When future University of Tennessee football coach Johnny Majors was a rising college senior in the summer of 1956, he was at home in Huntland in Middle Tennessee with his parents, and someone pulled up in an automobile.
As coach Majors soon learned, the man was Ken Donahue, a former Tennessee player under Gen. Bob Neyland. Coach Donahue was on the way to starting his new job as an assistant coach for the Vols after serving at what was then Memphis State, and was stopping by to meet the man who would finish second in the Heisman Trophy race that year.
Over the next three decades and beyond, the two would become well acquainted with each other in different roles, and would each help their teams gain plenty of hardware. That would include Tennessee’s 1985 SEC championship trophy, with coach Majors as the head coach and coach Donahue as the defensive coordinator after nearly two decades working under successful coach Paul “Bear” Bryant at Alabama.
Fifteen years have passed since coach Donahue, a Knoxville native, died, but he is still remembered in a uniquely positive manner at both Tennessee and Alabama, which are renewing their storied rivalry Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
“Donahue would do anything to win, but I respected his character first,” coach Majors recalled, while also honestly admitting that their competitive personalities sometimes clashed. “And he was a great worker. He was the most dedicated worker of everybody I’ve been around.”
Many players who were able to survive his challenging demands on the practice field still hold him in high esteem, too.
“I’ve got a tremendous amount of respect for coach Donahue,” recalled Charles McRae of Columbus, Oh., who played defense for him at Tennessee from 1986-88 before switching to offense and becoming an NFL player. “He was a genuine good person. And I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who worked harder.”
While coach Donahue would carve his niche as a top assistant on the flat terrain of a football field, life began in a hilly section of East Knox County in 1925 in a still-standing home off Childs Road at the northeast foot of House Mountain.
Today, the area is one of the more pastoral, scenic and unspoiled places in the immediate Knoxville area.
The childhood home was not too far from Gibbs High School, but he rode his bike or hitch-hiked to Knoxville Central High in Fountain City to play football and other sports, recalled his son, Pat Donahue.
Coach Donahue’s father, Herbert Van Buren Donahue, was a farmer. “They had a dairy farm and grew tobacco,” said Pat Donahue. “My grandfather ran a milk route.”
After non-combat military service at the end of World War II, where he apparently helped with the physical education instruction of older soldiers, coach Donahue played for Tennessee as a lineman, lettering in 1949 and ’50.
Although Coach Donahue was not a big star, Gen. Neyland thought enough of him to recommend him as an assistant coach at Memphis in 1951 under coach Ralph Hatley. Chattanoogans might be interested to know that Memphis/Memphis State played the then-University of Chattanooga four of the five years coach Donahue was at Memphis. The Mocs were 2-2 against the Tigers, including wins at the now-razed Chamberlain Field in 1952 and 1955.
While serving on the Memphis staff, coach Donahue met his wife, Jeannine Bolton of Henderson, Tn. They would have four sons – Hunter, who was born in 1957 and lives in California; Ben and Pat, who were born in 1959 and 1961, respectively, and live in Huntsville, Ala.; and Chris, born in 1963 and a current resident of Atlanta.
In 1956, just as Tennessee was getting ready to have a great year under coach Bowden Wyatt, coach Donahue returned to his alma mater to work for the Vols.
Coach Majors remembered that when coach Donahue returned to Tennessee, he was so competitive running the scout team that he called certain pass plays simply because he wanted to score on the Tennessee defense. He did not worry if it mimicked what the opponent – including a good Georgia Tech team -- was going to do the following Saturday.
Longtime former Baylor School baseball coach Gene Etter lettered at Tennessee from 1958-60 as a back and liked coach Donahue, initially working under him on the scout team.
“He knew I was a high school quarterback, so early on, he picked me to be the scout team quarterback,” recalled coach Etter. “My first pass was incomplete, and upon coming back to the huddle, he loudly proclaimed, ‘I thought you were a quarterback.’ He didn’t say anything like that again to me, so I guess in his eyes I was OK after that.”
