The Death of a Salesman is not just an award-winning Broadway play written by Arthur Miller.
Where the University of Dayton is concerned, it now means the birth of a Hall of Fame coach, as well.
When Don Donoher graduated from UD in 1954, he had a degree in business administration and after a two-year stint in the service, he got a job as a salesman.
“I sold office equipment for a company here in Dayton,” he said. “It was called Ditto, Inc., and I’ll be truthful, I was horrible. I didn’t like it and wasn’t any good at it.”
By then he was doing some scouting for UD head coach Tom Blackburn and finally a former Flyers football player who had helped him get the job and was now a Ditto branch manager suggested maybe Donoher ought to consider benching his briefcase and going into coaching.
That guy certainly know what he was talking about, a point that was wondrously underscored once again Tuesday afternoon when the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame announced the legendary Dayton Flyers coach is part of its 2015 induction class.
Besides Donoher, the enshrines include former players John Havlicek of Ohio State, Indiana’s Quinn Buckner, North Carolina’s Charlie Scott, Ed Ratleff of Long Beach State, Kansas State’s Rolando Blackman and coaches C. Felton “Zip” Gayles (Langston) and Lou Henson (Hardin-Simmons/New Mexico State/ Illinois).
For the 83-year-old Donoher the award is long overdue and much deserved.
He’s the winningest coach in UD history and its most celebrated. In his 25 years at the helm of the Flyers, his teams won 437 games and appeared in 15 postseason tournaments.
Current Flyers coach Archie Miller is certainly off to meteoric start in his young career. He took the Flyers to the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight last season and has amassed an 82-43 record in a little less than four seasons.
In his first four seasons as a college coach Donoher had a 91-28 record. His first two years he took the Flyers to the Sweet 16. His third season he had UD in the 1967 NCAA championship game and the fourth year his team won the NIT when the tournament still had considerable prestige.
By the time he was done at UD in 1989, Donoher had magnified what Blackburn started. He had put the Flyers on the college basketball map.
And no one appreciates that more than Miller, who noted that Donoher didn’t just coach here, but also played for the Flyers and still is a figure in the community:
“The storied tradition here, although it goes way back, it kind of goes through him. In his 25 years, he put Dayton in some unbelievable light in terms of the basketball program and the fan base. He’s responsible for all that. To hear of his recognition is awesome for the university, awesome for he and his family and great for our program.”
Yet, true to form Tuesday, Donoher insisted on deflecting praise to everyone else — from his “mentor” Blackburn and his first big star, Henry Finkel, to his wife Sonia and to Miller.
He explained his Hall of Fame selection like this:
“The best I can figure is that we went to the Elite Eight last spring and we’re rolling this year and it was time for the Hall of Fame committee to lift a glass to the University of Dayton Flyers.”
‘A classy guy’
Donoher came to Dayton from Toledo Central Catholic, was a three-year letterman for the Flyers and his senior year he was a co-captain and the team’s MVP.
When his scouting duties picked up for Blackburn, he eventually left his sales job and was hired by Tom Frericks as a freshman coach at Chaminade High School. Soon after, Blackburn asked him to help out at UD.
“I came into the office on the Tuesday after Labor Day, but Coach Blackburn didn’t show up until Friday,” he said. “He said the doctor had just let him out of the house.
“I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ and he said, ‘I got pneumonia.’ Well, in truth, the pneumonia was lung cancer and a couple of weeks later they operated, but then sewed him right back up and said he had six months to live.
Donoher finally filled in as the head coach for the last three games of that 1963-64 season and then was thrust into the job when Blackburn died.
Tuesday, Donoher brought up Blackburn’s name time and again: “He’s the one who put Dayton on the basketball map.”
He also praised the 7-foot Finkel, who was drafted two seasons in a row by NBA teams (first the Lakers, then Philadelphia) and each time chose to return to UD.
“I always call him a four-and-more player as compared to today’s one-and-done guys,” Donoher said. “Had he gone to the pros that first year, I would have been one-and-done. He was the whole program. He carried us two years and got us started.”
Donoher said he reflects “every day” on all the standout players who were on his teams: “I envision Finkel and (Don) May and (George) Janky and (Bobby Joe) Hooper right on down to (Roosevelt) Chapman and Negele Knight. All of them, they gave us a life. A great life.”
After UD, Donoher was an assistant on Bobby Knight’s staff at Indiana, spent six seasons as a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers and for the past decade has been an assistant coach at Fenwick High. Initially it was because his grandson played there, but now he just likes head coach Pat Kreke and being able to keep his hand in the game.
These days he breaks down film and instructs the players in practice rather than go to the games.
He also still goes to the UD games, but rather than sit courtside or use some of the lower bowl tickets his family has, he sits up in Section 301 against the wall.
“It’s a great seat,” he said.
He thinks most of the people around him don’t know his past and he likes that: “They just think I’m another fan.”
Asked if he missed being on the sidelines he shook his head: “I like it up there. This is Archie’s turn. I had enough of the bench. Coaches don’t sleep, win or lose. Fans sleep either way. It’s just a whole different apple.
“I just talked to Archie and he said, ‘We’re on shaky wheels.’ I said, ‘It’s a wonder you have any wheels at all with all the bad tickets you’ve gotten.’ “
With just seven guys who play — six brought in as scholarship players — the Flyers are 19-5 and tied for first place in the Atlantic 10.
“It’s just amazing,” Donoher said. “It’s a wonderful thing to watch.”
He appreciates it more because he’s a Flyer through and through. And that’s why he never took one of the job offers from bigger schools that came over the years.
“I didn’t see how it could be any better than coaching at my alma mater. I mean, you got to be kidding. What could be better?” he asked. “Sonia’s from here. All the basketball players stayed in town afterward. It was like being in a fraternity. It’s been a great privilege to be a part of the University of Dayton.”
And that’s why so many folks around UD were happy for him Tuesday.
Miller summed Donoher up the best:
“To me, he’s a classy, classy guy.”
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