Nine months ago Terry Donahue, a mere 31, was named head football coach at UCLA. It was a choice born of desperation when Dick Vermeil suddenly quit the Bruins to become coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. UCLA takes its sports seriously—witness its 28 NCAA team championships in the last 13 years, by far the best record in the country—and so there was much concern on the Westwood campus about putting the program that had produced the 1976 Rose Bowl winner in the hands of a young whippersnapper.
When Athletic Director J. D. Morgan announced Donahue's selection at a press conference he said, "I'm sure there's no need to introduce Terry Donahue to you." Actually, there was every need. An offensive line coach—a co-offensive line coach at that—is not quite a media star. And Donahue, had he been asked, probably would have told Morgan to soft-pedal the Las Vegas-style introduction, recalling that when he was starting at defensive tackle for UCLA, Coach Tommy Prothro was under the impression that his name was Donny Donovan.
Donahue certainly is better known now, and by the end of what is already a spectacularly successful freshman coaching season, he may be the best young coach in the country. His Bruins are unbeaten, having been tied only by Ohio State in Columbus; they are ranked second in the country; they have overwhelmed their first ten opponents by the aggregate score of 371-113. This Saturday comes the annual war with cross-town rival USC; the winner will go on to the Rose Bowl and a chance at the national championship.
It's an unlikely story being written by Donahue, his loosey-goosey assistant coaches (one of them, Billie Matthews, reasons, "Why do tonight what you can put off until tomorrow?") and his gritty rather than glamorous football players.
November 22, 1976
Does all this success make Donahue nervous? "Oh, no," he says. "I'm really calm. We're prepared and we've worked hard. So there's nothing to worry about. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go throw up."
One suspects that Donahue might not be entirely kidding. He exhibits an old-timey sort of exuberance thought to have died in the '60s. But even during his '60s playing days, he would race onto the field hollering, "Plant the flag!" He loves football so much he once worked for free to prove it (although he didn't intend to); he thinks football is important, but he wants the players to enjoy themselves; he listens to inspirational tapes while he drives to and from work; he believes in the needlepoint sayings in the family room of his home in Westlake Village, the kind that talk of the hope that the wind will always be at your back and the sun in your face (except, presumably, when catching punts). On his office wall is a reminder that "A smile is the light in the window of your face to let others know your heart is at home."
Terry wants to play the game, ring the victory bell, enjoy his wife and two kids, have a party and laugh with friends. Woody Hayes probably is shaking his head in disbelief that football can be so much fun. "Every day," says a Donahue admirer, "Terry makes himself a better coach or a better guy."
Rival coaches are probably wondering just how much better Donahue is going to get when he has some time to work on it. Vermeil announced he was quitting his $35,500-a-year job as UCLA head coach for the Eagles (at $170,000 a year) on Feb. 8, only 10 days before high school seniors had to firmly state where they would play. Although Morgan doesn't like to hire head coaches from the staff, he concluded that time was so important he would have to in order to maintain continuity and keep the prospects from going elsewhere. That decision made, Donahue was the obvious choice. Says Morgan, "Terry bleeds blue and gold."
The deal was struck three days later with a handshake across Morgan's walnut desk, after which five of the eight remaining assistant coaches left for other jobs. And, in case Donahue was forgetting his main mission while he was up to his eyeballs in organizational alligators, he could contemplate life in 1976 without All-America Quarterback John Sciarra and second-team All-America Guard Cliff Frazier, both graduated.
Predictably, Donahue was a pocket of calm in a riptide of adversity, and he kept his sense of humor. "If I grab my chest and topple over," he once said, "you'll know things aren't going well."
Obviously they have been going exceedingly well so far, but that could all be forgotten pending the outcome of this week's meeting in the Coliseum with USC, which is ranked immediately behind UCLA in the polls. The Bruins have no stars of the caliber of USC's Ricky Bell; still, Donahue has put together a group of folks who manage to get their uniforms on frontwards and win games. Vermeil didn't leave Donahue exactly bereft of talent, just some holes.
The hole that had caused the most concern was at quarterback. Donahue has filled it with senior Jeff Dankworth, who chose UCLA over Stanford because he "wanted stability"; now Donahue is the third coach UCLA has had since Dankworth arrived in 1972. More accomplished as a runner than as a passer, Dankworth nevertheless is happy that Donahue doesn't object to throwing the ball. "Under Pepper Rodgers, UCLA didn't pass," says Dankworth. "We didn't know if the ball would fly or not, although just by standing around and looking at it, it seemed that aerodynamically it should work." Says Donahue, "Sure, I wish Jeff could pass a little better, but I'm also certain that he wishes I could coach a little better."
Dankworth's backfield buddies in the veer-style offense that Donahue helped install while assisting Vermeil are senior Wendell Tyler and sophomore Theotis Brown. Tyler went past Kermit Johnston, UCLA's all-time leading rusher, in the third game of the season; the pros like his style. He's tough. Last year, in the seven games he played with a broken wrist, he gained 821 yards and had five 100-yard afternoons. Of Brown, who is averaging 93.4 yards a game this season. Assistant Coach Don Riley says, "He has so much talent it's scary."
Sophomore Linebacker Jerry Robinson is the Bruins' leading tackier and is happy he didn't end up at USC. "I think I enjoy beating them more than I would playing for them," he says. Other prominent defensive players are Tackle Manu Tuiasosopo and Safety Oscar Edwards, who came into the public eye after his girl friend decided he wasn't getting enough media attention. She designed a towel depicting a skull and crossbones for him to wear tucked in his waistband, whereupon he was nicknamed Dr. Death. Now a dozen UCLA players have towels designating themselves as Hollywood and Top Cat and so forth. Edwards, described by Donahue as "a great player and a better person," says he battled his way to a starting job in 1975 spring practice "by not giving any slack."
