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Mike Downey

Donahue's Career: Good--and Long

September 02, 1987|Mike Downey

Terry Donahue did a double-take when it was proposed to him that college football followers from the other coast probably think he has been the coach at UCLA for only five or six seasons.

"I'm not sure how to take that," he said. "Is that bad or good?"

It should be good. Theoretically it should represent to him that he still has his boyish good looks, that when the next generation of Hollywood studio heads emerges from UCLA's film school and decides to do Donahue's life story, Bruce Willis or Kevin Costner could still be cast for the part.

Hard to believe the Donahue show has been running this long. He is about to begin his 12th year in charge, having given Bruin football a stability that USC and Notre Dame and even Alabama have been unable to maintain for a while.

Maybe Donahue, 43, doesn't have the miles on him of Bo Schembechler, who looks as though he once carried pearl-handled pistols and slapped Third Army soldiers with his gloves during World War II, or of Joe Paterno, who looks as though he probably knew the Gipper before the poor guy had to ask anybody to go out and win one for him.

But Donahue has been UCLA's coach for so long, you probably could win 10 bucks from the people sitting next to you by asking them to name the person Donahue replaced. (The "Final Jeopardy" answer: Who was Dick Vermeil?)

And, Donahue has been so successful, his teams have lost only 34 games in 11 seasons, his .709 winning percentage is one of the 10 best among active coaches of big-time programs, and he is one of only three guys to have won New Year's Day bowl games four years in a row.

He may look young and seem young, but Terry Donahue has been in business for a long time now.

"Longer than they thought I'd last when I started this job," he said.

Donahue doesn't put much stock in predictions anymore. His first time out as a head coach, the opponent on opening day was Arizona State, and skeptics expected it to be a rude fraternity initiation for the 32-year-old on the UCLA sideline who didn't look that much older than his quarterback.

Donahue looked so young that day, some of the people in the crowd probably saw him put on his headphones and figured he was listening to the Rolling Stones.

On the opposite sideline, meanwhile, was Frank Kush, another of those college football coaches who looked as though for breakfast he ate a heaping bowlful of thumbtacks. As for Kush's squad, it, too, was mean and not so lean. The Sun Devils were still savoring a Fiesta Bowl victory over Nebraska, and were hungry for more.

"It was a pretty tense time," Donahue recalled. "Not only was the team we were playing ranked No. 1 in most of the preseason polls, but UCLA the year before had enjoyed a big Rose Bowl victory over Ohio State, so there was some extra pressure to keep the school's football program on that sort of high plane.

"As if that wasn't enough to think about, I think that game was on national television. So there I was, going up against a nationally ranked team and a big-name coach, in my first game. Yeah, you could say emotions were running pretty high."

When Arizona State's players went back to the locker room after the game, emotions probably ran so high that a few dozen lockers got kicked. UCLA won big, 28-10, and their victims were so disillusioned by the experience, they won something like two games all season.

"Shows how the opener can set the tone for the whole season," it was put to Donahue.

"Yes," he said. "And, it also shows why preseason rankings aren't worth a thing."

For UCLA, a new season opens Saturday night with San Diego State as special guest star, and continues a week later at Nebraska. Jokes will be made, naturally. Playing host to San Diego State before traveling to Nebraska is like completing basic training before going to Vietnam.

No way, though, a coach who has been through the wars takes any skirmish lightly. Donahue knows the damage 0-1 can do. He has been around awhile, remember.

UCLA's success in last season's Freedom Bowl was very nearly his final contribution to UCLA. Enough money was dangled by the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League that Donahue seriously thought about making the same transition that Vermeil and John Robinson and other college coaches did.

He stuck around, though, which is a lucky break for UCLA and a lousy break for the Falcons--who, come to think of it, probably couldn't beat UCLA.

To say that it seems like yesterday when UCLA gave Donahue his first head coaching job is fair only if it isn't misinterpreted to mean that he hasn't had much impact in the time he has spent on the job. On the contrary, UCLA, under Donahue, has undergone the ultimate turnaround.

Now it's a football school where the basketball teams are getting better.

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