Kevin Donley and the University of Saint Francis Cougars won the NAIA National Title tonight beating Baker University, 38-17. It’s the first championship for Donley at USF and I don’t know if I’ve mean more happy for a program or coach in all of my years of covering the NAIA.
One of the biggest reasons I covered the NAIA for as long as I have is because of the relationships I created with the coaches. After a few years and showing that I could be trusted many of them let me into their programs and into their personal lives outside of football.
My first real venture into meeting a lot of coaches began when I did “The Two-A-Day Tour”for my old web site. The concept was easy; go interview coaches and players all over the country during fall camp and add a bunch of content to the web site.
The execution was a little tougher. When I called to set up each of these stops I got met with a lot of resistance and questions. Who are you? Why do you want to do this? What’s the catch?
As I trudged across the country from stop to stop, I got to meet a lot of coaches who originally had their reservations about meeting with some guy who ran a website out of Grand Island, Neb. I’ll admit that after meeting a few coaches initially I started to question what the hell I was doing and what the point was behind all of this.
Then I made my first stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana at the University of Saint Francis. I had driven in the night before after staying in a dorm room at the other USF in Joliet, Ill. It hadn’t been a great day. The morning practice I was suppose to attend at Olivet Nazarene had been cancelled due to the torrential down pours that day and lightning. When I rolled up to Bishop D’arcy Stadium and the football offices things looked grim.
It was pouring. There were about six cars in the parking lot and practice was suppose to start in 30 minutes. I was 15 hours from home and smelled like the bathroom of a college dorm. To top it off, I had set up my initial meeting with USF’s SID Bill Scott and hadn’t been able to connect with the head football coach.
I walked into the complex and looked around. A few coaches were running around and most of them looked at me like I was lost. I looked around trying to find a nameplate on a wall for anyone who sounded familiar when a silver haired, soft spoken man walked out of the corner office.
“Can I help you young man?”
I said yes. I explained who I was and where I was from and why I was standing in his lobby soaking wet. After I finished my spiel he tilted his head back and let out a laugh.
“Well young man, I’m Kevin Donley. I got your voicemail earlier this week and didn’t think you’d actually show up,” He said with a laugh, “Come into my office and let’s talk.”
Practice had been cancelled. I wasn’t going to see any players either because they had the afternoon off. But in those first five minutes of meeting Kevin Donley, I could tell he was different than a lot of the coaches I had met. I could tell that he cared and I could tell he was actually interested in why I was there.
The abbreviated history of Donley up to that point was already fascinating. He started coaching football when he was really young at Anderson College. After a few years he moved onto Georgetown College and built them into a national power winning their first NAIA football national title. He moved on to California University in Pennsylvania for a few years before being named the first head coach in the history of USF. Within two years he had the program winning games and competing at the national level. There are a lot more details but you get the gist.
That afternoon I learned why Donley had been successful for all those years. He didn’t sit there and tell me about all of his accomplishments. Instead, he asked about me. He wanted to know why I had a passion for NAIA football. He asked about my company and how I was going to make it as an entrepreneur. He asked about my family and the people I knew in NAIA football. He talked about his son, Pat, who had been coaching offense at a local high school and how he had joined the coaching staff. He talked about his daughter Megan who had been a cheerleader and how special it was to have his family around him on game days.
Never once did he talk about the new offensive plays he was installing. Or how they had to do this or that to beat this team or that team. He was the epitome of the Zig Ziglar quote: People don’t care about how much you know until they know about how much you care.
Donley wanted to help. He gave me a quick rundown of programs and facilities in the NAIA. Who the coaches were and how he knew them. He even went so far as to recommend places to eat along my path and where I shouldn’t stop to get gas. He cared. We talked for a couple hours that day and never once did he make me feel like he had something more important to go do. He was in the middle of fall camp and he made it feel like the only thing that mattered that day was talking to me.
On my way out, I’ll never forget what Donley said to me.
“Jason, I know I just met you but I want you to know something. If you ever need something, call me. I want you to succeed with this NAIA thing you are doing. It can only be good for our division.”
Sticking out my hand I looked him in the eye and said “Thank you Coach.” But he didn’t take my hand. He put his arm around me and gave me a hug. A sight that if you watched the end of the title game you saw all over the sideline.
“Take care of yourself out there young man,” and then looking me dead in the eye he pointed, “And you call me.. .”
An hour before that meeting I had been contemplating shutting the whole thing down. I was tired, soaked and the prospect of making any money seemed like a pipe dream. But that conversation with Donley turned it all around for me.
Over the next few years, Donley didn’t disappoint. He always picked up the phone if I called for an interview. He introduced me to his family whom I have friendships with today. His son Pat and I hit it off well and I still consider Pat to be a great friend even though I don’t run into him as much as I used to. And I’m pretty sure there are photos somewhere out there of me country swing dancing with his daughter at Freddy T’s near Savannah, Tenn. Fortunately, the stories of my dancing got a pretty good chuckle out of Coach Donley.
In the fall of 2008 when I sold my company to College Fanz, he called me and congratulated me. He said he was proud of what I had done and was looking forward to what was going to happen in the future. Less than a year later, I learned again about the type of person Coach Donley is and the generosity he has.
We had just rolled into town to broadcast the “NAIA Game of the Week” between the Cougars and Marian University. We were busy stringing cables and setting things up when I spotted Donley and introduced him to the crew. After chatting for a bit he asked, “Well, where are you guys staying tonight?”
I explained to him that the broadcast trailer had bunk beds for the crew and that two people could also sleep in the van. His face dropped.
“You aren’t sleeping in there tonight. No way. Not when you come to cover a game like this. I’m making a phone call.”
20 minutes later Donley had hotel rooms for us booked at a local hotel. To this day, Brandi Benson from the CF crew says Donley is her favorite NAIA football coach because of this. . . and maybe the bottle of wine we received after the game from the tailgating tents.
Admittedly, I’ve stayed away from writing anything about NAIA football this year. I’ve followed it from afar because I don’t know how to turn off my NAIA sports brain. When I saw that USF had qualified to play in the national title game, I was elated for Donley, his family and his program.
There are a lot of great coaches and great people all across the country. But ones cut from the mold of Kevin Donley are few and far between. As a member of the media we are taught not to show favoritism. But its really hard not to care for a guy who cared about you for all those years.
Congrats to Donley, his staff and everyone who had a part in building USF into the football program they have become. He didn’t do it alone and he’d be the first to tell you that. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t congratulate his son Pat for all he has done for the program and for me personally.
Awesome job guys. . . enjoy every minute of it. You deserve it.