Thoughts on the passing of Terry Donahue

by R. Passov

I learned from reading Terry Donahue’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times he became head coach of UCLA’s football team in the same year I became a Bruin freshman. And we spent our formative years as neighbors but since we were 14 years apart, we never met.

Back then 14 years was a big difference. Reading he passed at 77, after having stepped away from coaching at fifty-two, surprises me. Seventy-seven is no longer a ripe old age. And, in ego-driven enterprises where success tends to breed personality cults, it’s rare to see a leader know when to go.

His many obituaries lionize his winning ways at UCLA where he led the football team in its last glory years (1976-1995), providing a salve against the pain of watching UCLA’s basketball program, once the winningest in all of college sports, fracture in the post John Wooden era. (From 1948 to 1975, Wooden coached UCLA’s men’s basketball to 10 NCAA titles. It’s been a struggle ever since.)

One of Donahue’s keys to winning can be found in his NYT obituary: “You need money, access to an aircraft if possible,” Donahue is quoted as saying before he goes on to describe the faraway places he went in search of players.

One of those faraway places was Sherman Texas where, in 1977, he found an oversized teenager who, under Friday Night Lights, was tearing up the gridiron.

Billy Don Jackson was a phenom.

*       *       *

I was particularly predisposed to resent a certain aspect of UCLA life. I was a broke student and that fermented in me a very sensitive side which reverberated with jealousy against the easy lives I assumed for those around me.

The first time I succeeded in going on a date with a co-ed, I planned a traditional night out: dinner and a movie. I picked her up in front of what looked like a giant house (her sorority). On the way to dinner, confused we weren’t going to a campus party, my date asked if I was Greek?

How odd, I thought, that someone would mistake me for being Greek. “No,” I said. “My family is from Russia.” My date laughed all the way through the evening.

A little chip on my shoulder kept me away from the non-academic parts of student life. When I wasn’t in class, I hustled up tuition and living expenses. I had some scholarship funds and could have closed the gap with loans but I couldn’t square the idea of borrowing against nothing more than finding some kind of future. My feral mind smelt a trap.

So, I never made it to a sporting event. Never experienced the rah-rah-rah of a Big Game.

One day I learned of an event connected to a party held, if I remember correctly, not too far off campus. Sometime during the party, a former UCLA defensive lineman fatally stabbed someone. The trial revealed the former UCLA athlete – the perpetrator – felt angry and humiliated at being called “Billy Don’t Read Jackson.” Turns out, all of his fellow athletes and, almost certainly, all of his coaches knew Billy Don couldn’t read.

*       *       *

“The tragedy is that not only was Billy Don a great athlete,” said a former coach, Doug Kay, “but that he had a great sprit and great leadership and great compassion.” UPI 2/21/1981

Bill Dwyre, a long-time LA Times sports columnist, by his own accounting, is one of those “…who are occasionally called on to define legacy.” Apparently, “…Terry Donahue was as good (and good looking) as it gets.” According to Dwyre, Terry was “…George Clooney in spikes…,” something hard to define.

Donahue was all of 31 when he became UCLA’s head coach, a position he held for what remains as the twenty best years of UCLA football. Dwyre writes that Donahue was forced into football by his doctor-father who did not want his son, then a budding amateur boxer, to take a fight with Jerry Quarry. We all have a bit of hyperbole in our backstories. Maybe Terry was to fight Jerry but if so, he would have met a skilled, somewhat troubled fighter, who, along with a killer left hook, possessed a killer instinct.

After working his way through a junior college, Terry made it to the starting lineup of UCLA’s football team where he played for two years as an undersized defensive end, earning the monicker “Gutsy Little Bruin.” After his college days were over, he followed a common route, working as an unpaid assistant to one of his former coaches.

Not too long after, Terry became head coach of his former team. According to Dwyre, while “… fact seldom gets in the way of image,” Terry went to Daily Mass and Communion, respected his players and received as much in return.

The one “downer,” Dwyre wrote, was “the Billy Don Jackson” case – a “…troubled Texan [who] served eight months of a one-year sentence at the L.A. County jail and Wayside Honor Ranch.”

In Dwyre’s accounting, Jackson was “… a defensive lineman and a good one on Donahue’s early teams in the late 1970s. But Jackson couldn’t measure up in school and transferred to San Jose State. Along the way, he got involved with some bad actors and killed a drug dealer with a knife.”

I couldn’t help notice Dwyre’s subtle misdirection where he notes it was “along the way” toward San Jose State that Jackson killed a man. While not far from the straight facts, it reveals the privilege of the pen.

