Former Penn assistant made Cornell a hoops power

Cornell coach Steve Donahue talks with his team during a December game against La Salle. Donahue interviewed for the Penn job in 2006, but the Quakers went with Glen Miller instead.
Cornell coach Steve Donahue talks with his team during a December game against La Salle. Donahue interviewed for the Penn job in 2006, but the Quakers went with Glen Miller instead.
Posted: February 12, 2010

Folks weren't expecting much when Steve Donahue became men's basketball coach at Cornell.

Young and unproven, the former Penn assistant would become just another hapless leader of a doormat program. Or so people thought.

Ten years later, Donahue is being recognized for completely turning the Big Red program around.

Once known mostly as a hockey-loving campus, the school in Ithaca, N.Y., is now a hoops haven.

Consecutive Ivy League crowns, NCAA tournament appearances, a national ranking, you name it. Donahue, 47, brought it all to a program that had recorded just 11 winning seasons since 1967-68.

"After each season, we go back and remember what it was like before we turned this thing around," Donahue said. "It was very, very difficult. I'm not going to say it wasn't. There were a lot of trying times."

Penn (3-14, 2-2 Ivy) will find out just how dominant Cornell (20-3, 6-0) has become in tonight's 7 o'clock matchup at the Palestra.

Cornell is ranked 22d in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. This season marks the first time since 1951 that Cornell was ranked nationally. The last time an Ivy League team appeared in a national poll was in 1997-98, when Princeton finished eighth in the AP poll and 16th in the coaches' poll.

Like that Princeton squad, teams are having a tough time beating Cornell. The Big Red have won eight straight since they nearly upset No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 6.

The Big Red are on pace to clinch a third straight Ivy League title and the NCAA tournament berth that accompanies it. Not bad for a team that never made the tourney before winning the Ancient Eight crown two seasons ago.

That was the first time in 20 seasons that a school not named Penn or Princeton claimed the Ivy title outright.

"Well, he's doing a tremendous job putting together his basketball program, not surprisingly so," said Temple head coach Fran Dunphy, who was Penn's head coach when Donahue was a Quakers assistant for 10 seasons.

"Steve had a great work ethic and feel for the game," Dunphy said. "So it was just a matter of time before Cornell was in very good shape as a basketball program."

But back in 2006, Donahue had hoped to leave Cornell to coach at Penn. That's when Dunphy left to replace John Chaney at Temple.

Donahue was granted an interview. Instead of going with the Springfield (Delaware County) native with Penn ties, the Quakers hired Glen Miller.

Miller turned out to be a big disappointment, compiling a 45-52 record in a little over three seasons. He was fired and replaced by interim coach Jerome Allen in December after the Quakers dropped to 0-7.

Penn went 22-9 and made the NCAA tourney in Miller's first season. The Quakers, however, followed that with 13-18 and 10-18 records before this season.

But Donahue, a Cardinal O'Hara and Ursinus College product, said he is not upset about not getting the Penn job.

"I appreciate that they were willing to consider me, to be honest," Donahue said. "At that point, I hadn't achieved much at Cornell, probably, in a lot of people's eyes. Although I knew I was doing it the right way.

"I never had bad feelings, in all honesty. I appreciate that I was able to continue up here and build what we have up here."

But what about next season?

Would he consider taking the Penn job if athletic director Steve Bilsky offers it?

"You know, when I'm in the season, it's hard to [think about going] anywhere," he said. "I'm so wrapped up in what we are trying to do here. It's not something I even feel like commenting on."

For now, Donahue insists he's only focused on beating Penn tonight and Princeton tomorrow and ultimately winning another Ivy title.

"I'm very proud of him," said Skip Werley, a close friend and mentor. "It's sort of like having a son that has done well."

Donahue played for Werley at Ursinus and later coached under him at Springfield (Delco) High. He also coached under current Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon at Monsignor Bonner and Herb Magee at Philadelphia University before moving on to Penn.

Contact staff writer Keith Pompey at 610-313-8029 or