I never thought Jim Donnan was a bad coach. I thought he was a good coach who never got the one break he needed. And don’t think for a moment that breaks don’t make/unmake a coach’s career. Where would Phillip Fulmer had been if Arkansas’ Clint Stoerner hadn’t put the ball on the ground in 1998? Where would Mark Richt be had Horace Willis knocked down the pass to Michael Johnson that cold day at Auburn?
The “Old Coach” — Donnan liked to call himself “Old Coach” — was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame over the weekend, and I was glad to see it. I was one of the few people who seemed to like Jim Donnan, and that was another part of his undoing. After the curious failed season of 2000, he had no real allies other than Vince Dooley, and about all the AD could say in Donnan’s defense was that he deserved one more year.
(I agreed then, and I agree now. But that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that Georgia upgraded with Richt.)
Donnan intrigued me. He loved game-planning and play-calling, and sometimes he complicated things when an off-tackle blast would have sufficed. But he knew offense — didn’t care much about defense, which is the way of most offensive men — and I’d been following his career at Marshall before he got to Athens. On the day Georgia introduced Glen Mason as its choice to succeed Ray Goff, Dooley said he’d also interviewed Donnan. And I thought, “That wouldn’t have been a bad choice, either.”
On Christmas Day 1995, following Mason’s Yuletide reversal, Donnan was indeed Georgia’s coach. He was 5-6 that first season but won every year thereafter. But he seemed to win more games than he did supporters, which was strange.
At a Bulldog Club meeting after Donnan was fired, Loran Smith introduced Richt by saying this coach wouldn’t look off in the distance when you shook his hand and mentioned a Georgia game from 30 years ago. That was a slam of Donnan, who suffered alums grudgingly and with whom Smith had a postgame moment. (In 1997, Smith wondered about the rampant cramps the Bulldogs had suffered during the game just concluded. And Donnan, perhaps justifiably, said: “I can’t believe we beat South Carolina and your first question is about cramps.”)
With a better bounce or two, Donnan mightn’t have needed friends. Say Jasper Sanks hadn’t fumbled against Florida, or if Al Ford had decided Sanks didn’t fumble against Georgia Tech. Say Terrence Edwards, deployed at quarterback, hadn’t stepped out of bounds on third-and-goal in OT at Auburn in November 2000. Had Donnan won one or two of those, would Michael Adams have acted as he did when he did?
In hindsight, it’s clear Donnan’s last team was undercoached and Quincy Carter, so good as a freshman in 1998, got worse the more he played. But Donnan won at Auburn and at LSU and he beat Tennesee once — from 1996 through 1999, Donnan’s first four seasons, only Florida beat Tennessee — and he even beat Spurrier in 1997. The man had some moments. He just needed one or two more.
So he should have swallowed hard and answered Loran’s goofy question about cramps. Laugh all you want, but that moment on live radio made Donnan seem a bit of a bully, which, in all honesty, he could be.
But he and I got along, and I’ll never forget the night he was fired. He called my cell phone and said, “It’s Coach Donnan.” Then he actually had the grace to laugh. And he said, “Well, not anymore.”