During Kevin Donley's first head coaching gig at then-Anderson College, the Pittsburgh Pirates rallied around the song “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge in 1979, ultimately riding an emotional boost to a World Series title.
It's hard to say whether that song impacted the Saint Francis head coach, now in his 23rd season guiding the Cougars, but in using the tenure of several of his assistant coaches as a gauge, the song's theme continues to play out years later at the corner of Spring and Lindenwood.
“It's tremendous,” Donley said. “We have traditionally been able to keep coaches for a good while. A lot of time coaches are looking for their next job, but people realize Fort Wayne is a pretty good town, and USF is a pretty good school. We've been able to keep guys, and that's been an advantage.”
Donley hopes that advantage comes into play Saturday, when his Cougars (1-1, 1-1 MSFA Mideast) look to rebound from their first loss of the year. Saint Francis rallied from a three-touchdown deficit last Saturday at Concordia-Ann Arbor before the hosts kicked a field goal in the final minute to win 24-21.
The Cougars take to the road again, traveling to Marion to face Indiana Wesleyan (1-2) in Saint Francis' first-ever game at Wildcat Football Stadium.
Eight of the Cougars' 12 assistant coaches sport tenures of at least six seasons under Donley. Joey Didier, now in his 11th season as a assistant, stands just fifth in terms of years logged within the program. Eddie Nolan entered his 20th year this season, while Dave Ivy – now in year 23 – holds the title of longest tenure, having joined Donley when he founded the Cougars' program in 1998.
“Nearly 20 years ago, I chose Saint Francis as a recruit to play there, and I chose Saint Francis because it's in a city that I love,” Didier said. “It's in my hometown, I had an opportunity to be by my family and I had an opportunity to play for coach Donley.
“Fast forward to 2010 when (Donley) brought me on staff, and I had an opportunity to stay in the coaching profession in a city that I love at my alma mater.”
While differing opinions arise any time a group is gathered, the staff all know there's a common two-fold goal – to win championships, but more importantly, to turn young men into men.
“Everybody has their own personalities that they bring, and sometimes it's like being in your house with your brother,” Nolan said. “As coaches we've grown to be more like family. You want to win championships, but the life lessons that young men learn are just as important as winning games.”
And that familiarity pays dividends previously unknown prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. With the NAIA shifting its playoffs to the spring, playing its six-game season directly before the playoffs after holding spring practice last fall, having so many longtime pieces in place on staff lends itself to knowing exactly what to expect.
That sense of comfort, of family? That's why so many assistants remain at Saint Francis, rather than forging a new path at another school.
“(Coach Donley has) taught us so much,” Didier said. “It's one of those things where the grass sometimes isn't always greener on the other side. A lot of us have chosen to stay at a place where we love to be and where we've been very successful.”
Saint Francis at Indiana Wesleyan
When: noon Saturday
Where: Wildcat Football Stadium, Marion
Radio: 106.3 FM
Records: No. 9 Saint Francis (1-1, 1-1 MSFA Mideast) at Indiana Wesleyan (1-2, 1-1)