Originally created 08/30/96

The Donnan of a new era Web-posted August 29, 1996



Must have been 3 a.m. when the ringing telephone jarred Lee Moon awake on the morning after last Christmas.

It was his friend and football coach calling. Jim Donnan needed to talk, face to face, man to man. So Moon pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and headed out the door into the silent, chilly night air. He walked down the hill on a residential street in Huntington, W.Va., and as he had many times before, stopped 10 houses away to see Donnan.

The two men sat there in the living room and talked in hushed tones for hours. Mostly, Donnan talked and Moon, the Marshall University athletic director, listened. In a few hours Donnan would be in Athens, Ga., squinting into the lights and smiling for the cameras as the new head coach at the University of Georgia.

This was finally it. Every professional move in the past quarter-century had been calculated to get Donnan to this point. Big-time head coach. Division I powerhouse. A dream job.

And yet ... something inside of Donnan just didn't feel right. He had spent six years at Marshall, made a ton of friends, won a ton of games. His team was stacked, his program was rolling and now he was leaving.

One hour passed. Then two. Then three.

The two men reminisced. They shed a few tears. For a few brief moments, Donnan seemed to be wavering. Maybe he would pull a Glen Mason of his own. Maybe he would refuse to get on that flight and leave Vince Dooley at the altar a second time.

Then Donnan thought of his father, Jim Sr., who died in 1990. He could still remember the advice his father gave him in 1964, when a teen-aged Donnan seriously considered switching to Duke. North Carolina State, his first college choice, had signed an out-of-state quarterback at the last minute. Donnan felt betrayed.

"Why are you going to change your mind based on somebody you don't even know?" Jim Sr. said in that ever-sensible bank officer's tone. "This is something you always wanted to do. Make sure you're doing this for the right reason and don't worry about what other people say."

A fourth hour passed. Daybreak arrived. Donnan stood and thanked Moon for coming. He had a plane to catch.

INDECISION HAS rarely been a part of Jim Donnan's life. Almost from infancy, the only child of Jim Sr. and Runette Donnan was raised to believe he could accomplish anything.

There's a story - almost certainly apocryphal - about a 2-year-old Donnan mimicking a telephone repairman and climbing to the top of a pole behind the family home in Rock Hill, S.C. According to local legend, the adventuresome tot eventually took a downward glance, froze with fright and had to wait for a fire truck to rescue him as his hysterical mother looked on.

Young Jim excelled in the classroom and on the playgrounds of the Carolinas. Born in Laurens, S.C., he spent parts of his youth in Rock Hill and Asheville, N.C., before settling in the mill town of Burlington, N.C. There, he haunted the local YMCA and quickly established himself as the best athlete in his age group.

Chased by older kids from a table tennis tournament at age 6, he ran home and begged his father for a table of his own. He won his first state championship at age 10 and kept winning them until he turned 18.

At age 12, he entered a yo-yo tournament held to celebrate the opening of the first McDonald's in Burlington. He won and went home $50 richer. That same year he won a grade school yo-yo contest and took home the handsome sweater with "Duncan Yo-Yo" across the front.

Conventional sports were no match for him, either. Donnan led every local baseball, basketball and football team he joined. At Williams High School, he was all-state as a basketball guard and single-wing tailback. He also won the state singles title in tennis, which replaced baseball as his primary spring sport his freshman year.

Everything Donnan tried, he mastered. He was living up to the example of his role model, Chip Hilton, the fictional hero from Clair Bee's series of children's books.

"I read every one of those books, front to back," says Donnan, who still keeps a collection of 20 Bee books stored in a box at home. "Chip Hilton was a good player, always made a lot of good decisions. I liked the idea of somebody like that."

And with each new success, Donnan's self-confidence ballooned further. Rather than pushing others away and making enemies, though, this attitude only increased Donnan's following and legend.

"Jim was always real cocky; everybody knew that," says Pete Burgess, a fellow Williams High football player who followed Donnan to N.C. State. "The thing was, he would follow up acting cocky by smiling at you. Besides, he would back up everything he said."

Burgess laughs. Back in Burlington as a bank officer, he still marvels at the frequency with which locals tell Donnan stories. The ex-quarterback has joined Chip Hilton in the pantheon of boyhood sports idols. Neither met a foe he couldn't best.

"You run across people now and again who just have got it," Burgess says. "I don't know what it is, but Jim has got it. He understands everything, sees everything. He's different."

UPON MOVING an hour east to Raleigh, N.C., Donnan stood out for two reasons. He was a quarterback of unusual grit and calm, and he was married.

Donnan married the former Mary Wright on Sept. 9, 1963, early in their senior year of high school. By the time he became the Wolfpack's starting quarterback as a junior in 1966, the Donnans had two infant daughters.

"He was a hard-working kid, always willing to work a little longer than the rest of them," recalls Bill Smaltz, an assistant to Earle Edwards during Donnan's years at N.C. State. "There was no question about Jim's intelligence and his ambition. He had a real good football head on him."

To support his family, Donnan gave summer tennis lessons at the Faculty Club. There he befriended a young chemistry professor named Bill Tucker.

"He was always so well-organized, able to manage all the things he had to carry," says Tucker, who recently retired after 33 years at N.C. State. "He did it all, yet he was always energetic, very focused, very dedicated, really good with people. He was going somewhere."

His senior season was the most memorable. After a 5-5 mark in his first year as a starter, Donnan led the Wolfpack to an 8-0 start and a No. 3 national ranking. Road losses to Penn State and Clemson took some of the sheen off the accomplishment, but a 14-7 upset of Georgia in the Liberty Bowl capped a 9-2 season. It was the first bowl win in Wolfpack history.