Coach Donahue was already demonstrating his trademark characteristic of staying physically fit by jogging some after practice during those years at Tennessee. Coach Etter even jogged with him some, although he was able to go a little faster as a college athlete at his peak athletically. But they were on the same level in developing a bond and kinship.
However, Coach Etter knew this player’s coach also had a demanding side, and that became evident after Coach Donahue was put in charge of making players who had gotten into fights at practice box each other in a special room. Coach Etter had initially thought it might be neat to watch these fights in person, and asked coach Donahue if that would be okay. The coach said yes, but Coach Etter soon realized that would not be such a good idea.
“The word was that Coach Donahue made the bouts so grueling that the players were afraid of ever getting into any fights,” Coach Etter said.
Coach Donahue went on to coach from 1961-63 at Mississippi State, where he coached part of the time with coach Majors under head coach Paul Davis. Coach Majors recalled that they sat by each other in their office in an old Army surplus building in Starkville, and that their personalities sometimes clashed, despite their friendship.
“Ken and I would do a lot of arguing,” Coach Majors recalled. “He was hard headed.”
Coach Majors remembered that he was the defensive backfield coach and Coach Donahue was the defensive coordinator, and they had a disagreement about strategy on one occasion, and Coach Davis had to eventually settle the issue.
Coach Majors also remembered they would play tennis some together, and it was quite competitive, with Coach Donahue not afraid to call Majors’ hits out, even if they looked more like they were in to Coach Majors. However, he added that Coach Donahue had great character and was respected greatly by his players.
He said Coach Donahue also had a sense of humor and was not afraid to kid those who had thin skin.
He also recalled that Coach Donahue was a smart man who had been a good student at Tennessee and always had a notebook with him at coaches’ clinics or wherever.
On the field, it quickly became evident that Coach Donahue had a knack for coaching defense as a coordinator, too. Among those who took notice was Coach Bryant, whose Crimson Tide team barely edged Mississippi State, 20-19, in 1963.
He joined Coach Bryant’s staff as the defensive line coach in 1964 and became the defensive coordinator beginning in 1965 after assistant Gene Stallings left to become head coach at Texas A&M. During that time, Alabama won or shared 12 SEC titles and five national titles.
Coach Donahue’s sons were growing up in those years and remember going to scout high school games with their father. Sometimes they might scout two games with him on the same night, and on at least one occasion, they ended up sitting in the stands with an assistant coach from another college who was scouting the same player.
And on Saturdays after Alabama was finished with its game, they said he would try to follow the game of future opponent LSU on radio, and he always liked to try to keep up with his alma mater of Tennessee, especially.
Although he was likely approached about becoming a head coach at some point, his sons think one reason he might not have become a head college coach was because he did not care for the hassles of recruiting. Also, being a head coach had a lot of administrative duties, and he preferred concentrating on his true love of working with players.
He also tried to devote time to his family, even though he kept long hours with the football team, his sons added. “He worked an awful lot and when he came home, he spent time with us,” said Pat Donahue, jokingly adding that some of the time included making sure the youngsters did discipline-oriented activities like helping take care of the family garden.
Those Alabama players who played for him also felt and appreciated Coach Donahue’s tough-love, fatherly approach. David Hannah arrived at Alabama in the fall of 1975 after playing on the offensive line at Baylor School as a boarding student.
The third Hannah brother to play for the Crimson Tide, he was switched to the defensive line, and he quickly felt a bond with Coach Donahue, comparing him to longtime Baylor Assistant Coach Maj. Luke Worsham, who was also demanding but had the players’ best interests at heart.
“He was a man of really high ethics and great loyalty,” said Mr. Hannah of Coach Donahue. “He was more about coaching and developing athletes.”
In contrast to many intense coaches who use salty language, Mr. Hannah recalled hearing a curse word from Coach Donahue only once. “He apologized profusely for about three weeks afterward,” Mr. Hannah recalled with a laugh.
Another lighter anecdote Mr. Hannah remembered was that Coach Bryant fell asleep in his practice field tower toward the end of a grueling 3½-hour practice, and accidentally kicked his megaphone. After it fell to the ground and he woke up, he told the team they had enjoyed a good practice and could now go to the locker room.
