Legendary Dayton coach Don Donoher dies at 92

Don Donoher, the winningest men’s basketball basketball coach in the storied history of the Dayton Flyers, died Friday, the university announced. Donoher was 92.

His death comes four years after his wife Sonia, 87, died. Don and Sonia, a Stivers High School graduate, met when Don was still playing at UD.

“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?” Donoher told Dayton Daily News columnist Tom Archdeacon in 2015. “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.”

In December, Donoher made his last public appearance at UD Arena, joining players from the 1984 team, including Dayton’s current head coach Anthony Grant, who played for Donoher, in a halftime ceremony 40 years after their run to the Elite Eight. Members of Dayton’s 2023-24 roster shook hands with Donoher and the 1984 players at the end of the ceremony.

A 1950 graduate of Central Catholic High School in Toledo and a 1954 University of Dayton graduate, Donoher coached Dayton for 25 seasons. From 1964-89, he had a record of 437-275. The program appeared in the NCAA tournament eight times in that span.

Dayton’s program reached a peak under Donoher in 1967, making a run to the NCAA championship game before losing to No. 1 UCLA, which began a run of seven straight championships. In all the years since, only one Ohio program — Ohio State in 2007 — has reached the final game.

Dayton’s success in 1967 laid the groundwork for the construction of UD Arena, which opened in 1969 at the start of Donoher’s sixth season as head coach. In 1998, a $4.3 million addition to the arena was named the Donoher Center in honor of the coach. John McHale, 1978 UD graduate whose gift made the addition possible wanted the facility named after Donoher.

In 1998 when the Donoher Center opened, UD President Raymond L. Fitz heaped praise on Donoher.

”Don’s personal integrity and his tremendous influence on young people,” Fitz said, “in his more than 25 years of service to the university, combined with his outstanding success as a coach, make him one of the greats in UD’s athletic tradition.”

Credit: David Jablonski

Credit: David Jablonski

Donoher’s connection to Dayton started in 1950. Dayton was the only college he considered. He wanted to attend a Catholic university.

“A lot of Central kids were already at UD,” Donoher said in 1984. “If you were a scholarship athlete at Central, you either went to Notre Dame or you went to Dayton.”

In his first season as a varsity player at Dayton in 1951-52, Donoher scored the game-clinching basket in a 72-71 victory at No. 13 Louisville in February. It was only his third appearance of the season and his first notable moment as a Flyer. Si Burick, of the Dayton Daily News, described Donoher as an “unsung Toledo sophomore.”

Donoher only saw action in that game because other players had fouled out, but that one basket secured his place in coach Tom Blackburn’s program. Donoher talked about the shot in a 1984 inteview.

“They throw it in and they score right now to cut it to one,” Donoher said. “The place is going wild and they’re full-court pressing us like mad. I took one look and said, ‘Get me outta here,’ and I took off running. I got down to the other end and nobody was with me. Junior Norris threw a real high pass down to me and I shook it in for a bucket. I’m serious. My hand was shaking like crazy. Then they cut it to one again and that made my basket the winner. I heard Tom say many times, ‘If a guy ever won a game for me, he was worth four years of scholarships.’”

Donoher averaged 6.3 points in 28 games as a sophomore and 12.1 points as a senior in 1954 when he served as team captain.

Ritter Collett wrote about Donoher’s playing abilities in the Journal Herald in 1953.

“Donoher’s ability isn’t likely to impress the fan in the stand, because Don is anything but spectacular,” Collett wrote. “Not overly fast or overly tall as basketball players go, the Toledoan gets good mileage out of a keen basketball ‘mind’ and a sharp eye for the basket.”

Donoher spent two years in the Army, including 18 months in Germany, after graduating from UD. He returned to Dayton in 1956 and met with Blackburn, who hired him to scout opponents. Donoher also coached a semi-pro team, the Dayton Collegians, in the 1956-57 season. The roster included former UD stars Bill Uhl, John Horan and others. The team played home games at Hobart Arena.

At the same time, Donoher worked as a salesman for Ditto Inc., an office equipment company.

“I’ll be truthful; I was horrible,” Donoher said in 2015. “I didn’t like it and wasn’t any good at it.”

Donoher also started spending time at Chaminade High School with his former UD teammate Tom Frericks, who was coaching the high school team.

