Perspective | The first college basketball coach I met was one of the best

Perspective | The first college basketball coach I met was one of the best

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

Don Donoher, who died Friday at 92, was Dayton’s basketball coach for 25 years, winning 437 games, taking the Flyers to the national championship game in 1967, winning the National Invitation Tournament in 1968 and losing to Georgetown’s 1984 national championship team in the Elite Eight.

An impressive résumé. He was also proud of the fact that he was the oldest living coach who had reached the Final Four. “That’s a record I’d like to keep going for a while,” he liked to joke.

That’s not why I asked The Washington Post to let me write about him — although it would have been a legitimate request.

Donoher — Mick or Mickey to his friends — was the first college basketball coach I met. I was 11. He and his wife, Sonia, who died in 2020 after 66 years of marriage — were friends I came to cherish long after his college coaching career ended in 1989.

If you are one of those people who rolls their eyes when I tell stories about how or why I came to know coaches, stop reading here.

My father was never much of a sports fan, but having gone to the City College of New York when it was still a big-time basketball school (before the betting scandals of the 1950s), he still had a warm spot for college hoops when I was growing up. He also had a friend named Fred Podesta, who was high up in the Madison Square Garden hierarchy and could get us really good seats.

Most of the time, I was on my own to buy Knicks and Rangers tickets and for regular season college basketball games. But during the NIT, when all games were played in Madison Square Garden, Dad would get tickets from Podesta and we would go, starting with the quarterfinals.

In 1968, when only 23 teams made the NCAA tournament, the NIT was still a big deal. The last team in that year was Dayton, which had struggled much of the season coming off its run to the national title game, where it lost to Lew Alcindor’s first UCLA team.

“We were lucky to lose that game by 15,” Donoher said years later. “Coach [John] Wooden backed off the last six minutes to let us make the score closer.”

Dayton had gotten to that game by beating North Carolina in the national semifinals, in Dean Smith’s first Final Four.

A year later, still a little bit hungover from the ecstasy of its run, Dayton started 6-9. An independent in those days, the Flyers had to win their last nine games to get into the NIT. In the quarterfinals, they met Fordham, one those New York teams I followed and rooted for. As I cheered on the Rams (loudly), my dad noticed three women sitting a few seats away from us who were pulling just as enthusiastically for Dayton.

“I’ll bet,” my dad said, “those are the Dayton coaches’ wives.”

When future Fordham athletic director Frank McLaughlin missed a jumper at the buzzer to allow Dayton to escape with a 61-60 win, I sat glumly waiting for the second game to start.

I looked up to see an attractive woman standing over me. My dad had been right. “I’m Sonia Donoher,” she said. “My husband is Dayton’s coach, so I can’t honestly say I’m sorry your team lost. You know your basketball, though, don’t you?

I knew enough to know that Dayton’s Don May was a great player. Sonia introduced herself to my father, and we talked hoops for a few minutes. She asked if we were coming to the semifinals. When I said yes, she asked if we could please pull for Dayton.

We did, and the Flyers beat Notre Dame in overtime. On Saturday afternoon, they beat Kansas and Jo Jo White to win the title.

“Would you like to come down and meet Don and the players?” Sonia asked.

When Sonia introduced me to her husband, he said: “Sonia’s told me a lot about you. She says you know your hoops.”

He then led me into the locker room and introduced me to the entire team. Two weeks later, a package arrived from Dayton: It contained a sheet with the autographs of the entire team and an autographed photo of Don May, signed: “To John. Thanks for helping us win the NIT.”

Thirteen years later, I was a young Post reporter covering the Final Four in Philadelphia. Before Saturday’s first game, I was killing time gawking at all the men in the coaches’ seating section. I noticed Coach Donoher (he was always “Coach Donoher” to me) and walked over and introduced myself. I started to tell him how we had met at the 1968 NIT when he interrupted and said: “Little Johnny Feinstein! Sonia and I have been wondering if the stories we read in The Post were by the same little boy we met back in ’68. We’re so proud of you!”

It turned out one of the Donoher’s sons lived in Annapolis and sent his parents the paper.

Four years later, when I was living in Indiana writing a book about Donoher’s friend Bob Knight — Don had been one of Knight’s assistants on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team — I made the two-hour drive from Bloomington to Dayton to have dinner with the Donohers. On more than one occasion, Mick — which came from a nickname he had been given as a kid in Toledo after a local fighter named Mickey Donoher — and Sonia talked me out of the gloom I was feeling after an especially difficult day dealing with Knight and his mercurial personality.

“I promise you,” Mick said one night. “He’s not going to like the book. It’s just who he is.”

He was, of course, right.

We stayed in touch through the years, and I was proud to tell him that the U.S. Basketball Writers Association had selected him as the third winner of the Dean Smith Award, which was created to honor a coach who stood for the principles that Smith embodied.

Years ago, my friend Gary Nuhn — who died last month — wrote a piece about his first encounter with Donoher as a young Dayton Daily News reporter. Dayton had lost a close game at DePaul. Gary stood outside the locker room figuring it would be at least 15 minutes before he would get a chance to talk to the losing coach. There were no formal rules back then about postgame interviews.

“I wasn’t there more than a minute,” Nuhn wrote, “when Donoher stuck his head out the door and said, ‘You on deadline?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Come on in,’ he said. He was that way to the day he was fired (and since). Always a class act through good times and bad.”

That was Don Donoher, whether understanding a reporter on deadline or a wide-eyed 11-year-old. He was all class, all the time.

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