DETROIT — Pat Donnelly calls himself a “throwback” basketball coach.
“I had some great coaches that I played for and coached with,” he said. “I coach the way I was coached.”
The philosophy was the same — hold players accountable, perform to expectations — no matter the level, whether it was at Rocky River (Ohio) High School and St. Vincent College or in nearly three decades on the sidelines with stints at Manchester University of Pennsylvania, Akron, and Elmira College, and two years at Grosse Pointe North before arriving at University of Detroit Jesuit High School 11 years ago.
“I haven’t changed,” Donnelly said, “but how you treat kids has changed. I have to learn what motivates each player to reach their potential, to get the best out of them.
“I tell them if you don’t want to work to reach your potential, then you’re just coasting. It may not be pleasant at times,” said Donnelly, whose passion is vocally on display from the bench, “but it gets results.”
The results he has achieved at U-D Jesuit since 2008 merited him the Catholic League’s Person of the Year Award presented during the recent CHSL Hall of Fame banquet.
League director Vic Michaels synopsized the Pat Donnelly era: He has coached more than 50 All-Catholic and All-League players, 13 All-State players — including Michigan’s Mr. Basketball, Cassius Winston, in 2016 — the Cubs were the first Catholic League team to win three consecutive city championships and seven CHSL championships in a row.
In 2016, U-D Jesuit went 28-0, was ranked No. 1 in Michigan and the Midwest and No. 4 in the nation, winning the first state championship in the school’s 139-year history.
He has an overall record of 207–56 (.787). Six teams in the past seven years were named Academic All-State.
“Pat Donnelly is setting the standard for modern day coaches,” Michaels said, “who coach and coach and don’t just watch the action and accept the results. He has set the tone as a no-nonsense, respectful competitor and in turn has been respected and revered.”
Donnelly was born 52 years ago in Cleveland, but was reared in Rocky River, a suburb 20 miles west of Cleveland on the shores of Lake Erie.
He attended St. Christopher grade school, and lasted just one year as a freshman at St. Ignatius before transferring to the local high school. Donnelly played whatever sport was in season, “but I became passionate about basketball.”
He married Jen, a special education teacher, in 1993. They are parents of Clare, 18, and Colin, 22.
Donnelly got out of coaching in 2004 and the family moved to Detroit. “I wanted to spend more time with the kids,” he says. He worked five years at his uncle’s business in Warren.
It was his uncle who told him about the coaching vacancy at U of D Jesuit.
“My dad and uncle had both attended St. Ignatius,” Donnelly said. “When Dad heard I got the job at U-D, he celebrated: ‘The Jesuits finally got him!’ He died of cancer on the day I started at U-D. I was happy that he enjoyed this moment, if even for a short time.”
Donnelly was named director of admissions for both the high school and academy a year later.
“I started four sophomores and a senior on my first team at U-D,” Donnelly said. “We struggled a little bit. But we also started to figure out how to win. People started to notice when Cassius (Winston) came for the ninth grade (from the Academy). We started to develop a reputation.”
Donnelly says, “I saw how good he was in the seventh grade. He has an unbelievable basketball IQ. He has a God-given talent plus hard work.”
About Winston's decision to forgo the NBA for another year at Michigan State, Donnelly says, “He consulted with all kinds of people about the NBA. We told him he could become the all-time great player at MSU.
“Another year will give him time to work on his deficiencies. He won’t get any taller, but he can become quicker, stronger, a better decision-maker.”
Losing the state final in March at the buzzer to Ypsilanti Lincoln “stung,” Donnelly said. “I told the players afterward it didn’t take anything away from what they accomplished and to appreciate that not many teams get an opportunity like this.”
The bottom line for Donnelly: “It’s been great to build up the program. There’s a lot to be proud of. But as much as I love basketball, the values players learn and use in later life, the relationships with players I coached over the years, that’s what keeps me going.”
And that’s good news for U of D Jesuit.
Don Horkey may be reached at [email protected].