryant, Joe Pa (Joe Paterno) up on the list and then you see Kevin Donley,” Saint Francis senior linebacker Piercen Harnish said. “That makes you think, 'I'm playing for a legend.' He's not just a great coach. He's a legend.”
Donley's legend continues to grow.
Donley recorded his 319th career win when Saint Francis beat St. Ambrose 60-14 on Saturday, tying Pop Warner for eighth on the all-time coaching win list, regardless of competition level. Donley can pass Warner when NAIA No. 1 Saint Francis plays at Saint Xavier in Chicago this Saturday.
Next up on the list for Donley to catch: Alabama great Bear Bryant with 323 wins.
“It's really not about me,” Donley said. “This is the ultimate team sport. No one individual accomplishes all those things. Wherever I am in this mix, there's been a lot of people through the last 40 years who were involved.”
Changing with times
Donley, 67, sits at the peak of his career.
His Cougars have won back-to-back NAIA titles and hold a 26-game winning streak. Saint Francis possesses the skill, experience and, obviously, the coaching to make a run at a third-straight NAIA title.
Donley created the Saint Francis program from scratch, going 2-8 in the inaugural 1998 season, and hasn't had a losing season since. Donley has 41 more career wins than the next active coach, Benedictine College's Larry Wilcox.
The cultural landscape has changed significantly since Donley's first head coaching job at his alma mater, Anderson, in 1978, which was long before the advent of smartphones and social media. It has changed since he won his first national title in NAIA Division II at Georgetown (Ky.) in 1991.
Donley's willingness to change, too, has been critical to his success.
His wife, Rita, gave him a plaque that sits on his office desk. It says: “Do not be afraid of change. Be afraid of not changing.”
“The way I played the game, way back when, you were taught humility,” Donley said. “Society's changed. You're playing a team sport with a 'me attitude' in the culture. We try to transform that.”
Donley still loves the game-day competition, he emphasized, but the bigger picture of molding young men sits at the forefront of his approach.
“If it was just about Saturdays, if it was just about wins and losses, I might be fishing today,” he said.
The enjoyment of molding a team has not waned for the Springfield, Ohio, native.
“Young coaches, even young coaches in their 40s, are all about wins and losses on Saturday,” Donley said. “The longer I go, it's all about the players. I'm more focused on their personal development, not just the football development.
“My job as a head coach is to coach coaches and establish relationships with the players to develop a trust that I can guide them to make wise choices in their lives,” he said.
Capturing players' attention
Harnish is a four-year starter out of Norwell and within 10 tackles of breaking Brian Kurtz's Saint Francis career record. He can still remember Donley making a recruiting visit to Norwell and being immediately impressed.
“A lot of guys treat coach Donley as a second father, and some of them as their only father,” Harnish said. “That's what he loves. That's why he's coached football the last 40 years.”
Offensive coordinator Patrick Donley has been on his father's coaching staff the past 15 years, and he still marvels at the way he always seems to make the right moves. Kevin Donley grants great latitude and extends trust to his bevy of long-time assistant coaches while keeping his finger on the pulse of it all.
“He has a really good sense of the right thing to say and the right approach to the game,” Patrick Donley said. “He's exceptional at it. It's not easy. It's almost something inherent that he has. He has an unbelievable awareness and when he makes the moves, he's generally right. It's really remarkable.”
Kevin Donley's career-long drive to learn about coaching, teaching and directing college athletes surely played a huge role in his success.
There aren't many successful coaches during Donley's time in the game that he didn't talk with or study. Among those ahead of him on the all-time wins list, he's spent time with Eddie Robinson and Bobby Bowden. He reminisces with delight about the three days in 1983 he spent with Ohio State coaching legend Woody Hayes.
Hayes wrote a book, “You Win with People!” and Donley adheres wholly to the concept.
“The book was about relationships and dealing with people and that's what we talked about more than anything,” Donley said. “He was in it for a long period of time and it's about people and relationships. How you get people to be loyal to the team, to be a champion for a cause, to be for one another is something special, and it's unique.”
Reaching new heights
Donley recharged his players and staff following a 6-5 season in 2014, challenging all of them to be rededicated to making the most of every day, every practice and every game. Saint Francis' record since that season is 41-2.
“When he was recruiting me, Coach Donley wasn't just about playing football,” Harnish said. “It was about coming in and being part of a culture that was about way more than football. It's about brotherhood and becoming a team and becoming a family for life. That's what Coach D explained.”
That was the first of many times Harnish has soaked in Donley's wisdom.
“He runs the family,” Harnish said. “Whenever he speaks, everyone listens.”
Donley has written a soon-to-be-released book of his own, “Snap to Whistle,” containing insight to his approach to coaching and how to be successful.
“It's remarkable the people he spent time with – Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes – he passed them by in wins years ago,” Patrick Donley said. “Tom Osborne, Lou Holtz, names people are familiar with. Legends like Pop Warner, that's a mythical name, like Aristotle or Socrates.”
As a history buff and a father, Patrick Donley appreciates how success is part of the family's story. “It's a cool thing,” he said. “The rest of our lives I can say, 'There's your grandpa in the Top 10.'”
The top 5 coaches on the all-time win list are Saint John's of Minnesota's John Gagliardi (489 wins), Penn State's Paterno (409), Grambling's Robinson (408), Florida State's Bowden (377) and Carson-Newman's Ken Sparks (338).
It's possible Kevin Donley could reach the top 5 next season. He has no plans to retire.
“It can't be a job,” Donley said. “It has to be a part of your life, an important part of your life. I've been so blessed that I've never had to go to work.”
It's not a job for Donley. It's his life, a lifetime football journey that's put him permanently among the coaching giants.