Cornell coach Steve Donahue finds special inspiration for NCAA tournament run

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The text message arrived on Cornell Coach Steve Donahue's cellphone minutes before the Big Red upset Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was a message from one coach to another: "If you don't dream to become a champion, you won't become a champion."

The coach was not one of Donahue's college basketball contemporaries. It was Jason McElwain, a 21-year-old volunteer junior varsity assistant coach from the Rochester, N.Y., area. McElwain spent Selection Sunday with the Big Red and has corresponded with Donahue ever since, sending Donahue messages during the 12th-seeded Big Red's NCAA tournament run to the East Region semifinals, where it will face top-seeded Kentucky in Syracuse, N.Y., on Thursday night.

"If J-Mac says dream it, then that's all I'm going to think about," Donahue said. "We can do this, and we'll see what happens."

McElwain, who is autistic, became a national story four years ago when he scored 20 points in the final four minutes of a high school basketball game in Upstate New York. He was featured on national news programs, won an ESPY award and met President George W. Bush.

Donahue and his wife, Pamela, watched a television feature on McElwain after the 2006 game. They both cried. One of their four children, Matthew, has a form of autism. Donahue also has a brother with mental disabilities.

When Donahue first took the job at Cornell in 2000, he befriended an autistic boy named Jeff who spent time around the athletic department. Jeff sings Donahue the team song on the bus before road trips, and Donahue once brought him on a road trip to Penn and Princeton and allowed him to stay in Donahue's hotel room. Monday's practice included spectators from the Special Olympics.

"Steve has always just had relationships with people like that," Pamela said.

Shortly after learning about McElwain, Donahue sent a note to Jim Johnson, McElwain's high school coach at Greece Athena High. They continued to correspond, and Donahue invited McElwain and Johnson to watch the NCAA tournament selection show with Cornell this season.

"It was an unbelievable experience to be with college players," said McElwain, who will help coach the Greece Athena varsity team next season. "I've talked to Coach Donahue ever since, trying to help him and give him advice on the game plans with his team. It somehow works."

Donahue's phone has not stopped buzzing. McElwain offered Donahue advice on the Big Red's first two opponents -- fifth-seeded Temple and fourth-seeded Wisconsin -- and has been studying Kentucky.

"He's got some really good points," Donahue said. "As good as anyone else who analyzes it."

"That just brings a tear to my eye, when a D-I coach says that about a 21-year-old guy who just started coaching high school basketball last year," McElwain said. "He knows his stuff, too, if he's won three Ivy League titles in a row. And not just a parent, but a parent of an autistic child, he's really brought a lot of inspiration to the community out there in Ithaca and other autistic parents that they're able to support a child with special abilities or needs."

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