After graduation, Donnan considered moving back to Burlington and taking a mill job. But Smaltz and Edwards stepped in with an offer to coach the freshman team. He stuck with it for three years, but earned more notoriety on the tennis court.

Donnan teamed with Sanji Arisawa, a Japanese exchange student, to win several state amateur doubles titles. Arisawa went on to star for Japan in the Davis Cup. Donnan's tennis never progressed beyond the amateur level, but it left behind plenty of memories.

"He had this poem he'd recite," says Cy King Jr., a member of the Raleigh tennis scene at that time. "I can't remember the words, but it was something like, `Name your game, I'm going to beat you.' Even so, people just loved him. He was just a really charismatic guy."

Donnan's playing style was formed on the clay courts of Burlington. As a result, he liked to hug the baseline.

"He couldn't serve; he had kind of a football throwing motion for a serve," says J.W. Isenhour, who coached Donnan on the Wolfpack tennis team and later played against him. "But he was one of the best competitors I've known in my life. He was just an overachieving type of person, and that went for football, too."

"He wasn't tremendously quick. He couldn't throw a football that far. It was just that people did what he said. He made guys do what he said. He could find a way to be successful. Those people are few and far between."

Isenhour pauses as another memory floats to the surface.

"And," he adds, "Jim's got the best racquet throw I've ever seen. One time I saw him throw that thing from one side of the net clear across to the other fence. It took off like a Frisbee."

THE SAME could not be said of Donnan's coaching career. Though quickly promoted to offensive coordinator at N.C. State, he nearly gave it up after the 1971 season to become a tennis pro. There were two offers - from the Raleigh Racquet Club and the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond.

"I just wasn't sure I was going to be able to get to the level of coaching that I wanted to quickly enough," Donnan says. "With tennis there would be security. They were offering a lifetime job. I thought about it."

Donnan, then 27, was upset at being passed over for the second time by N.C. State officials. When Edwards retired after the 1970 season, longtime assistant Al Michaels was the obvious choice to succeed him. But when Michaels left after a 3-8 debut and Lou Holtz was brought in, Donnan took it personally.

In the end, with his wife's encouragement, Donnan decided to stick with football. He turned down the $60,000 annual salary of the tennis pro and opted for a $12,000-a-year assistant's job - at Florida State.

That started Donnan on a carousel designed to land him a Division I head coaching job. Instead, he would be passed over repeatedly over the next two decades despite distinguishing himself in stops at North Carolina, Kansas State, Missouri and Oklahoma, where he served as offensive coordinator for the Sooners' 1985 national championship team.

He was in line to replace Bill Dooley at North Carolina in 1978, but Dick Crum got the job. He lost out to Don Nehlen at West Virginia, Monte Kiffin at N.C. State, Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin and Gary Gibbs at Oklahoma.

"I had my eyes in the stars," he says.

Moon, the man who finally hired Donnan at I-AA Marshall in 1990, notes something else. He admits he had to get past certain surface flaws to appreciate Donnan and bring him to Huntington.

Once there, Donnan led Marshall to four national championship games, winning one. The Thundering Herd went 64-21 in his six seasons.

"I don't think Jim is easy to read in the interview process," says Moon, now the athletic director at Wyoming. "He's very controlled - in his emotions and what he says and how he does things. He tries to be very careful in how he says things and sometimes this comes across as negative."

With his soft, ambling voice and lack of bubbling enthusiasm, Donnan hardly fits the stereotype of the in-your-face football coach. Similar demerits have been registered against Tony Dungy and Ray Rhodes, longtime NFL assistants who recently got their first top-job opportunities.

"You take Jim Donnan for Jim Donnan," Moon says. "He grows on you. As you get to know him, you get to know the other side of him. Besides, I wasn't looking for Dick Vitale or Rick Pitino. I don't want guys dancing on tables. I want guys who can coach and relate to their players. Jim can do that, but Lou Holtz he's not."

ON SATURDAY, Donnan makes his debut as a Division I head coach. His Georgia Bulldogs play Southern Mississippi before a SportSouth TV audience and a packed house of 86,000 at Sanford Stadium.

The 51-year-old coach admits he will be "jacked to the max" as he leads his team onto the field. But he bristles at suggestions that the experience could overwhelm a man who has spent the past six years in the Southern Conference, working in a 30,000-seat home stadium.

"I've been on this level before and I've won on a little better pace than they've won around here lately," he says. "Let's face it. If we were so good, I wouldn't be sitting here right now."

This, of course, is vintage Donnan. He sees no need for niceties. Pleasantries aren't his bag. He is an unconventional man. He is his own man.

"Jim," Moon says, "is just a little bit different."

Perhaps that's why Donnan couldn't get to sleep last Christmas night. He had been doing things his way for so long, found a way to thrive outside the realm of major college football, that he wasn't completely sure he wanted back in.

Money wasn't an issue. Moon says Donnan earned a salary at Marshall commensurate with all but perhaps the top 30 Division I head coaches.

"Everybody just naturally thinks because Georgia is such a great job that everybody's going to jump at it," Donnan says. "Certainly I did that, but I put a lot into the Marshall program. Building that stadium, working on a grassroots level, getting close to the players. I was as close to having it made at that level as you could be, and now I was embarking on the unknown.

"Even though it looked like the thing to do, I was emotional. I'd been waiting all my life to be a Division I coach and now I had a chance to be at a great place, but ... "

A part of him will always be at Marshall, there's no doubt. Even if he restores the Georgia program to its once-lofty perch, Donnan will never quite forget what he was able to do in the foothills of West Virginia. That's where he showed up all those athletic directors who passed him by. That's where he proved he could be a head coach.

"I really don't believe anybody can be successful in athletics if they don't believe in themselves," he says. "I don't feel like I'm overconfident or cocky. My self confidence is based on the fact I expect to do it."