According to a UPI story that ran at the time of Jackson’s sentencing, in his third year at UCLA, after serving four games on the bench, Jackson quit the football team. In September of the same year – 1980 – he transferred to San Jose State, but not before winning not one but two N.N. Sugaman Awards, “…given to the player who exhibits the best spirit and scholarship by a vote of the UCLA players.”

The very next month, he killed a man.

After the trail, the campus was lit with excerpts; stories of how Billy Don was teased, how colored flags were used to signal defensive plays, how Billy Don’s frustration grew as his handicap became a weight he carried at greater and greater cost – to himself and eventually, to others.

*       *       *

In June of 1984, the Ninety-eighth Congress, through its Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities, held open hearings on the “Consideration of the Quality of Education Obtained by Student Athletes in Large-Scale Collegiate Athletic Programs.”

Members of that Committee include such luminaries as Jennings Randolph of West Virginia, Clairborne Pell of Rhode Island and that spry, forty-eight-year-old junior Senator from Iowa, the Honorable Chuck Grassley who, at a recent political rally, as an eighty-seven-year-old senator contemplating yet another run for office, showed off his bonafides by performing twenty pushups. (If ever there was a case for term limits.)

While Billy Don Jackson was not the center piece of the hearing, the Judge at Billy Don’s trail is quoted in the report: “This young man (Billy Don Jackson) cannot even read ‘see spot run’.”

*       *       *

In 2007, the L.A. Times ran a story on Billy Don. While he stumbled a few more times after his release from prison, by the time of that piece, a forty-eight year old Billy Don was nine years into a successful marriage and working as a set director on the show “24.”

The story describes how, while laying tiles, Billy Don met someone who, taking account of his size – 6’4” and 300 pounds – suggested he’d be desired as a set director.

I remember a different version, one where Terry Donahue kept a back channel open and stayed with his former prodigy, all the way through opening doors in Hollywood.

Always in his corner, Jackson says, was an unlikely ally.

“Believe it or not, Coach [Terry] Donahue,” he says of the former UCLA coach who wooed him out of Texas. “He and his wife, Andrea, would always try to make sure that I was OK. They had to keep their distance from me because of UCLA, but I truly believe that they both wanted the best for me, no matter what happened.”

                                                                                                                L.A. Times

In the article, Billy Don displays, along with remarkable perseverance, compassion, self-awareness and empathy. In the tragedy of his early years, he finds understanding. He describes how his drug use started at an early age: drinking, smoking, eventually crack. And how it was a sign of mental weakness which, if left unchallenged, and had he made it into the NFL –  almost a sure thing – would have led to an early death.

*       *       *

At the time of the 1984 Subcommittee report, college athletics was just as twisted as it is today. Back then, those senators wanted answers not only on specific instances of abuse but also on whether federal intervention was warranted.

Howard Cossell, casual, irreverent, had the senators eating out of his palm.

Dean Smith, then leading the North Carolina Tar Heels, soon to coach Michael Jordan, perhaps the most heralded coach in all the land, took the senators on a folksy tour of how things are done right.

But the most compelling witness, and perhaps the spark that convened the committee, was a young man by the name of Kevin Ross. Before the committee, Kevin described how, as a 6’9” basketball prodigy, he was pushed through high school and into Creighton University on a full scholarship.

Senator Metzenbaum: Did your professors ever make any comments to you about the fact that you were getting grades that you really did not deserve?

Mr. Ross: Well, no. If I failed in courses, the coaches took care of that; that kept me eligible. I turned in macaroni for papers.

Much like Billy Don, Kevin tried hard not to let the tragedy of his college athletic experience define his life. Before repeated injuries gave Creighton the option to revoke his scholarship, Kevin demanded his coaches acknowledge his illiteracy. The response was to enroll Kevin in a preparatory school where, while a starter for Creighton’s basketball team, he took classes alongside fourth and fifth graders.

During the committee hearing, he is as eloquent and poised a young man as ever there was, completely winning the senators over with crisp, elegant and elevated answers. And therein lay a picture of the real cost of exploitation, for though it seemed the future for Kevin could not have been brighter, he struggled to find his way.

Three years after those hearings, after speaking so eloquently in front of those senators, Kevin found himself on the eighth floor of a hotel, starring down at the police who were standing in the debris he had thrown from his balcony. Fortunately, those police were trained in the right procedures for handling a potential suicide.

By his own accounting, what brought Kevin to that perch was an overwhelming sense of loss, of what could have been had he been guided instead of used.

*       *       *

I don’t think Terry was a bad person; from my current vantage point I see him as young, when young meant someone for whom life’s significant lessons were just around the corner. And his retiring early, I’ve decided, is evidence of his coming to understand that whatever you take from a system is not as much as the system takes from you.