Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats" Series: Former Dayton head coach Don Donoher

February 16th, 2011

In the latest installment in his "Coaching Greats" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former Dayton head coach Don Donoher, who to this day remains the winningest coach in school history. Donoher, who won 437 games at UD and led the Flyers to eight NCAA Tournament appearances and an NIT title, is now an assistant at Bishop Fenwick High School in Middletown, Ohio. 

Jon Teitel: You played three years for Coach Tom Blackburn at Dayton. What made him such a great coach, and what is the most important thing you ever learned from him?

Don Donoher: He was both a highly-disciplined person and coach, which stands out the most. He was very demanding and not easy to play for, but we learned a lot of life values. He understood the importance of having a lead, and his players were generally under control.

JT: In 1952 you made it back to the NIT title game before losing to future Hall of Famer Tom Gola and La Salle in the title game. Did you consider your run in the NIT to be a success (due to making it to the title game) or a failure (due to getting so close but not winning it all)?

DD: That was essentially his fourth year of a start-up program. The school made a commitment to the program after World War II, so it was remarkable to be in the NIT final only a few years later.

JT: You were on the 1953 team that had a six-point upset win over top-ranked and undefeated Seton Hall (what many consider to be greatest win in Fieldhouse history). How were you able to pull off the upset, and what was the reaction like on campus?

DD: He only played five of us and never substituted. It was a high-water mark for the program, so the roof came off that night!

JT: Following graduation in 1954 you served two years in the Army, then returned to Dayton and became a part-time scout before becoming assistant coach under Blackburn in 1963. How was your time in the Army, and how did you like working for Blackburn?

DD: After my Army days I spent six years in business while doing some scouting on the side. Tom later brought me onto his staff before passing away. Unlike playing for him he was great to work for and work with. It was an altogether different relationship. In his dying days he set me up to be his replacement, as he wanted to see one of his former players continue the tradition.

JT: You succeeded Blackburn in 1964 after he died from cancer and went 22-7 in your inaugural season en route to reaching the Sweet 16. How was the team able to overcome Blackburn's death, and how were you able to be so successful so quickly?

DD: He did not leave us with an empty cabinet, as we had a 7-foot center in Henry Finkel who later played in the NBA. We had an outstanding recruiting class that Tom had everything to do with.

JT: What are your memories of the 1965 NCAA Tournament (Finklel scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in one-point win over Ohio, then Bill Buntin had 26 points and 11 rebounds in a win by eventual national runner-up Michigan)?

DD: The Ohio game was hard-fought and we just pulled it out in the end. We were outclassed against Michigan. Coach Blackburn actually preferred the NIT to the NCAA tourney because that was the bigger deal when he was growing up. It was a real shot in the arm to the program.

JT: What are your memories of the 1966 NCAA Tournament (Finkel averaged 30+ PPG and 15+ RPG in three games, including 36 points and 13 rebounds in seven-point loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky, who was led by 34 points from Louie Dampier)?

DD: We led Kentucky in the second half and were competitive throughout. Coach Rupp went to a 1-3-1 trap which we were not really able to solve. That was probably the best team that I ever had.

1967 NCAA Tournament

JT: Don May scored 26 points and grabbed 20 rebounds while playing all 45 minutes in a two-points overtime win over Western Kentucky. How were you able to get the win and how did May keep from collapsing due to exhaustion?

DD: That is just the way it was back then. We played our marquee players until their tongues were hanging out! It was a big surprise that we did so well after losing Finkel.

JT: May made 13 straight field goals en route to scoring 34 points and also grabbed 15 rebounds to beat North Carolina. Was it just one of those scenarios where every shot he put up seemed to go in because he was "in the zone"?

DD: Sort of. He was remarkable on the biggest stage in college basketball. That was Dean Smith's very first NCAA Tournament as [head] coach at North Carolina.

JT: May scored 21 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in a loss to UCLA in the title game, the first of seven straight titles for the Bruins (Lew Alcindor had 20 points and 18 rebounds). What was it like to coach against John Wooden, and where does Alcindor rank among the best players you have ever seen?

DD: Alcindor is the best player we ever played against. We were a no-show that night and were rather embarrassed. The combination of Alcindor/Wooden was just too much for us. Back then the semifinals were back-to-back on Friday/Saturday, and we needed two things to beat them: more preparation time...and some miracles!

JT: You became the first coach to take your alma mater to the title game after appearing in the tourney as a player. What did it mean to you to lead your alma mater to the title game, and what is the biggest difference between playing in the tournament vs. coaching in it?

DD: As a player I was just a lowly substitute. It was a funny experience as a player because we lost in the NIT and then went to the tourney in Chicago. There was not as much romance to being in the tournament as compared to playing in the NIT in MSG. Had we won the tourney in 1952, we would have had to play back-to-back games in Seattle in the middle of the week, just to give you an idea of the lack of prestige surrounding the tourney back then.

1968 National Invitation Tournament

JT: Frank McLaughlin missed a 25-foot shot at the buzzer in a one-point win over Fordham. Did you think McLaughlin's shot was going in?