However, Coach Donahue told his defensive players they had to first go through their end-of-practice conditioning, said Mr. Hannah, who is now an assistant football coach at Pell City in Alabama. That would usually include about "20" 40-yard dashes, "20" 20-yard dashes, plenty of pushups and sit-ups, and about a mile’s worth of jogging around the Alabama practice fields.
“No matter how hard he worked you, you knew he was doing it for your own best interest,” said Mr. Hannah, who knows the extra work helped Alabama win four SEC titles and two national titles when he was there through the 1979 season.
Jim Bob Harris was a defensive back who came to Alabama in 1978 from Athens, Ga. – yes, that Athens – after seriously considering playing for Johnny Majors at Tennessee. He also remembered Coach Donahue’s intensity, but still admired him greatly.
“Coach Donahue was one tough customer, and all business when it came to the game of football,” said Mr. Harris. “The players all respected and loved him. And he really had a passion for working under and coaching with Coach Bryant.”
Mr. Harris, who now lives in Brentwood, Tn., and whose son, college senior Truett Harris, recently received a scholarship to Alabama as a walk-on tight end, also recalled the long hours Coach Donahue worked.
“I remember the day after the Sugar Bowl, following our 1979 undefeated season and second straight national championship, and getting on the team bus for the airport,” he said. “I sat next to Coach D and he was working on something on a note pad. I asked him what he was doing, and he was already working on our first game of the next season.
“He was a great guy, and we miss him.”
Coach Donahue’s sons said their father definitely enjoyed working with and had a good relationship with Coach Bryant, as well as such assistants as Mal Moore and Bill Oliver. He also worked with several younger assistants who later became head coaches at the NFL or college level. They included Bruce Arians at Alabama, and Jon Gruden and Ron Zook at Tennessee.
Bill “Brother” Oliver went on to coach at UT-Chattanooga from 1980-83. But before leaving for UTC, he signed Kurt Schmissrauter of Notre Dame High School to a scholarship at Alabama in December 1979.
Despite getting moved to offense, Mr. Schmissrauter remembered Coach Donahue taking a liking to him after he arrived at Alabama and that they enjoyed some bantering back and forth.
“Coach Donahue would bring all of the defensive linemen over to do one-on-one drills with the offensive line each practice during third period just after warm-ups,” Mr. Schmissrauter remembered. “He would be yelling, ‘Hurry! Hurry! Where are you, offensive line?’ Of course, with my sarcasm, I was running around the rest of the day chanting ‘Hurry! Hurry!’ ”
He also remembered how driven Coach Donahue was. “The poor defensive linemen would have extra work, even on the easy practice days, always drilling after everyone else went in,” he said. “In addition, when we scrimmaged, Coach Donahue would chide the other coaches and make life difficult that day.”
Mr. Schmissrauter also remembered that those who were in Coach Bryant’s doghouse had to take part in Coach Donahue’s sunrise campus run. He remembered that one player started trying to shadow box with Coach Donahue in a playful manner before the run and realized that was not a good idea after the coach’s assertive reaction.
“He didn’t play around,” Mr. Schmissrauter remembered.
As a fellow Tennessean, Mr. Schmissrauter also remembered that the Tennessee game was always important to Coach Donahue and trainer Jim Goostree because they had also grown up in Tennessee. The scout team would even wear T’s on their helmets.
After Ray Perkins took over at Alabama in 1983, Coach Donahue’s responsibilities later became more limited, so after the 1984 season, he called his old colleague, Coach Majors, on the phone.
“He said, ‘Would you be interested in having an old coach? I don’t care what my position is,’ ” Coach Majors recalled.
Coach Majors later interviewed him at a hotel by McGhee Tyson Airport and made Donahue the defensive coordinator at Tennessee, where he had last worked way back in the 1960 season.
“I had my concerns because I knew how stubborn he was,” Coach Majors honestly recalled. “But I decided to hire him. It was one of the best moves I ever made. We won the conference the next year (1985).”
