With the passing of Joe B. Hall, one question needs updating. Who is the oldest living coach to lead his team to a national championship game?
Don’t know? That’s OK, neither did the man who is the correct answer.
“I am? How do they keep finding this stuff?” Don Donoher said over the phone from Dayton, Ohio.
Donoher just turned 90. It has been 55 years since he led upstart Dayton to the 1967 championship game with a truly magical trip through March. Overtime win over Western Kentucky, one-point escape of Tennessee, another overtime with Virginia Tech to get to the Final Four in Louisville.
There, the Flyers faced North Carolina, whose young coach was also making his Final Four debut. Dean Smith. Dayton star Don May hit 13 consecutive shots and the Flyers rolled over the Tar Heels by 14 points. Dayton was in the championship game. “That was a night of celebration. We celebrated too much,” Donoher said. “We should have worried about the next night.”
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In 1967, the semifinals were on Friday, the final game on Saturday. That’s when the music stopped for Dayton. Unbeaten UCLA, a wizard named John Wooden and an unstoppable towering sophomore then called Lew Alcindor put an end to that. The Bruins jumped ahead 20-4 and breezed to a 79-64 victory, the first of seven titles in row.
But still, what a ride for a guy coaching his alma mater. A half-century later, can Donoher remember how the Flyers prepared for Alcindor?
“Prayers,” he said. “He was just too dominant a figure. I like to think if we had a day and had a little more preparation, we could have done some things to slow down the pace of the game. You didn’t have time. You just went out and played.
“I have a lot of regrets that we didn’t do more with the opportunity than we did. Of all the championship games, that had to be listed as one of the worst because we were definitely a no-show. We got beat 15, but that was out of the goodness of (Wooden’s) heart because it was more like 50. He called the dogs off with about six minutes to go and we played lights out to cut it to 15.”
Donoher is a Dayton man and always has been. He played for the Flyers in the 1950s, then worked part-time on the staff. In 1959, he and friend and former teammate Tom Frericks decided to drive to Louisville to see California edge West Virginia for the national championship. “To think that a decade later, we would be in the same game, it was almost unimaginable,” Donoher said.
By 1967, Donoher was in his third season as head coach, having taken over for his mentor Tom Blackburn, who had died of cancer. Frericks was his boss as Dayton athletic director. Together, they had an idea of taking Flyers basketball to a new level, including a more modern place to play. The Final Four made it all happen.
“I remember up there at Northwestern, when we won in that regional, Tom Frericks came in after that game and said, `Tonight we just built a new arena,’” Donoher said. “He kept his word. About three years later we were playing in it.”
So was born the University of Dayton Arena, which hosts the First Four and 125 overall NCAA tournament games, more than any building in America. Frericks would always be Donoher’s AD. He had been an usher in Donoher’s wedding in 1954. The Flyers program having faded by 1989, he would also be the man who stood in front of the microphones to tell the world that Don Donoher had been fired.
But 1967 was not the last memorable March for Donoher’s program. The Flyers returned nearly every player the next season. “We were crystal balled a top-10 and all that stuff, we went in and laid an egg. We got off to a horrible start,” he said. “We did regroup and went to New York for the NIT.”
They didn’t just go to New York, back when the NIT had a higher profile than now, but won the championship. “It was a blessing we didn’t have to go back in the NCAA tournament,” Donoher said, meaning that with UCLA still in full force, nobody else was cutting down the nets. “We came out local heroes by winning the NIT.”
WATCH: 1967 National Championship, UCLA vs. Dayton
In 1974, Dayton went to Tucson for the Sweet 16 and nearly shocked the world. Lots of people remember how Bill Walton and the UCLA championship streak was stopped in the Final Four by David Thompson and North Carolina State. Much less well known is how closely UCLA came to not even getting that far. The Flyers took the Bruins to three overtimes before losing 111-100. They had a three-point lead and the ball with 90 seconds left in regulation but couldn’t close the deal. It was very different than 1967.
“We sort of gained on UCLA from the first time,” Donoher said. “We actually gave that game away. We were in the driver’s seat and let it slide.”
In 1984, Dayton was back in the Elite Eight as yet another surprise package, but lost to national championship-bound Georgetown and Patrick Ewing 61-49. Alcindor. Walton. Ewing.
“It seemed like every time we were in that tournament, we were going up against one of those big guys,” Donoher said.
Five years later, he was gone as coach. But he’s still a Dayton guy. Still lives barely seven miles from the arena he helped build. He doesn’t go to games anymore — “The steps and the parking at my age, I feel more comfortable watching it on TV,” he said — but he keeps a close eye on things. Current Dayton coach Anthony Grant once played for him, and was a freshman on the 1984 Elite Eight team. Like everyone else who follows the program, Donoher wonders what could have been in 2020, when Dayton was 29-2 and headed for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament that never happened.
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He still visits with his old players. They had a reunion the year he was let go, another 25 years later, another last fall in advance of his 90th birthday. “I’ve got three plaques with pictures from reunions that we’ve had. I’m looking at them on the floor right now,” he said. Since the most recent came only seven years after the last one, Donoher joked to the organizer, “You don’t have much confidence in my longevity.”
He was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. He lost his wife of 66 years in 2020, and during her battle with Alzheimer’s, was at the care center every day to be close to her, or as close he could be in the early days of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the Flyers were rolling to that 29-2 season and he might otherwise have tried to get to the arena.
But as he told a local reporter about almost never leaving his wife, “This is where I think I belong.”
Donoher said he’s doing OK at 90. He has other peers in the same age neighborhood. With Hall’s passing, Denny Crum is now the oldest living national championship coach at 84, followed by Jim Harrick, Bob Knight and Nolan Richardson, all in their 80s. But when it comes to title games, Donoher is now the elder statesman. He had a good laugh at that.
“It’s motivation to take care myself,” he said. “I don’t want to lose that title.”