Posted on September 2, 2016 @ 8:00am

After every Sounding Board™ visit, both Evan & I wish that the members who weren’t there could have been and also wish that more people could be privy to the backstage insights to the leader who is being featured.   Our visit to Steve Donahue, Penn’s men’s basketball coach was no exception.  His desire to be a basketball coach was sparked in 6th grade when he went to see a college basketball game and was mesmerized by the coaches.  He graduated from Ursinus College with a degree in Economics where he played baseball and basketball with a bit of a chip on his shoulder for what he couldn’t do as a player.  He had a laser focus on being a basketball coach, and while he was learning his craft in a number of unpaid coaching stints, he worked as a salesman for MAB Paints. 

It was a funny moment when Steve said that his MAB boss never knew that he was Penn’s Assistant Coach until he saw him on National TV when Penn beat the great Michigan Fab Five team.   Steve took unpaid coaching positions for ten years.  He didn’t make a dime in basketball until he was 33 years old.  He gave this advice to his college-age daughter, “Do what you love.  Make it work.  Take chances.”

Steve learned a lot as a coach during his (paid!) ten-year tenure at Cornell.  It was his laboratory because they didn’t care that much about basketball and he had a boss that supported him 100%.  He said, “I had the chance to make mistakes.  It didn’t matter what the results were.”  He had a pivotal moment when he was trying to “squeeze more blood out of a stone” from his team – driving them hard at practice.  Two team mates collided and were bleeding from their heads when he spotted another player lying on the floor in an unnatural position.   Turns out the boy on the floor couldn’t move from the neck down.  Steve stayed with him in the hospital all week.  His team played without him and won by 20 points.  Steve also visited his player when they moved him back home to Atlanta.  After four months, his player was able to walk again. 

So how did that experience change Steve and his coaching style?  “I went from, ‘You have to do it my way’ to ‘We’re in this together’.  I now see my job as someone who motivates and inspires.  I’m also committed to never lowering the bar."    (As a side note, if you ask his paralyzed player today, he has said that getting injured was the best thing that ever happened to him.  Even though he was athletic, he never really loved basketball.  His real love was for music.) 

Steve’s college coaching career continued at Boston College in 2010 replacing Al Skinner.  A second pivotal moment came when he was terminated by BC in 2014.  “Failure is knowledge.  As is success.” Out of work for a year, he continued his research on great coaching techniques.  He was a fan of John Wooden who was humble (didn’t take advantage of his god-like status) and never worried about winning but focused on the right things and let the winning take care of itself.

Steve’s key core values for his team are:  Passion, Competitiveness, Gratitude, Humility and Unity.  He understands the pressures that his players are under and employs a sports psychologist to work them.  Steve wants his players to enjoy playing basketball.  He also wants them to know why basketball exists at colleges – to “enhance the college experience”.  He sees himself as a role model, and as such, has made a commitment not to curse.  He watched other coaches curse at their players and saw that the coaching message was lost on them. 

He distinctly remembers the sweet feeling of success and asks himself, “How did we get there?”.  He believes it starts by building a great culture.  Highly analytical, his goal is to get better and better every day.  Isn’t that what we are all after?

© 2012 DillonMarcus, Executive Retreats