That's one of the hallmarks of the Bruins: giving no slack. That's how they dumped then No. 3-ranked Arizona State in the nationally televised season opener, climbed out of a mess to get past Stanford, tied Ohio State. Somehow, Donahue has been able to maintain a mix of professionalism and wide-eyed innocence. The night before the Ohio State game he sat in his hotel suite overlooking an ARCO station and a Burger King and mused, "Just think, I've never even coached Little League and now I'm going to coach against Woody Hayes."
Donahue knows football, obviously, but his success may stem even more from his ability to understand football players, who often need a load of understanding. Never a star himself, Donahue was a 195-pound walk-on at UCLA who ended up starting for two years. "I am an overachiever," he says. "And very, very...ah, average. Actually, 'sorry' is probably the word I'm searching for." Once, when Donahue was ejected from a game along with the Stanford quarterback, Prothro said, "I'll trade a defensive tackle for a quarterback anytime." Terry was deflated.
Donahue says he has learned much from all the coaches he has been associated with, including Prothro, who once described his poker strategy to Donahue: "Take every penny that everybody else at the table has got." Still, Pepper Rodgers is Terry's main mentor and buddy. Rodgers gave Donahue his first coaching job "when, just think, he could have chosen one of 1,000 other guys, but he chose me." This was after Donahue worked five months for free. Seems he had been told earlier to come to Kansas to work for Rodgers as a graduate assistant coach. But he had no intention of taking courses, so he received no scholarship. Instead, when he arrived at Lawrence in his station wagon, he was given a movie pass to all the theaters in town and told he could eat with the football players. A paycheck was not one of the perks.
Donahue's first day at a Kansas practice also was the first day for Karl Salb, the huge shotputter whom Rodgers had been trying for years to lure onto the football team. Donahue reported after practice that he and Salb had had words, and Salb quit. Screamed Rodgers, "Donahue, do you have any idea how hard it is to get a 6'4", 260-pound defensive tackle and how easy it is to get a 23-year-old smart-aleck assistant coach?" Terry got the message. Salb was back the next day and starred on the 1968 Kansas team that went 9-1 and played in the Orange Bowl. Donahue followed Rodgers to UCLA when Pepper got the top job there in 1970 and almost followed him to Georgia Tech in 1974. Does Rodgers have any advice for Terry? "Sure. He should quit after this year."
Don't count on it. Donahue says, "Ever since I walked onto the UCLA campus to play football, my dream was to be head football coach at UCLA. I'd hate to leave this place even for heaven." Still, Terry, who grew up in North Hollywood, thought he would have to leave UCLA at least temporarily because of the school's penchant for not hiring head coaches from its own staff. He was bitterly disappointed last December when Craig Fertig beat him out for the head coaching job at Oregon State.
Donahue is the son of a doctor, one of five boys, and was raised under the thumb of a mother known as "The Sarge." He was a plugger in school and a brawler in his spare time. On the day his mother was in the hospital giving birth to her fifth son, Terry was out on the streets of his neighborhood getting hit by a car. As the ambulance carted him away he was seen waving from the back window.
In high school he was named the "most inspirational." but what he excelled in were fights. Through several stretches, the Donahues needed a direct line from the St. Joe's emergency room to their home so Terry could get his dad to come sew him up. He even had one real boxing match, much to his parents' full-throated disgust. Terry's wife Andrea says, "He would do these miserable things, but he could never go to bed without saying, 'I'm sorry.' "
Now much more easygoing and self-deprecating, Donahue tells friends who call, "You're doing so great and I'm just hangin' on." When talk turns to coaches with more than 30 years on top, he shakes his head: "If I make it more than 30 months it will be a victory." But no upset. For even in the midst of high-pressure college football, Terry has not forgotten how to have fun. He loves the Friday afternoon postpractice tugs-of-war involving his players and other students, especially when the losers get doused with water; he joins in the laughter when Riley, who is from Greenville, Tenn., gets to talking on a CB radio at practice: "Hey there, good buddy, this is Double D from Tennessee"; he even loves recruiting, and he chuckles over Riley's appraisal of a prospect: "He can play. His motor runs all the time."
There is a feeling that UCLA may just be able to steal L.A.'s affection for the Southern Cal Trojans. Assistant Coach Rich Brooks, who is always pleading for "a little levity," says, "When you're second-best in Los Angeles at what you're doing, you're not going to attract much attention." Proof? Did you know that USC also has a basketball team?
Donahue learned early on how time-consuming and difficult the struggle for the hearts and minds of fans would be. Gatherings of 40 or so people were scheduled throughout the Los Angeles area this summer. Donahue would go and make a speech and be charming and earnest. But at one get-together in Woodland Hills, only four people showed up. He sold them all tickets and afterward, in his circumspect way, said to a UCLA official with him, "Gee, that didn't seem like a lot of people to me. Did it to you?" Dominating Southern Cal is tough, even though the rumor persists that all you have to do in Los Angeles is turn on the lights and 20,000 people will show up just to see what's going on.
Every morning, Terry stops by a West-wood shop for an apple fritter, having been turned on to them by Riley, whose Southern upbringing has given him an appreciation of life's finer pleasures. This follows the vitamins Terry gulps at home, not because he believes in them (he doesn't), but because his wife does. Then Donahue goes over to the land of X's and O's and ticket requests from alleged friends. And through it all he demonstrates he has not been swept away by all this sudden good fortune. "The key to coaching," he says, "is to find the best way to do something and to keep in mind that it won't necessarily be your way." And he suspects the race ultimately may be futile. "There are really only two groups of coaches," he says. "Those who have been fired and those who will be." For the moment, though, Terry's scalp is secure.