DD: I do not remember if Frank's shot was going in, but I sure hoped it did not. May never inbounded the ball for us, but for some reason he inbounded it late in the game and just threw it away.

JT: Tournament MVP May scored 22 points to beat Kansas and win the title. What did it mean to you to win the title, and what was the reaction like when you got back to campus?

DD: It was tremendous, and meant so much due to Coach Blackburn's previous success in the NIT.

1974 NCAA Tournament

JT: Mike Sylvester scored 30 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in an eight-point win over Cal-State Los Angeles. Was Sylvester just the next in line after Finkel/May to put a tournament team on his back?

DD: It was actually a 1-2 punch with Sylvester and Donald Smith, with Johnny Davis helping out in the backcourt.

JT: Sylvester scored 36 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a triple-overtime loss to defending champion UCLA (Bill Walton: 27 points and 19 rebounds). Where does that game rank among the most exciting of your career and were you getting sick of having to play the Bruins in the tourney?

DD: We had nobody to compare to UCLA's frontcourt but we had a better backcourt. We actually let it slip away, as we were up by three points late but Davis missed a 1-and-1. It was a defeat, but in some ways it was the most memorable game ever played by a Dayton team.

1984 NCAA Tournament

JT: Roosevelt Chapman scored 41 points in a four-points win over Oklahoma (the late Wayman Tisdale accounted for 36 points and 11 rebounds). Where does Chapman rank among the best players you ever coached, and was Tisdale just unstoppable that night?

DD: It was a battle between two All-Americans. Chapman was amazing, but we had a very nice team that was small but had great chemistry. We struggled during the year until we went small.

JT: Chapman scored 13 points in a loss to eventual champion Georgetown (Patrick Ewing had 15 points and seven rebounds). How were the Hoyas able to slow down Chapman and could you tell that they were going to win the title?

DD: After playing them I thought the Hoyas would win it all. Chapman did not go outside and bomb away, he was a crafty finesse player. Ewing's size just took away our inside game.

JT: You were an assistant to Bobby Knight for Team USA as they won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. What did it mean to you to win a gold medal and which of your players impressed you the most (Ewing/Michael Jordan/Chris Mullin/Tisdale)?

DD: You have to start with Jordan, as he carried that team, but we had a solid nucleus with great depth. Coach Knight tried to build the team on the defensive end, but there is only one Michael Jordan!

JT: What are your memories of the 1985 NCAA Tournament (eventual tournament MOP Ed Pinckney scored 20 points in a two-point win for eventual champion Villanova in the only tournament game at home in Dayton history)?

DD: We had a great shot at it but one of our players got stripped at the end. They were well-coached by Rollie Massimino. I was actually not overjoyed to play at home, as that is not really what a "national tourney" is all about.

JT: You remain the all-time winningest coach in school history. What made you such a great coach and do you think anyone will ever break your record?

DD: If Coach Brian Gregory stays around I think he will break it. We were just blessed to have longevity/good players.

JT: You are currently an assistant coach at Bishop Fenwick HS. What is the biggest difference between coaching high school players and coaching college players, and how long do you plan on sticking around for?

DD: I had some grandchildren who went to Fenwick, which is why I went there. It is not really "helping out" as much as "hanging out". They have wonderful kids and the school has a great philosophy, so it lets me keep a hand in the game. The high school level is so pure. There are no scholarships, and the players' only motivation is their love of the game. As far as how long I will be doing it, I have to overcome the great enemy of "birthday". A lot just depends a lot on my health.

Coach Donoher is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Atlantic 10 history.

Charlotte: Bobby Lutz (1998-2009) 199-146, 5 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
Dayton: Don Donoher (1964-1989) 437-275, 8 NCAA tourneys, 1 NIT title
Duquesne: Chick Davies (1924-1943, 1946-1948) 314-106, 1 NCAA tourney, 3 NIT appearances, 1 conference title
Fordham: John Bach (1949-1968) 263-193, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
George Washington: William Reinhart (1935-1966) 319-237, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
La Salle: Ken Loeffler (1949-1955) 144-28, 2 NCAA tourneys, 1 NCAA title, 1 NIT title
Massachusetts: John Calipari (1988-1996) 189-70, 5 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 3-time conference COY
Rhode Island: Frank Keaney (1920-1948) 401-124, 8 conference titles
Richmond: Dick Tarrant (1981-1993) 239-126, 5 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Saint Louis: Eddie Hickey (1947-1958) 211-89, 2 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 1 NIT title, 2-time conference COY
St. Bonaventure: Larry Weise (1961-1973) 202-90, 2 NCAA tourneys
St. Joseph's: Jack Ramsay (1955-1966) 234-72, 7 NCAA tourneys, 7 conference titles
Temple: John Chaney (1982-2006) 516-253, 17 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 2-time national COY, 5-time conference COY
Xavier: Pete Gillen (1985-1994) 202-75, 7 NCAA tourneys, 6 conference titles, 5-time conference COY