BOSTON (AP) — Cornell showed it can play with the college basketball power conferences by winning a pair of games in the NCAA tournament and reaching the Sweet 16.
Now Steve Donahue has a chance to show he can coach in the majors, too.
The Cornell coach, who led the Big Red to three straight conference titles and the longest run in the NCAAs for an Ivy League team in more than 30 years, was hired on Tuesday to replace Al Skinner at Boston College. The Atlantic Coast Conference school scheduled a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, followed by rally on the Campus Green to introduce him to the students.
“I told the folks at BC that they made a great hire,” Cornell athletic director Andy Noel said. “Our university really wanted to keep Steve. I’m a little heartbroken, but we turn the page and become a BC fan forever. … We’re appreciative that we had a decade with Steve Donahue.”
Donahue led the Big Red to a 29-5 record this season — the most wins in Ivy history — and victories over favored Temple and Wisconsin in the NCAAs. The first Ivy team to reach the Sweet 16 in more than 30 years, Cornell lost to No. 1-seeded Kentucky 62-45 in the East Regional semifinals.
“Anytime somebody leaves like that, it’s hard to swallow,” Cornell guard Louis Dale said in Ithaca, N.Y., where Donahue returned on Tuesday so he could meet with his team on campus. “But you, at the same time, were such a fan of Coach Donahue that we’re BC fans now. We want to see him do well.
“That just shows what kind of coach he was and a great person. Just because he’s leaving this institution doesn’t mean that we’re going to turn our backs on him.”
Skinner was fired after 13 years in which he became the winningest coach in BC history and took the Eagles to seven NCAA tournaments in a nine-year span. In announcing the decision, athletic director Gene DeFilippo said he was looking for a more exciting style of play than the banging, Big East system that Skinner favored.
DeFilippo was also hoping his new coach will draw fans to the Conte Forum, where attendance has declined for four straight seasons, and someone he can use to market the program to a region that’s traditionally preoccupied with its professional sports teams.
BC scheduled Donahue’s news conference it for a large auditorium in the new Yawkey Athletic Center instead of the usual basketball postgame interview room in the basement of the Conte Forum. The school also sent out an e-mail to its athletic mailing list for a rally on the Campus Green after Donahue was introduced to the media, proclaiming “A new era in BC men’s basketball.”
Donahue went 74-117 in his first seven seasons at Cornell, which hadn’t won the Ivy title since 1988. They went 16-12 in 2006-07, and the next year the Big Red won the first of three straight Ivy championships to break a string in which Penn and Princeton won or shared every league title but three since 1969.
“He brought stability. He brought discipline. He changed the culture,” Noel said, recalling times when Donahue benched the best player on the team for failing to follow the system. “Kids were diving for balls. They were hustling, accepting the role that Steve provided and became unselfish. … He’d just sit them down and suffered some losses because of that. He developed the discipline, and it ended up bearing incredible fruit.”
After addressing the team in a tearful meeting and signing a few T-shirts for fans outside Newman Arena, Donahue left without speaking to the media, honoring a request made by DeFilippo.
Senior Jon Jaques said the emotional Donahue was “pretty composed,” considering the circumstances.
“Obviously, it was somber,” Jaques said. “He’s torn about it because of all the great memories here. I’m sure he’ll always have a special place in his heart for Cornell.”
Dale said the players understood why Donahue left.
“It’s good for him, and we all know that,” Dale said. “The decision he made is based on him and his family. He had to do what’s best for him.”
Noel spoke at an afternoon rally to honor the success of Cornell’s winter sports teams, then told reporters he tried to retain Donahue, who had already turned down seven or eight offers.
Noel did not give a timetable for hiring a replacement but indicated he wanted someone in place soon.
“There’s already enormous interest,” he said. “It’s just crazy.”
AP Sports Writer John Kekis in Ithaca, N.Y., contributed to this report.