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At BC, his heart is in it

Donahue has evolved into a nurturing, caring coach

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / May 9, 2010

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Steve Donahue cries even now at the memory. He still finds it hard to fathom how one young man’s harrowing injury could change so many lives for the better, none more than Donahue’s.

On the night of Jan. 21, 2006, Donahue’s Cornell basketball program was circling the Ivy League drain. Donahue, now the head coach at Boston College, had labored nearly six years at Cornell in his first collegiate head coaching job, losing twice as many as games as he had won.

“It was obstacle after obstacle,’’ he recalled. “Nothing was getting better.’’

His career hit bottom that January night with a humiliating 1-point loss at home to Columbia.

Livid, Donahue ran his team so hard in practice that when a ball broke loose, several players dived for it. There was a collision, and one player, Khaliq Gant, a former star at Tabor Academy in Marion, would never play basketball again.

Gant was paralyzed below the shoulders. But his injury, in ways perhaps best left to the Jesuit brothers at The Heights to decipher, not only made Gant a better man but made Donahue a better coach and provided the impetus for Cornell to advance in four years from the Ivy League gutter to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.

Gant’s injury ultimately helped Donahue, a former paint salesman who never earned a nickel coaching until he was 33, land the job of his dreams. With an annual salary estimated at nearly $1 million, Donahue is poised to launch a new era in BC basketball as he succeeds Al Skinner and joins the likes of Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams on the Atlantic Coast Conference sidelines.

“As crushing as Khaliq’s injury was, it ended up changing everything,’’ said Donahue, rubbing tears from his eyes in his new suite at Conte Forum. “I said, ‘I can’t keep living like this.’ ’’

He chose to become the coach he had been before his will to win blurred his principles. As he commuted 70 miles round-trip daily to sit by Gant — the doctors initially said he may never walk again — Donahue reaffirmed that nurturing his players was more productive than punishing them.

“There’s no question I coach differently now,’’ he said. “I was way too hard on guys before then.’’

Key recruit
One person immediately saw the good in the new Donahue. As Wanda Foote nursed Gant in the intensive care unit, she watched Donahue shepherd his players to Gant’s side and drop to the hospital floor to adjust a television so Gant could see the screen as he lay strapped upside-down to a gurney for medical reasons.

The nurse decided to entrust her son, Jeff, a 7-foot center who was unhappy at St. Bonaventure, to Donahue. Foote would become a two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year.

“It came across loud and clear that the coach treated his players as if they were his own children,’’ Wanda Foote said. “It struck me how much he and the kids cared for each other.’’

With Jeff Foote effectively replacing Gant, Donahue set in motion a recruiting plan that would change the face of Ivy League basketball. He wanted one high school recruit in particular, Ryan Wittman, a shooting forward whose father, Randy, has spent 26 years in the NBA — nine as a player and 17 as a coach — after helping Indiana win a national title in 1981.

Trouble was, other Ivy League powers, including Penn and Princeton, also wanted Wittman.

“I don’t think Steve thought he had a realistic chance of getting Ryan,’’ Randy said. “But it all came down to recruitment, which means it all boiled down to the coaches’ selling jobs. I don’t want to knock Penn or Princeton, but Steve persuaded Ryan in a very genuine way that his program was the one he would be the most comfortable in.’’

Cornell thrived after Wittman arrived, winning three Ivy League titles and becoming the first Ivy team in 31 years to reach the Sweet 16, all to Gant’s joy.

“I know my injury made me a better person,’’ said Gant, who learned to walk again several months later and graduated last year from Cornell. “But it also made a huge difference in helping us grow as a basketball program.’’

The people who best know Donahue, Gant among them, expect him to build a similar basketball brotherhood at BC. The former paint salesman may not guide the talent-depleted Eagles to the Sweet 16 next March. But over time, his former players and associates said, he will make the school and community proud he joined them.

“As a recruiter, he’s done as good a job as you’re going to see in college basketball,’’ said Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon, Donahue’s longtime mentor. “He’s great at building relationships and excels in every other aspect of coaching. He’s the complete package.’’

Repair work
On his first day as BC coach, Donahue reached out to some of the most influential figures in New England youth basketball, hoping to repair crucial relationships that frayed during Skinner’s 13-year tenure. The list of elite Division 1 players from New England who have shunned BC in recent years include Erik Murphy (Florida), Nate Lubick (Georgetown), Jordan Williams (Maryland), Alex Oriakhi (Connecticut), and Carson Desrosiers (Wake Forest).

