UD legend marvels at how Flyers reflect values of coach
He was just getting started on his waffle and orange juice, when a woman came up and took him from his quiet corner table at the Golden Nugget Pancake House back onto the roller coaster of emotions that his life can be these days.
“Coach Donoher, how are you?“ she asked as she leaned into the table. “I know I was around for the ‘50s, but I don’t remember when everything got so exciting. But oh, isn’t this fantastic? Oh man, what a year!
“And… how is Sonia?”
Don Donoher’s smile slipped just a bit: “She’s got Alzheimer’s. She’s had some issues.”
The woman’s voice softened: “I’m sorry. She’s a beautiful woman.”
As Donoher nodded, the woman added: “And did you know Jackie Paxson broke her hip? She’s OK though. She got her stitches out on her birthday.”
Before the woman had stopped by, we’d been talking about the challenges of getting older and as she left, Donoher shrugged: “There you have it.”
Donoher is 88 and while getting older can bring some tough times, you also can still appreciate the wonderful surprises life brings.
Such is the case with the current Dayton Flyers, the team he once put on the map during his 25-year reign as UD’s head basketball coach.
There’s no finer basketball legend in the Miami Valley than Donoher, who won 427 games and took 15 teams to postseason tournaments from 1964-89. That includes playing in the national championship game in 1967, winning the still-prestigious NIT in 1968 and making the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight in 1984.
UD basketball is forever tied to him and especially now with Anthony Grant, his former player and lifelong friend, as the head coach.
The 27-2 Flyers are having a season for the ages: At No. 4, they have their highest national ranking in 64 years. Although they have two conference games left, they’ve already won the Atlantic 10 regular season title with their 16-0 league mark. And their 18-game winning streak is the longest in the nation.
All those superlatives can’t help but hearten Donoher as he spends each day at the Far Hills care facility looking after his beloved wife of 65 years.
And whether he’s there, making his daily stop for mass at St. Albert Catholic Church or having breakfast, people want to talk to him about this Flyers team.
Last week Jere Longman of the New York Times came to town for a few days to put together a story about the Flyers team that went on that wondrous run through the 1967 tournament before losing to UCLA in the title game.
He spent time with Donoher, a few of the players from that team and Rosie Miller, the girlfriend of the late Dan Obrovac, the Flyers center who outjumped 7-foot-2 Lew Alcindor on the opening tip. It was the only time in his career that Alcindor – soon to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – was out-jumped like that.
The feat was captured in what remains the most iconic photo in UD basketball history. It shows the moment when Dayton soared above everyone else in the college basketball world
Although the Flyers would lose 79-64, they had gotten to the place that this year’s team hopes to reach.
And the current Flyers have some elements to them that Donoher’s ’67 team did not.
"The thing that knocks me out about them is their ability to shoot," he said just a day before the Flyers shot an unbelievable 72.3 percent from the floor to overwhelm Davidson, 82-67, at UD Arena Friday night.
“I have a tendency when I look at box scores in the paper to instinctively go the field goal percentage of both teams.
“I don’t know what these guys are right now (they’re at 52.6 percent, No, 1 in the nation) but recently they were shooting 60 percent from the field…. 60 percent!
“I looked it up and in all our years we had just two teams that shot 50 percent.
“These guys are shooters. Runners, threes, it doesn’t matter. And that’s the name of the game, getting the ball in the net.”
He talked about the way this team passes the ball around to get the best shot: “They’re unselfish. That shows a team where they’ve all bought in.
“As I watch them play, they seem to have a little of Anthony in them. I’m not saying in ability or style of play, but they have his personality. He was a great teammate. He was selfless. He did all those intangible things that make a team better and it’s like he’s imparted that in them.”
Just as Grant has done something for the current players, he has lifted former Flyers as well, Donoher said.
“I’ve bumped into so many former players and they’re really enjoying this. Anthony is such a likeable guy and they love it that one of the fraternity is putting the thing together like this.”
Toast of the town
Although a candidate for national coach of the year, Grant still has a way to go to match Donoher, who’s in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and three years ago was given the U.S Basketball Writers Association’s prestigious Dean Smith Award, which recognizes on-court accomplishment and off -court character and impact.
Grant now has a 62-31 record in his three seasons at UD.
In his first three years with the Flyers, Donoher went 70-19, took two teams to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 and the other to the national title game.
And this, mind you, on a beginning salary of $185 a week.
Those were different times in so many ways.
While the Flyers NCAA Tournament run in ‘67 included victories over No. 6 Western Kentucky, No. 8 Tennessee, a stirring comeback win in overtime against Virginia Tech, a stunning upset of No. 4 North Carolina – in a game where Don May hit 13 straight shots and finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds – and the showdown with No. 1 UCLA, some of those games weren’t on national TV.
But the Flyers still were the toast of the town.
After the loss to UCLA at Freedom Hall, the team flew from Louisville to Dayton, where they were met at the airport by Mayor Dave Hall and other city notables. Donoher and the players then got into open convertibles and were driven in a caravan through the city to campus.
Along the way people stood in their yards, waving and holding signs. Drivers pulled their cars over on the highway and honked their horns. As the Flyers passed Miami Valley Hospital, patients crowded the windows to watch.
Although the students were home for Easter, 2,000 people waited at the Fieldhouse for the team to make a red-carpet entrance.
Donoher doesn’t bring any of that up – he’s famous for deflecting limelight and praise – but he did admit the tournament run was one of his proudest moments:
“I mean, yeah, the title game is the target. And no matter if this team goes to it or five more go, that will always be the first one.
