By Tom Mattingly
When family and friends assembled to honor Ken Donahue’s life, there were tears of joy and remembrance, as everyone present thought about a man who touched everybody he knew in a positive way.
Donahue, a native of Corryton, died March 21, 2001, after collapsing at Bally’s Total Fitness during a workout. He was 76, born on Feb. 28, 1925, and was an assistant coach at Tennessee for Bowden Wyatt (1956-60) and John Majors (1985-88).
Present were delegations from the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama (including Paul W. Bryant, Jr.). There were Tennessee and Alabama caps near the casket, a painting of Ken coaching his Tennessee defenders, and his trademark Sherlock Holmes floppy hat. That latter item hit hard. So did the playing of Dottie Rambo’s “He Looked Beyond My Faults and Saw My Needs” (words put to the music of “Danny Boy”).
A man of uncomplicated virtue, Donahue had come full circle from his early days in Corryton and at Central High School, through his playing days at Tennessee (1947-50), a coaching resume that included stops at Memphis State (1951-55), Tennessee (1956-60), Mississippi State (1961-63), Alabama (1964-84), and Tennessee again (1985-88), before a brief tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles and retirement back to Corryton.
Donahue had returned to Knoxville in 1985, and his defensive unit, which improved game-by-game, brought home a 38-20 win over No. 1 Auburn and eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson. Donahue’s defense was a major factor in the Vols’ drive to the SEC title, Sugar Bowl win over Miami, and No. 4 (AP) national ranking.
Jackson had averaged 163 yards against Donahue’s defenses while Ken was at Alabama, but Donahue got the best of him in 1985, holding him to 80 yards on 17 carries. Orange-shirted defenders were all over him, swarming to the ball as did Vol defenders of old. Neyland Stadium had never been louder and Vol fans more appreciative.
Many Vol fans consider that team to be among their favorites, especially given the way Donahue’s defense played going down the stretch run of the season. The Vol defenders helped mightily in fighting Georgia Tech to a last-minute 6-6 deadlock, shut out Rutgers 40-0, defeated Memphis State 17-7, knocked off Ole Miss 34-14, and shut out Kentucky (40-0) and Vanderbilt (30-0) to clinch the SEC title. If you’re counting, that group gave up but 27 points in the last six regular season games.
He was awarded a game ball after the Vols’ 16-14 win over Alabama that October. Receiving the pigskin from Dale Jones in the dressing room at Legion Field, Ken said, “This one will go right at the top.”
In the minds of many, if not most, Tennessee fans, Donahue will be best remembered for his defensive scheme against Miami in the 1986 Sugar Bowl. The Louisiana Superdome was packed to the rafters with Tennessee fans, and Vol defenders fed off the crowd to stymie the Hurricanes at every turn after giving up an early first quarter score.
In a 35-7 Vol win, Tennessee defenders came at Hurricane quarterback Vinny Testaverde from nearly every angle and created six turnovers, seven quarterback sacks, and five tackles for lost yardage.
In fact, one media representative voted Donahue the game’s Most Valuable Player. The (Nashville) Tennessean’s David Climer wrote that Donahue won the game with a clipboard and a pencil.
“What Ken Donahue has done with our defense is the most amazing feat I have seen in all my years of football,” Majors said after that Sugar Bowl game. “I’ve been around some good football coaches, but nobody day-in or day-out could outwork Ken. He left his mark on so many people he coached.”
Donahue was considered one of the hardest working assistant coaches during his time in college football. Bear Bryant prided himself on being a hard worker, but said he had to yield to Donahue, or so goes the story. “No matter what time I get there, Donahue’s already there,” said Bryant.
There’s a classic story about Ken Donahue and Bear Bryant that’s been told so many times it almost has to be true.
Bryant was riding through the Alabama campus one night with a friend. The friend mentioned that there was a light on in the football office and asked Bryant what the deal was. Bryant’s response was vintage.
“That’s just that darn Ken Donahue, trying to make me a legend.”
Ken wouldn’t have liked being called a legend, but darned if he wasn’t one himself.
Great coach. Better man.