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Jim Murray

In Donahue, What You See Is Not What You Expect

November 08, 1987|Jim Murray

If a producer were casting a football movie and went to Central Casting for an actor to play the coach and they sent him Terry Donahue, he'd be insulted.

"Listen!" he'd roar. "We're making a football film here, not 'Gidget Goes To The Rose Bowl.' What surfboard did you get this guy off of? I want Vince Lombardi, and you send me Guy Lombardo. It's a part for a Duke Wayne, not a Duke of York. We want a guy who looks as if he could win a Super Bowl, not Annette Funicello. What's this guy's name, 'Snooky'?"

His name should be Terry Dangerfield. He gets no respect. Stop any two people on the street and ask them who Terry Donahue is, and they'll tell you he's a talk-show host or an actor whose stage name is Troy.

He looks like he should be his own quarterback. Football coaches should be no-neck, bad-tempered guys who look as if they spent their lives on a pirate ship. They should growl a lot, swear even more and have these blue-black beards or gaps in their teeth. And they should amble around and their speech should sound like muffled explosions and they should answer to names like Bo, or Bear, or Bull, and they should have these thick Southern accents. They command respect by their very presence, like a Pope or a head of state.

You look at Terry Donahue and you're tempted to ask him what he did with the megaphone, or how come he doesn't have a cute little baton twirler perched on his shoulders. You expect him to be saying, "Give me an 'I'!" And doing back flips.

Which is highly misleading. Because, Terence Michael Donahue is not only a football coach, he may be the football coach before he's through. He is in the top 10 among football coaches in winning percentage, he has won more games than any coach in UCLA history, he has won three Rose Bowl games, has won five straight bowl games, has been in eight in his 11-year career.

And he's done it all without looking a day over 21. He's 43 this year. He was 31 when he took over the head coaching job. That's how old Knute Rockne was when he took over Notre Dame, but the Rock had had a hard life. His hair fell out, his nose got broken and he had been a postal clerk, a prizefighter, waiter and a horn player in a band. His face looked lived in--like an old flophouse.

Terry Donahue's hair not only stays in, it stays dark. Even though he is one of the great worriers of the Western world, it neither falls nor grays.

The late Red Sanders became a legend at UCLA by winning 66 games. Terry Donahue wins 88 and becomes What's His Name? Rodney Donahue.

It's an old story with Terry. If he looks too young to be a front-line football coach, he always looked too light to be a player.

He never got offered a scholarship in his life. He had to win one. He was what they call a walk-on in his early career. English translation: Who asked him?

A walk-on is usually a Walter Mitty character who's a player in his mind only. The supposition is, if you've got any talent, they send a car for you.

Terry Donahue was a 190-pound tackle, to give you an idea. Now, 190-pound tackles in today's football are like unicorns. There aren't any.

Terry transferred from UCLA to San Jose State but there's no record San Jose State noticed. So, Terry transferred to Valley College. He didn't light up any bonfires there, either, so he transferred back to UCLA.

This time, they gave him a uniform and a number, 64. And they let him play on the scout squad. This is a group of selfless individuals who volunteer to imitate the rival team on the practice field the week of the game. They are also known as the meat squad or the hamburger squad, tackling dummies who talk.

Coach Tommy Prothro and his staff made him a defensive tackle the following year--he was clear up to 198 by then--and made him a starter. It was not that Prothro considered him a budding Merlin Olsen. In fact, Prothro would have had trouble picking him out of a crowd shot on the Ginza.

Prothro had three players whose names began with D and Donahue remembers it was a crapshoot whether the coach would address him as Erwin Dutcher, Dick Donald or his right moniker. "At least he had the letter right," he says.

Adds the D who was Donahue: "I was not a great player. I was an overachiever, actually. I had more desire than ability."

On a stunting, looping club, one in the long tradition of "gutty little Bruins," desire was an acceptable substitute. UCLA's record was 17-3-1 in the two years he played and included in that was the 14-12 Rose Bowl victory over Michigan State, a squad of guys who had weighed 190 in kindergarten.

Terry Donahue replaced Dick Vermeil as UCLA coach in 1976 and has gone to eight bowl games and has had only one losing season since. He has been on the job longer than any conference coach save one, Don James at Washington. Tommy Prothro can now pick him out of a lineup with Erwin Dutcher in it with only a modicum of difficulty. He has outlasted three basketball coaches and athletic directors at UCLA and two coaches at USC.

Still, nobody calls him the Wizard of Westwood or the Head Man. His teams are like he is, in a hurry, young, enthusiastic. They strike quickly, swarm busily and are better than you think.

He may be, age for age, the best coach in the business. Burnout is not even a possibility. But nothing seems to cut through the identity crisis. He was running on the beach at Laguna only a year ago, fresh from a Rose Bowl shellacking of Iowa, when a high school coach and his team caught sight of him.

"Look, boys!" the coach said excitedly. "There goes a great coach! There goes Dick Vermeil!"

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