Larry Donovan hasn’t taken success for granted.
In a colorful 41-year career in coaching, Donovan has been accomplished at every level on which he has coached while working alongside names that are renowned and hallowed in the sport of football. He often reminds himself of a phrase that former player Eddie Lowe once told him.
“Don’t defeat yourself,” Donovan told a gathering of the Semiahmoo Men’s Club, November 4, at the Blue Heron Grill at the Semiahmoo Golf and Country Club. His perseverance has allowed him to work alongside and be mentored by legends of professional and college football while never taking a sick day in 41 years.
Sharing anecdotes and the history of his coaching career, Donovan related his small town roots in the state of Nebraska, where he developed a passion for pole vaulting, which launched his athletic career. He humorously recalled trying to find something to adequately serve as a pole to practice with. While weak materials snapped under his weight, metal poles often were too inflexible and risked serious injury.
“I found out that carpets were rolled around bamboo poles,” Donovan shared, “so I went down to the carpet store and got poles and started practicing at home.”
Donovan parlayed his hard work into establishing the Nebraska state record for boys in pole vault at the time. He also played football in high school and was recruited by the University of Nebraska and Cornhuskers head coach, the legendary Bob Devaney.
“Bob Devaney is one of the greatest coaches ever,” Donovan told the group.
Donovan told of his experiences playing with the Cornhuskers in the 1960 Orange Bowl and the 1962 Gotham Bowl at old Yankee stadium.
“Even though there were just a couple of thousand people there,” Donovan said, “it was one of the greatest football games I ever played in.” Nebraska defeated the Miami Hurricanes 36-34 to complete a 9-2 season. That season, Donovan played alongside NFL defensive guru Monte Kiffen, whose son Lane is the head coach at USC, and NFL hall of famer Bob Brown.
Donovan first became an assistant coach at the University of Iowa and followed up at South Dakota, Washington State and Kansas State. During those stints, Donovan worked with household names in football including WSU’s Jim Sweeney, Jack Elway, former Minnesota Vikings and Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, and the legendary Chargers and Rams quarterback John Hadl.
At the end of the 1979 season, Donovan was selected as the new coach of the University of Montana Grizzlies. After a tumultuous six seasons and only one winning season, he was fired with a 25-38-1 record. Donovan cited the conditions of the old Dornblaser field as one of the hindrances to recruiting and keeping the Grizzlies out of the upper tier of football. He established a relationship with local businessman Dennis Washington and encouraged the building of a new stadium for the Grizzlies.
His efforts lead to the construction and opening of Washington-Grizzlies Stadium in 1986. Since the opening of the facility, the Grizzlies have qualified for the post-season 19 times and have won two NCAA 1-AA national championships.
Montana is considered a model program nationally both in success and facilities. Former Blaine football star Caleb Statham is a current red-shirt freshman for the Grizzlies.
After Montana, Donovan became offensive line coach for the B.C. Lions in the Canadian football league. In 1987, he was promoted to interim head coach in the wake of Don Matthews’ dismissal and won the final four games of the season. In his first full season as head coach, the Lions improved to 10-8, their playoff run ending in the Grey Cup, losing a thriller to Winnepeg 22-21. 1989 was less fortuitous to Donovan as the Lions stumbled out to an 0-4 start and he was fired as head coach.
More recently, Donovan was recruited to coach football in Japan. Though looking for more of a big name coach, Donovan’s coaching resume and experience with football in Japan won him a job. He coached Montana in the 1984 Mirage Bowl in Tokyo, where the Grizzlies lost to Army.
In Japan, Donovan coached the Hidashi Semiconductor team, which was in division four, the lowest in Japan’s X league. In his time coaching there, Hidashi moved from division four to division one.
One of the cultural oddities Donovan had to navigate was the tendency to have to consult as a team whenever there was a change in the way they were coached. Donovan had to show them a different way.
“I realized that this was how they worked corporately,” Donovan explained, “I told them to do their own job.” The Semiconductor team listened and responded, sparking their rise to division 1.
After 41 years, Donovan covets his coaching relationships and the people he has met, taking the greatest pride in being called “Coach.” He regards coaching as a mutual exchange with his players.
“They gave back to me,” Donovan said affectionately.
Locally, Donovan has been a strong advocate for the reinstatement of football at Western Washington University.