“Today the Final Four is one of greatest sporting events in the country. It wasn’t back then. It wasn’t even called the Final Four, it was just the NCAA Finals, but it still was awfully big.
“And yet I don’t think about that tournament nearly as much as I do that 1974 game against UCLA.”
The Flyers lost the showdown, 111-100, in triple overtime.
“It drives me nuts because we had ‘em by the throat,” Donoher said. “There was a minute, 25 seconds left. We had a three-point lead and we were on the line for a one and one. If we made those free throws we’d have been up five. And that’s when there was no three (point shot) and no shot clock. We couldn’t possibly lose.
“But we did and I still second guess myself. You’d think I’d focus on one of our big wins – like the North Carolina semifinal – but it could have been such a historic game. We started UCLA’s stretch of seven straight championships in ‘67 and we could have ended it there.”
Donoher’s teams made other tournament runs, especially the 1984 Elite Eight team where Roosevelt Chapman – the program’s all-time leading scorer – was the star and Grant was his little-used, freshman back up.
“Anthony never played that season, but he never hung his head,” Donoher said. “He went home that summer and was bound and determined he was going to compete for that three spot the next season. Chapman had finished up and Anthony killed himself in workouts and came back and took over the position.
“He had a tremendous work ethic and it came from home. He grew up in a great family. I remember going in their house (in Miami) and his dad asking a lot of pertinent questions: ‘What’s the environment? What’s the academics?’ He wanted answers.”
Grant lived up to the expectations of both his father and Donoher, whom he said “always held me accountable.”
“I knew no matter what he did afterward, he was going to be successful,” Donoher said. “He was a self-starter.”
Grant was coaching at Miami Central High School when Dan Hipsher – Donoher’s former assistant who’d become the Stetson head coach – asked him to join his staff. After that Grant hooked up with Billy Donovan, first as an assistant at Marshall and then for 10 years at Florida.
Working as a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers after he and UD parted ways in 1989, Donoher would visit Grant wherever he was and attend practices or games.
He especially remembers a trip to Marshall, which he’d planned to be the first stop on a swing to see Gale Catlett’s West Virginia team in Morgantown and then go on to Columbus to see his former player, Damon Goodwin, who was coaching at Capital.
He went to dinner with Grant and some of the other coaches after practice and then planned to drive to WVU.
“John Pelfrey was one of the assistants and he said, ‘No! No! Don’t drive there tonight. That interstate is full of deer. Don’t do it.’ But I said, ‘Naah, I’ve been driving all my life.’”
On the way, Donoher said he stopped for gas and that’s when he realized he’d left his credit card back at the restaurant:
“I thought, ‘I got to get that thing,’ so I turned around and, sure enough, I hit a deer. It totaled the frickin’ car. I was lucky I wasn’t killed.”
‘This is where I think I belong’
These days Donoher spends every afternoon and evening with Sonia, although he admits she doesn’t initiate conversation like she once did.
When she was still at home, he said Grant and his daughter, Jayda, came to visit her. Now he and Grant talk on the phone every now and then and sometimes they go to breakfast together.
Donoher watches as many of the games as he can get on the TV at the care center, but hasn’t left his wife this season to see games at UD Arena.
“This is where I think I belong,” he said.
The two first met at a UD football game in Cincinnati. He was a junior basketball player for the Flyers and she was a Stivers High grad who had grown up on Jones Street in the Oregon District and was working in town. They hit it off and began dating soon after.
In the past Donoher has told me how he’d race back down Brown Street to campus to make Tom Blackburn’s curfew.
While Sonia took a big part in raising their kids, she was also a basketball fan, he said, and took special delight in going to the NIT games at Madison Square Garden.
It was during that 1968 tournament run there that he first began his association with Bobby Knight, who later became such a close friend that they coached the USA team to Olympic gold in 1984.
But in 1968 Donoher said he barely knew Knight:
“Now teams have videos of every game their opponents have played and they probably film all their own practices, too. But back then you were lucky to get anything on your opponent.
“We got by West Virginia in the first NIT game and then we were playing Fordham. We had no film on them, but I looked at their schedule and saw they’d played Army, where Knight was the coach.
“Now the day we’d beaten West Virginia, Army had lost to Notre Dame and the word around the Garden was that Knight was not a happy camper. They said the NIT rep had walked into their dressing room with their tournament watches and Knight had thrown the guy and the watches out into the hallway.
“I talked with my coaches and said, ‘Should I call and see if he has any information on Fordham? He may not be in good humor, but, well, we’re two Buckeyes and maybe he’ll listen.’
“I got him on the phone and he didn’t talk much, but he said, ‘I can help you out. Send somebody up and I’ll give you all the stuff you’ll need.’
“Chuck Grigsby drove up to West Point and came back with a detailed report on just how we should play them.”
The Flyers edged Fordham, 61-60, and that put them in a game with Notre Dame..
Again Donoher hesitated calling Knight, but said he finally did: “Bobby was kind of short, but he said, ‘Yeah, I can give you our stuff,’ so Chuck went up again.”
UD slipped past the Irish, 76-74, to set up a championship game with Kansas.
“That next morning I get a call from the front desk and they said I had a message,” Donoher laughed. “It was a note and this is almost verbatim:
“’Congratulations. I know nothing about Kansas. I assume Dayton is paying you a salary. Maybe it’s time for you to figure one of these things out.’”
Donoher did just that.
The Flyers clobbered Kansas to win the NIT crown. He went on to become the winningest, most revered coach in Flyers’ history and now the player he mentored and has forever bonded with has taken over the team and he too has figured things out.
Because of it, the town has been ignited and Donoher has been buoyed. Both of them had needed a lift lately, so to answer that woman from the pancake house: