BC’s Donahue steps up from Ivy League to ACC

After thrusting Cornell into the national spotlight with three
straight Ivy League titles and a trip to the Sweet 16, Steve
Donahue has an even tougher task at Boston College.

He needs to make the Eagles relevant in their hometown.

The former Cornell coach was introduced at BC on Wednesday –
first to the media, and then at a campus pep rally to the students
who’ve yawned through seven NCAA tournament berths in nine years
and a switch to the Atlantic Coast Conference that was supposed to
bring big-time college basketball to Boston.

“This program is yours,” Donahue told several hundred BC
students and staff who filtered onto the Campus Green on a hot
afternoon. “My job is to give you a great basketball experience.
Yours is to do your best to make Conte Forum the hardest place to
play in the country.”

Donahue received a six-year deal.

“He has plenty of time to build here, and build it in the right
way,” said athletic director Gene DeFilippo, who had said he
wanted a coach who would be more involved in – and more marketable
to – the BC community. “If you can’t feel it on the campus then
you are really, really missing something.”

Taking over a program that has struggled to compete with the
four pro sports teams in town – and even the college hockey team on
campus – Donahue dressed his children in BC gear and did his best
to fire up the crowd. He drew the winning tickets in a raffle,
waded into the crowd to shake hands and pandered to the Boston
ethos with an obligatory but believable – he’s from Philadelphia,
after all – slap at the New York Yankees.

“People asked me what would it take to leave Cornell. I said it
had to be a home run,” he told the crowd. “I’ll tell you what
Boston College is: It’s a grand slam, over the Green Monster,
versus the Yankees, in Game 7. And trust me, I hate the
Yankees.”

Students roared and the pompon squad cheered. After the pep band
played one more rendition of the fight song, “For Boston,”
Donahue went into the crowd and spoke to Billy Flutie, a member of
the football team and BC sports’ first family, and Danya Abrams,
who was on the 1994 Eagles team that went to the NCAA regional
finals.

Even Pat Chambers, coach of rival Boston University, showed up
for the news conference and gave Donahue a hug before it began.
(Chambers’ brother, Paul, played for Donahue at Penn and the
families have remained friends.)

DeFilippo read a list of college basketball bigwigs – from
Digger Phelps and C.M. Newton to John Calipari and Bruce Pearl –
who recommended Donahue. “Every one of those people had great
things to say about Steve as a person and as a coach,” the BC
athletic director said.

Donahue led the Big Red to a 29-5 record this season – the most
wins in Ivy history – and the school’s first ranking in The
Associated Press Top 25 in 59 years. Cornell, which had never won
an NCAA game, beat favored Temple and Wisconsin to become the first
Ivy team to reach the Sweet 16 in more than three decades; they
lost to No. 1-seeded Kentucky 62-45 in the East Regional
semifinals.

DeFilippo held up an issue of Sports Illustrated with a picture
of three Cornell players diving on the ground for a loose ball
during the tournament.

“We wanted somebody who is a great person. We wanted somebody
who is a teacher, not a schemer,” DeFilippo said. “We wanted
somebody who was going to have a team that is exciting and play
hard, take charges and dive on the floor for balls. And we were
going to play an exciting up tempo game. We were going to have some
real fun.”

Donahue replaces Al Skinner, who in 13 years in Chestnut Hill
was the winningest coach in BC history. But he was fired after two
losing seasons in three years, with attendance at Conte Forum that
declined in each of the past four seasons.

Donahue thinks he can change that.

“It’s the most passionate sports region in the country. We play
in the best conference in the country,” Donahue said. “We want
everyone on board. … I find it hard to believe if we play (an
exciting) brand of basketball, and do it in the ACC, that we won’t
fill the building.”