“Some terrific players have left the region, for whatever reason,’’ Donahue said. “That’s why I wanted to reach out to those guys.’’

His call list:

■ Murphy’s father, Jay, who starred at BC and played four seasons in the NBA. Murphy’s youngest son, Alex, a sophomore at St. Mark’s School, already has received scholarship offers from Kansas, Florida, Connecticut, and BC, among many others.

■ Lubick’s father, Dave, the St. Mark’s coach, whose roster includes 7-foot sophomore Kaleb Tarczewski, who has fielded offers from West Virginia, Southern Cal, and Indiana, among others.

■ Leo Papile, whose Boston Amateur Basketball Club has sent dozens of players, including Oriakhi, to Division 1 colleges and several to the NBA.

■ T.J. Gassnola, whose New England Playaz have helped develop the Murphys, Lubick, and Williams.

■ John Carroll, the former Celtics coach who in recent years has coached the Playaz. Carroll’s son, Austin, has committed to play next year at Rutgers.

At Gassnola’s request, Donahue will appear at a coaching clinic March 22 in Springfield.

“He’s doing all the right things,’’ Gassnola said. “Without a doubt, he’s going to change the impression some of us had of BC basketball.’’’

One of Donahue’s greatest challenges will be identifying recruits who can help win ACC titles. He spent the last 20 years in the Ivy League, a decade as an assistant at Penn before his 10-year run at Cornell.

“This is my toughest transition,’’ he said. “After all my years in the Ivy League, I knew a player like Ryan Wittman would be great and help us win a championship. I’m not worried about recruiting in the ACC. But I do need to know who’s good enough to play in the ACC in my system.’’

Critical times
Fitting into Donahue’s up-tempo system, which he has developed since he began coaching third graders as a high school freshman, will require elite skills and athleticism. It also will call for the unselfishness Donahue has emphasized throughout his career.

After playing at Cardinal O’Hara High in Springfield, Pa., and Division 3 Ursinus College, Donahue was toiling as a junior varsity coach at Springfield (Pa.) High in 1987 when O’Hanlon gave him his first break. They spent a year together coaching Monsignor Bonner High to a Philadelphia Catholic League title before O’Hanlon helped place Donahue for two years at Division 2 Philadelphia Textile, now Philadelphia University. Then they found a home at Penn, as assistants to Fran Dunphy, now the head coach at Temple.

The difference was, O’Hanlon earned a salary at Penn, while Donahue went five years without pay, getting by on paint sales.

“It wasn’t easy for him, getting up at 5:30 every morning to sell paint, then running from work to coach our JVs in the afternoon before he helped with the varsity at night,’’ Dunphy said. “But Steve has embraced every opportunity he’s been presented with.’’

Dunphy gets no argument from Donahue’s former players.

“He treated everybody with the same level of respect no matter where they were on the food chain,’’ said Brian Daly, who played for Donahue on Bonner’s championship team and is now an assistant coach at Boston University.

Andy Kieffer, a Los Angeles investment banker and former JV player at Penn, said no one in Penn’s basketball program worked harder than the unsalaried Donahue.

“We were all playing for the love of the game,’’ Kieffer said, “and Steve clearly was coaching for the love of the game.’’

Donahue finally drew a check when O’Hanlon left in 1995 for Lafayette. By 2000, Donahue was leading Cornell, where he not only grew as a basketball coach but established himself as a community leader.

His sensibilities sharpened by a brother who is severely autistic and a 12-year-old son with autism, Donahue committed himself and his players to helping the developmentally disabled.

He mentored an autistic child in Ithaca and invited Jason McElwain, the autistic student manager who gained national acclaim in 2006 by scoring 20 points in a cameo for his New York high school team, to spend Selection Sunday last March with the Cornell team.

Donahue said his No. 1 concern in moving to BC “is not whether I can win here or recruit. It’s our son,’’ he said. “The next six years are critical for him.’’

The years also may be crucial for his new team. With only eight scholarship players on the roster (the NCAA allows 13) and five due to leave after next season, Donahue recognizes the obstacles before him. He said he also needs to change the team’s culture.

“We’ve got to change everything in terms of accountability, discipline, and commitment,’’ he said. “The players really need to take ownership of the program. I don’t sense a lot of that right now. It’s not going to be easy, but it needs to happen.’’

He will have plenty of people rooting for him, including Gant, who broke away from his sales job on Long Island to cheer Cornell from the sideline during Donahue’s run to this year’s Sweet 16.

“That was great for all of us,’’ Gant said. “But now I’m a BC fan.’’

Bob Hohler can be reached at hohler@globe.com.