In 1961, Frericks hired Donoher to coach the Chaminade freshman team. He also taught business and physical education at the downtown Dayton high school.

Donoher coached at Chaminade until midway through the 1962-63 season when he was hired as Blackburn’s first full-time assistant. Blackburn said then Donoher was his only choice.

“Maybe he liked me,” Donoher said of Blackburn in 1967. “He got me up for it, but I shouldn’t have got the job. He put one over on ‘em, pure and simple. They couldn’t reject my resume; I didn’t have one. I owe everything to Tom Blackburn.”

In Donoher’s first season at Blackburn’s side, Blackburn fell ill with cancer. Donoher filled in for Blackburn at times in the 1963-64 season when Blackburn was sick and took over the program after Blackburn’s death at 58. Donoher was 32.

Athletic Director Harry Baujan called Donoher “the only logical choice” because he was picked by Blackburn.

Donoher made $9,600 in his first season as coach and an additional $4,000 for his radio and TV shows.

Donoher guided the Flyers to NCAA tournament appearances in his first three seasons. In the third appearance in 1967, Dayton beat Western Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and then upset No. 4 North Carolina in the Final Four.

”No disrespect to Dean Smith,” said Don May, the star of the 1967 team, in 2007, “but Don outcoached Dean Smith, who’s one of the greatest coaches ever. All the games we won, he outcoached the other team.”

Dayton lost to UCLA, which began a run of seven straight championships, in the final game.

Over the next two decades, Dayton’s fortunes rose and fall and rose again. Donoher coached the Flyers to the NCAA tournament in 1969, 1970 and 1974, when they lost a triple-overtime thriller to UCLA.

In 1984, with the program’s all-time leading scorer Roosevelt Chapman leading the way, Dayton returned to the tournament after a 10-year drought and reached the Elite Eight. Another tournament appearance, Donoher’s last, followed in 1985.

Donoher lost his job after the 1988-89 season. The Flyers finished 12-17 that season. It was their third straight losing season.

Donoher took the high road in his first interview after being fired.

“I’ve been fed off this institution for 39 years,” he said. “The whole thing’s been a ball.”

In 1993, after four years away from UD, Donoher returned to the university in a fundraising role and to teach a basketball coaching class twice a week.

Donoher’s career crossed path with Indiana’s legendary coach, Bobby Knight, several times. Donoher coached on Knight’s staff during the 1984 Olympics. After losing his job at Dayton, Donoher joined Knight’s staff as an assistant coach in the 1989-90 season.

Donoher also spent time from 1991-92 as general manager of the Dayton Wings, of the World Basketball League.

In 1999, his former UD player, Jim Paxson, hired him as a part-time scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Donoher was in the Cavs’ war room on draft night in 2003 when they selected LeBron James with the No. 1 pick.

Donoher’s coaching career continued in 2006 when he joined Pat Kreke’s staff at Bishop Fenwick in Middletown. Donoher’s grandson Kevin played for the team at the time.

“I do have a love for the game,” Donoher said then. “I could see myself doing this indefinitely except for one thing — birthdays. I’m gonna be 75 next month, and the wheels can come off fast. When you’re that age, you just never know.”

Credit: David Jablonski/Staff

Credit: David Jablonski/Staff

Donoher was inducted into the University of Dayton Athletic Hall of Fame in 1992. He joined the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

Donoher won the United States Basketball Writers Association’s Dean Smith Award in 2017. The award is “presented annually to an individual in college basketball who embodies the spirit and values of coach Smith.”

Grant, who played for Donoher from 1983-87 and took over the program in 2017, was one of more than 400 people at the ceremony where Donoher accepted the award.

“I think all of us that had a chance to play for coach know where his heart is,” Grant said then. “We know who he is as a man, who he was as a coach, and what he stands for. All that stuff stays with you for the rest of your life.”

Donoher turned 92 in January. Many of his former players attended an early 90th birthday party for Donoher in Dayton October 2021. Kevin Conrad, who played for Donoher from 1979-83 and remained closed to the coach, said then Donoher was amazed by the turnout.

“He’s such a humble guy, I just don’t think he realized just how much love there is for him personally from his former players,” Conrad said. “He told some stories about games in the arena and guys he had coached. It was a pretty special night from that standpoint.”

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