Amid the everyday, socially accepted madness of a mad, mad culture, a Cornell men’s basketball coach in March 2010 fielded a call from a populous Midwestern school while boarding a plane in Jacksonville, Fla.
Donahue: “I’ve got a team to coach.”
School: “Then you’re not going to get the job.”
Donahue: “Guess I’m not getting the job.”
What had prompted this momentous yet silly and volatile call from afar? Oh, Donahue and Cornell had just won two games.
He had won 144 before that, across 10 seasons at Cornell with a painstaking upward arc that told of day-to-day toil and incurable hope, from 7-20 in 2000-01 to 5-22 to 9-18 to 11-16 to 13-14 to 13-15 to 16-12 and to three awesome years of 22-6, 21-10 and 29-4 at that moment around the tarmac. But he had just won two games in three days, and because we’re all mad, two kind of trumped 144.
Two made him coveted.
His seasoned and motley Cornell team of Ryan Wittman and Jeff Foote and Louis Dale and Chris Wroblewski and more and more and more had just spent a Friday and Sunday in Jacksonville as a No. 12 seed ransacking No. 5 seed Temple, 78-65, in a game Cornell led by 19 and then No. 4 seed Wisconsin, 87-69, in a game Cornell led by 24. That threw Cornell into the Sweet 16 and Donahue into the imaginations of athletic directors, who are mad and require the applause of fans, from whom all madness sprouts.
It’s as if those two days among three mattered more than the 3,481 days on the job that preceded them, even if those 3,481, especially those seven hard years, required more skill and rigor. And to think it was two days in which, Donahue said, “I did little that weekend; I didn’t have to,” and, “I didn’t even really get stressed; it was very odd.”
“And you’re right,” he said by phone this week. “My life flipped.”
That flip based on a puny amount of games ranks among the madnesses of March Madness and always awaits some coach who manages to win two or three games people and Las Vegas didn’t expect him to win — as did Kent State coach Stan Heath (2002 Elite Eight and hired by Arkansas) or Florida Gulf Coast coach Andy Enfield (a mind-bending 2013 Sweet 16 and hired by Southern California) or, on a different pace, Jim Larrañaga and Porter Moser, who led No. 11 seeds George Mason (2006) and Loyola Chicago (2018) to you’re-kidding Final Fours, then stayed around five and three more seasons, respectively, before moving south to Miami and Oklahoma.
The latest coach to feel this sort of flip would be a 46-year-old of unforced charisma, Shaheen Holloway, the former prized point guard recruit from Queens and New Jersey who went on to play professional basketball in the Dominican Republic, Germany, Israel, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Venezuela. Holloway tooled along as a Seton Hall assistant and then a head coach at wee St. Peter’s in Jersey City, going 10-22 and 18-12 and 14-11 and 22-12 and second in the conference in 2022 before winning the 2022 conference tournament and then …
Across a mere nine days from March 17 to 25, 2022, Holloway’s No. 15 seed Peacocks went further than a No. 15 seed ever had, upending No. 2 seed Kentucky, No. 7 seed Murray State and No. 3 seed Purdue. Four days after an Elite Eight loss to North Carolina on March 27, Holloway took the lectern as the new coach at Seton Hall and said something telltale.
“First,” he said, “I wouldn’t be up here if it wasn’t for those 15 young men right there, so …”
He meant the 15 St. Peter’s players who had shown up to show love for him as an unusual presence in the audience at a different school. The Seton Hall crowd, which knew its New Jersey after all, applauded those Peacocks for a good 27 seconds solid. A pause came. “Pirate Nation,” Holloway said to his old and new nation of Seton Hall, “we can do better than that. Pirate Nation, those 15 young men right there. Stand up.”
So they did, again in many cases, for another 27 seconds solid.
What happened with that coach and those players last March only gains in wonder if you visit St. Peter’s in the ensuing season for a game at Victor R. Yanitelli, S.J. Recreational Life Center. It’s Feb. 10, 2023. It’s a Friday night, and Marist has come to town. There’s a ready parking space smack outside the gym, and the meter takes quarters. The line in toward the ticket window feels enchantingly like a high school, with cheerleaders lined up near the entrance to smile greetings and the competitive pool through the windows to the left adjacent to the basketball gym and kids and their parents emerging from the pool to wriggle through the line and prices on the sign including the general admission of $20 and the courtside seating of $50.
It’s one of those deals where the outdoor door across from the rowhouses opens pretty much right onto the gym floor, where it’s five paces (or fewer) from the hallway outside the gym to the bench seats, where the apparel for sale fits on one rack.
