Cornell basketball gets an 'A' in chemistry

Big man for the Big Red: Jeff Foote exults with fans after Cornell beat Penn last March for its second straight Ivy League title.
Big man for the Big Red: Jeff Foote exults with fans after Cornell beat Penn last March for its second straight Ivy League title. (Kevin Rivoli/associated Press)
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By John Feinstein
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Basketball coaches talk all the time about the importance of team chemistry. When a team is winning, it is always about work ethic and great kids and desire and, of course, team chemistry. Players on winning teams love one another. Players on losing teams transfer or, in the NBA, demand to be traded.

Cornell Coach Steve Donahue doesn't have to talk about team chemistry. His players live team chemistry. "If you tried to get your players to do this, ordered them to do it, no way would it happen," he said this week. "Our guys just did it. It was their idea. That's why it works."

Their idea, hatched two years ago, was to live together. All of them. In one house -- 14 college basketball players under one roof in an old house near the Cornell campus.

"The good news is it's a really big house," starting center Jeff Foote said. "We've all got our own rooms. Even so, the place does get pretty dirty a fair amount of the time."

No doubt. Donahue really doesn't care that much about his players' skills as housekeepers, though, especially given the results they've produced as basketball players the last three seasons. The Big Red has won back-to-back Ivy League titles and was 21-4 after Saturday night's 48-45 win over Princeton. It has road or neutral-site wins over Alabama, St. John's, Massachusetts, Saint Joseph's, Toledo, Davidson and La Salle. And its losses were to Seton Hall, at Pennsylvania in a slip-up Friday night, and at Kansas and Syracuse -- currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation.

The final score of the Kansas game was 71-66, and it was closer than that. Cornell led most of the game and leading scorer Ryan Wittman had a crack at a three-point shot in the final seconds that could have tied the score.

"Because of who we were playing and where we were playing and the fact that the last six or seven minutes were on national TV [ESPN switched to the game], I think I've had more feedback on that game than on all the other games I've coached here combined," Donahue said. "I think it surprised some people to see how good we are."

Cornell is good, even though it doesn't have a single national TV appearance scheduled this season. But no one is going to call the Big Red or Donahue an overnight success. This was a long time coming.

Donahue came to Cornell in the fall of 2000 after 10 seasons as an assistant coach under Fran Dunphy at Penn. The popular thinking then, as it has been throughout most of the Ivy League's history, was that third place was about as good as any Ivy League team not named Penn or Princeton could hope for most years. Columbia shared the league title with Princeton in 1968, Brown won it in 1986 and Cornell won it in 1988. In the other 37 seasons from Columbia's co-title through 2007, Princeton or Penn won or shared each championship.

"I knew in a place like this you don't build quickly," Donahue said. "You have to get kids who fit Cornell, not just kids with talent, because if they don't like the place, their talent isn't going to matter. We were lucky we got some kids to come who went out and convinced better kids to follow them, and they convinced better kids than that to come. By the time we got this senior class [high school class of 2006] we thought we had something going.

"And then we got Foote."

The key player in that 2006 recruiting class was Wittman, the son of former Indiana star and NBA player Randy Wittman. "I liked everything about the place when I visited," he said.

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