Being honest about Steve Donahue
It is hard to hate Steve Donahue. It is hard to even dislike him. Polite and engaging to the casual fan and media. A proponent of a hyper-efficient offense to please the sports analytics crowd. A tireless worker who has his hand in all aspects of the program, that keeps his bosses and other Administration folks impressed. Armed with a deep and experienced roster and a elite guard entering his fourth season at the Heights, it was all supposed to come together now. But it didn’t. That’s why there is no joy in calling for his job. I decided to post this prior to the ACC Tournament, because this isn't totally about Donahue. It is also about what I want in a coach. College fans might have been the first to launch “firecoach.com”, but what does a blogger do when your ideal coach doesn’t work out? You move on and admit that all the things you wanted in a coach are unimportant.
Can you imagine any other ACC coach helping freshmen move into their dorms? And not their own bluechip recruits, but regular skinny, scared freshman. But there Steve Donahue was last fall, helping new BC students hang posters, grabbing the other end of that box with dad and telling mom the right spot for the family picture. And this wasn’t some move of a desperate coach trying to win over a few fans. Donahue was accessible and welcoming from Day 1. This is what we are all supposed to want, right? That’s why colleges are so quick to hire one of their own. They want someone who loves the school and community as much as they do. Yet as nice a gesture as it was, no one really cares beyond the few people that got the unexpected VIP service from Donahue. The empty student section is proof that your typical BC freshmen doesn’t have some blind loyalty to Donahue.
Analytics are everywhere in sports, but not many coaches still rattle them off during a casual interview. Donahue championed a 3-point shot dependent, highly efficient motion offense at Cornell. At BC -- with ACC caliber players -- it would take things to a new level. And it did in his first year…with Al Skinner’s players and future pro Reggie Jackson. As his own players came into the system the offense has remained one of the better ones in college basketball, however, the defense has been terrible. Using Kenpom’s Adjusted Defensive metrics, BC has the 300th defense in college basketball. You don’t need to been a Sloan Conference panelist to know that is bad.
Over analyzing things also painted Donahue into a corner with this season’s schedule. The numbers looked perfect. BC would play a RPI friendly and challenging schedule and earn points with the selection committee. No bubble for his veteran team. In hindsight, It looks like Wile E. Coyote must have crunched the schedule data. Instead of earning respect with the ADs and their selection metrics, BC got thumped early and often. They lost on the road. They lost at home. They lost to traditional powers and rising MAC teams. Whether the losing shattered their confidence or tuned them out on their coach (or they just weren’t that good to begin with), the players never recovered from the out of conference slate. The only carryover to ACC play was continued losing and bad defense. Upsetting Syracuse generated some positive attention but also reminded many how screwed up this season has been. Why hadn’t the group that beat the Orange been able to beat or even compete with so many lesser teams?
All of Donahue’s positives might earn him another year if things were just a little better. If there was hope that he could shape a defense to compliment his excellent offense. If just one elite recruit committed for next year, giving BC that missing piece to overcome the ACC’s best teams. If the team had just played better in the final month of the season, showing improvement or even just some resilience. But the Eagles sit at 8-23 and barring the miracle to end all miracles, the ACC Tournament will be over quickly. Improving his staff or finding an incredible last minute recruit won't do it either. Four years shows that this won't work at BC.
We say we want a smart, charming, humble, hardworking coach, but that’s a lie. Fans want a winner. That’s it. All the aspects of a coach’s personality are secondary. It’s only after he starts winning that his approach and personality become things we care about. And fans will embrace (or rationalize) anything as long as the wins come. Donahue is a great guy who tries real hard. Yet no one is rationalizing his losing...or at least rationalizing him staying,
There are lots of ways Brad Bates can go with Donahue’s replacement. He probably won’t find someone as perfect on paper. Hopefully he finds someone who will win on the court.