Mr. McRae arrived at Tennessee in 1986 from Clinton High School, and, just like the Alabama players, took a strong liking to Coach Donahue’s tough love approach. He particularly remembered the defensive players having to run the Neyland Stadium steps, with Coach Donahue joining them despite being older than 60 by then.
“That would be embarrassing when the old man would run past you,” he recalled with a laugh.
He also remembered that Coach Donahue was dedicated to his Christian faith, and managed to be able to balance that with being an intense football coach trying to get his players to perform well enough to beat the competition.
“I can’t say enough about what he’s meant to my life as a mentor,” said Mr. McRae, who also admired then-Assistant Coach Phil Fulmer, under whom he also worked after switching to the offensive line later in his college career.
Mr. Schmissrauter added that after Coach Donahue came to Tennessee, he surprised Mr. Schmissrauter by stopping by the family’s TPC printing plant on Ringgold Road.
“I remember how proud I was that he had come to see me and I was able to show him around our business,” he said. “Coach Donahue graciously shook hands with folks as he toured around that day. And, even though not all the workers knew who he was, they all sensed that someone very important was among them.”
Following a mediocre 7-5 season in 1986 and a successful 10-2-1 season in 1987, the Tennessee Vols started 1988 at 0-5, and the defense was struggling. Coach Majors said he decided to move some coaches around and suggested some other changes, but Coach Donahue did not like the ideas, which included letting him travel around at practice and examine the drills by the different defensive players.
And because Coach Donahue said he was not feeling well at the time, he decided to resign, Coach Majors recalled. He added that he felt some relief that it did not escalate into a situation in which Coach Majors might have to fire him.
That brought to a low conclusion an otherwise mostly successful career for Coach Donahue.
After Coach Donahue left, Tennessee later lost a close game to Alabama, but won the last five games to finish 5-6. And successful Tennessee seasons followed the next three seasons, so Coach Majors believes his strategy in mid-1988 worked in the long run.
While the working relationship ended with Coach Donahue, who later that season did some consulting work with the Philadelphia Eagles, Coach Majors said the respect for his longtime colleague and friend continued.
“I respected Ken and didn’t have any hard feelings,” said Coach Majors, adding that he remembered that Coach Donahue later came to his mother’s funeral.
Pat Donahue said that after his father retired, he lived for a few years back in the Tuscaloosa area in the early 1990s. He even helped old coaching friends Gene Stallings, by then the Alabama head coach, and defensive coordinator Bill Oliver get ready for Miami in the Sugar Bowl after the 1992 season.
The Crimson Tide knocked off the Hurricanes for its first national championship in 13 years. So Coach Donahue’s actual last contribution to a college football team in any way was successful, even if it was in a much more minor role.
In 1995, he built a home at 6407 Childs Road in the Corryton community outside Knoxville on the side of a steep hill on the old family farmland. He loved working outside, so he found plenty to do there, his son Pat said.
Chris Donahue said that his father’s work ethic was so ingrained in him as a child of the Great Depression that he did not relax a whole lot, even in retirement, except maybe during skiing and fly fishing trips out West.
“Even those vacations were infused with physical exertion,” Chris remembered with a laugh. “I can remember those ski trips in the 1980s and ‘90s, he would not let us quit until the lifts closed at 4 p.m.”
On March 21, 2001, he was continuing his regimen of regular physical exercise when he unfortunately collapsed during a workout at Bally’s Total Fitness center in Knoxville and died.
He was buried at Washington Pike Presbyterian Church Cemetery in East Knox County where his family had roots, even though he attended Calvary Baptist Church near the UT campus in later years and was a member of Northwood Hills Baptist Church in the Tuscaloosa area.
His simple marker sits in the back of the small cemetery that is across the street from a pretty mid-century style church, and it has basically only his name and that of his wife, who died in 2010.
It gives no hint of the countless lives touched positively by this man with the tall body frame, short hairstyle and encouraging manner.
But those who played for him have not forgotten his strong influence.
“The world needs more people like him,” said Mr. Hannah.