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Nine months ago Terry Donahue, a mere 31, was named head football coach at UCLA. It was a choice born of desperation when Dick Vermeil suddenly quit the Bruins to become coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. UCLA takes its sports seriously—witness its 28 NCAA team championships in the last 13 years, by far the best record in the country—and so there was much concern on the Westwood campus about putting the program that had produced the 1976 Rose Bowl winner in the hands of a young whippersnapper.
When Athletic Director J. D. Morgan announced Donahue's selection at a press conference he said, "I'm sure there's no need to introduce Terry Donahue to you." Actually, there was every need. An offensive line coach—a co-offensive line coach at that—is not quite a media star. And Donahue, had he been asked, probably would have told Morgan to soft-pedal the Las Vegas-style introduction, recalling that when he was starting at defensive tackle for UCLA, Coach Tommy Prothro was under the impression that his name was Donny Donovan.
Donahue certainly is better known now, and by the end of what is already a spectacularly successful freshman coaching season, he may be the best young coach in the country. His Bruins are unbeaten, having been tied only by Ohio State in Columbus; they are ranked second in the country; they have overwhelmed their first ten opponents by the aggregate score of 371-113. This Saturday comes the annual war with cross-town rival USC; the winner will go on to the Rose Bowl and a chance at the national championship.
It's an unlikely story being written by Donahue, his loosey-goosey assistant coaches (one of them, Billie Matthews, reasons, "Why do tonight what you can put off until tomorrow?") and his gritty rather than glamorous football players.
Does all this success make Donahue nervous? "Oh, no," he says. "I'm really calm. We're prepared and we've worked hard. So there's nothing to worry about. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go throw up."
One suspects that Donahue might not be entirely kidding. He exhibits an old-timey sort of exuberance thought to have died in the '60s. But even during his '60s playing days, he would race onto the field hollering, "Plant the flag!" He loves football so much he once worked for free to prove it (although he didn't intend to); he thinks football is important, but he wants the players to enjoy themselves; he listens to inspirational tapes while he drives to and from work; he believes in the needlepoint sayings in the family room of his home in Westlake Village, the kind that talk of the hope that the wind will always be at your back and the sun in your face (except, presumably, when catching punts). On his office wall is a reminder that "A smile is the light in the window of your face to let others know your heart is at home."
Terry wants to play the game, ring the victory bell, enjoy his wife and two kids, have a party and laugh with friends. Woody Hayes probably is shaking his head in disbelief that football can be so much fun. "Every day," says a Donahue admirer, "Terry makes himself a better coach or a better guy."
Rival coaches are probably wondering just how much better Donahue is going to get when he has some time to work on it. Vermeil announced he was quitting his $35,500-a-year job as UCLA head coach for the Eagles (at $170,000 a year) on Feb. 8, only 10 days before high school seniors had to firmly state where they would play. Although Morgan doesn't like to hire head coaches from the staff, he concluded that time was so important he would have to in order to maintain continuity and keep the prospects from going elsewhere. That decision made, Donahue was the obvious choice. Says Morgan, "Terry bleeds blue and gold."
The deal was struck three days later with a handshake across Morgan's walnut desk, after which five of the eight remaining assistant coaches left for other jobs. And, in case Donahue was forgetting his main mission while he was up to his eyeballs in organizational alligators, he could contemplate life in 1976 without All-America Quarterback John Sciarra and second-team All-America Guard Cliff Frazier, both graduated.
Predictably, Donahue was a pocket of calm in a riptide of adversity, and he kept his sense of humor. "If I grab my chest and topple over," he once said, "you'll know things aren't going well."