Sunday, December 18, 2016

Cougar nation

This is what he saw that bright winter afternoon, this night and this school and this trophy being raised toward some benevolent southern sky. He saw football, where before there had been none. He saw excellence. He saw a particular way of doing things, a way from which there would be no wavering, a way that would be defined by him right down to the minute hand on the clock.

Every football player at Saint Francis for the last 19 years has learned it: There is Eastern Standard Time, and there is Kevin Donley Standard Time. The top of the hour (or any other part of the hour) arrives five minutes sooner in the latter.

It's safe to say we're all on Donley Time today.

Welcome, everyone, to an NAIA national championship, Donley's second but the first he and his football players will bringing home to Fort Wayne. And if it took four visits to the title game to make it happen, it was exactly what he saw that afternoon in 1998.

We sat across from each other in a restaurant on West Jefferson that day, two old friends from years back. I'd known Kevin since the late 1970s, when he was a young head football coach at Anderson University and I was a young sportswriter for the dearly departed Anderson Daily Bulletin. When it was announced Saint Francis was starting a football program, and it was hiring Kevin Donley to build it from the dirt up, I knew what Fort Wayne was getting. You're gonna love this guy, I said. And that football program he's coming to build is going to turn into something.

I wasn't half as smart as I thought I was. Because even though I knew Kevin, and I knew what kind of football coach and what kind of man he was, I never saw coming what was coming.

I never saw that by the second year Donley would produce an 8-2 football team that would win its conference. I never saw that by his seventh season Saint Francis would come within 10 seconds of a national championship. I never saw it would become the winningest program in Indiana for awhile, and that one year the Cougars would go down to Indiana State and lather an NCAA FCS school 42-10, and that there would be 188 victories against only 44 defeats in 19 seasons.

The last and most important victory, of course, being that 38-17 ball-peening of Baker in the national title game last night.

Donley might have seen it that day in the restaurant, but surely no one else did. He had his vision -- he would do this the right way, he said, and his kids would go to class, and there would be pride and commitment and an awareness of what they represented -- but he had no players and no facilities as yet.

That would all come. Eventually.

That August, I pitched a story on what building a program from the ground up looked like from the inside, and Kevin graciously accommodated me. I had access to their practices, their team meetings, everything. This was ground zero: The team practiced on what is now a parking lot, and the newly-laid turf on the new game-day football field tended to turn into lasagna when it rained.

The players, meanwhile, ran the gamut. One of Donley's quarterbacks was 36 years old and commuted everyday from Angola in his beater ride. The other two were a kid from South Side (Antoine Taylor) and a cannon-armed kid from Hamilton Southeastern (Jeremy Hibbeln). The star wide receiver, Jeremy Dutcher, was a 24-year-old sophomore from Grand Rapids.

Donley spent most of that camp pacing back and forth, muttering "Faster ... faster ..." as the Cougars ran plays. Finally, it was time to board the buses and head off to Chicago to play St. Xavier.

That Friday afternoon, Donley gathered his new team around him on the Cougars' game field and laid out his expectations. This was a business trip, he said softly. This was about football and nothing but football. There would be total focus on the job at hand.

"Any questions?" he asked.

Up popped a hand.

"Coach, can we take our bathing suits?" someone asked.

Donley just shook his head.

Of course, the next day, the Cougars won the first game in the program's history, whipping St. Xavier 56-28.

Winners then. Winners now.

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