The attendance at the neat, tidy gym: 758.
It’s the third-largest home crowd of the year.
So while excellent coach Bashir Mason, previously of Wagner, rebuilds with a 14-18 year that wound up including an evocative trip to the conference tournament semifinals as a No. 10 seed, you might marvel from the bleachers at how this place ever toppled Kentucky and then some is a matter of outlandish, cherished madness.
Then somehow, even a valued former player and former assistant at one place (Seton Hall) thought he owed his new job to a sudden bolt through the brackets while coaching another place (St. Peter’s). And while Holloway has forgone interview requests to warble about last March at St. Peter’s out of respect to his current players at Seton Hall, who just went 17-16 with a closing 65-64 NIT loss at Colorado in his first year, the idea that the magical March of St. Peter’s helped him “win the press conference” would be another la-dee-da norm that’s absolutely mad.
A wise voice aged 73 said it himself.
“I would explain it this way,” Larrañaga said by phone. “The idea that if you’re looking for a basketball coach, you want the guy that will ‘win the press conference.’ You introduce a new coach, but then everybody says, ‘Oh my, he took his team to the Sweet 16.’ ‘He took his team to the Elite Eight.’ That gets fans excited, and the [athletic director] looks like a genius.” He said, “I think coaches know when you’re hot you’re hot, when you’re not you’re not.”
Sure, it’s daffy, but then he calls the NCAA tournament “the greatest sporting event in the world,” and says, “What makes the NCAA tournament so special is the unpredictability.”
He’s forever a pillar of that unpredictability, the way his No. 11 seed from George Mason in 2006 felled No. 6 seed Michigan State, No. 3 seed North Carolina, No. 7 seed Wichita State and No. 1 seed Connecticut to reach a you’re-kidding Final Four.
Technically, that’s four games. Before those four, Larrañaga had coached in 580 and won 331. This former assistant to Terry Holland at Virginia had been a head coach — at Bowling Green and George Mason — for 7,304 days, long a demonstrably good coach. Suddenly, 10 days in March changed the noise around him.
“Well, the attention that I got and the number of people that recognized me dramatically increased,” he said. “There were more people who recognized me and wanted my autograph” — in airports, the grocery store, Pomodoro’s in Fairfax. Right around the aftermath of the North Carolina game, Larrañaga’s agent began dialing with nuggets.
“‘What do you think?’” he said of one offer.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m busy,’” Larrañaga said he said. “I’m not thinking about anything else.”
Next came Wichita State, another win, and, “Oh, my God, there’s a lot of interest now,” he recalls the agent saying. “And then after the Final Four,” Larrañaga said, “I decided, ‘You know what, I’m just having too much fun.’ ” He stayed five more seasons before bolting way south where he has stayed 11 and more and navigated the ACC and reached an Elite Eight and two Sweet 16s.
That those seven tournament wins among 251 all told at Miami help define him epitomizes how all succumb to our madness, and Donahue also comprehends the warped equation. He stresses that there are coaches out there “probably better than those ones who just catch lightning in a bottle.” He brings up Tod Kowalczyk at Toledo for one. “He is a great coach,” Donahue says — 21 seasons at Green Bay and Toledo, .584 winning percentage, yet hasn’t dented March Madness, including with a 26-6 team entering the Mid-American Conference tournament that just fell one conference final short.
Yet as madness prevails, Donahue understands. “I mean, that’s part of the thrill of the event, honestly,” he said. “As coaches, we try not to get caught in it, but part of what we want to do is give these [players] incredible memories. I get chills to this day thinking about just walking off the court [in Jacksonville] and the standing ovation, cheering for us, the Duke fans . . .”
His Big Red proceeded to the East Region semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y., and lost, 62-45, to No. 1 seed Kentucky, from which the NBA chose five players in the first round of the 2010 draft, foremost No. 1 John Wall. The ending brought two jolts: the last locker room together and then having to decide in “48 to 96 hours” about taking the kind of lucrative job he hadn’t had. That’s even as the bond with those players would prove uncommon even 13 years on and even though there’s something inexplicable about the intensity of the “Madness” that has invigorated that bond and even though there’s yet another wedding of a Cornell 2010 player coming soon, with yet another three tables filled with Cornell 2010 players.
That will be long after Donahue took the job at Boston College, where he lasted four seasons in the hard ACC before reaching his current Penn, which just reached the Ivy League semifinals.
“Wish I was in the tournament,” he said wistfully, with no doubt which tournament he meant.