When Steve Donahue took the head coaching job at Cornell eight years ago, some of his friends must have told him that he was nuts to do so. After all, what was the upside? Sure, after a decade assisting Fran Dunphy at Penn (and very successfully so), it was time for Donahue to take a step up and get a Division 1 head coaching job of his own. But in the Ivies, where schools not named Penn and Princeton had little chance of winning the title (except during those schools' blue period from '86 to '88, where both Brown and Cornell managed to snare a title)? What was he thinking? After all, former Chuck Daly assistant Ray Carazo over 20 years ago failed at Yale (despite coming from a Penn program, which, at the time, was nationally prominent and, yes, much better than Dunphy's two decades later). I'm sure that someone had to raise that ominous precedent with Coach Donahue.
After 7 years and a .387 winning percentage (Donahue was 74-117 going into this season), the doubters had to be there. Most coaches get canned after that type of record over that period of time -- heck, most don't get 7 years to demonstrate a .387 winning percentage. Yet, Donahue kept his cool, kept working hard, and the Cornell administration kept their faith in him.
The result: the Cornell Big Red are the first team this year to clinch an NCAA tournament berth. The season is a testament both to the Cornell administration's faith in Steve Donahue and, more importantly, Steve Donahue's belief in himself and his staff and their collective work ethic.
How wonderful is this accomplishment? Try playing Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights during the season. Why's that so important? Because most teams go 1-3 or 0-4 in those sequences year in and year out. That tag-teaming ability, as it were, has proven a huge barrier for the success of other Ivies' men's hoops teams.
Year in and year out.
Penn's coach, Glen Miller, earlier this year said the other Ivies had better not get used to Penn's down season, because the Quakers will be back. Most assuredly, Penn has a lot of talent and has always been able to recruit it. This season, the Quakers lost two key returnees prior to the season and then fielded a team that consisted mostly of underclassmen, and the inexperience showed. Next year, they'll be better, but they'll still have to establish a consistent rotation and have leaders emerge. Princeton, on the other hand, has a serious rebuilding job. The Tigers, currently 5-20 and without a road win this season, are losing two of their top players in forwards Kyle Koncz and Noah Savage, and they're probably several years away from contending.
So don't count out the Cornell Big Red -- or Coach Steve Donahue -- any time soon.
Patience is a rare commodity in college basketball -- and the Cornell Big Red are getting rewarded for it.