A lifetime of HHS football

By John Henson jhenson@civitasmedia.com

August 1, 2014

J.B. Donahue leans back in a chair at his office, tucked away in the bowels of Joe Gilly Memorial Stadium, and thinks back to Friday nights of his childhood, watching the Harlan Green Dragons of the late 1960s and 1970s play at Huff Park.

“I don’t have memories without football games. I was going to games since I was big enough to go. My parents didn’t go until I started playing, so the neighborhood boys would escort me to the games and take me back home,” said Donahue, who turned his passion for Harlan football into a career as he is busy preparing for his 22nd season as head coach.

Donahue has won 115 games in his first 21 seasons, more than any coach in school history, and has led the Dragons to two (1996 and 1999) of the three district championships that Harlan has won in football.

Counting four years as a player (he was on the school’s first district championship team in 1979) and four seasons as assistant (two years each under David Johnson and Murph Howard), Donahue has spent 30 of his 50 years with the HHS football program.

“I don’t think anybody cares about Harlan football any more than I do,” he said. “I want it to be successful, but I have always cared more about the kids and team showing class and being good people and citizens.”

His 22 seasons have made him the longest tenured football coach in school history, surpassing Gilly several years ago.

“I never dreamed I’d be in it this long,” Donahue said. “When I started, I looked at a legend like Joe Gilly who had coached 15 years (at Harlan) and that seemed like such a long time. But now, 22 years later, it doesn’t seem so long. I wanted to be here that long, but I didn’t know if I would. I didn’t have any aspirations to go anywhere else. I tell people all the time that I’m 22 years in and have never won a state championship or coached any All Americans, but I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world, to quote Lou Gehrig. How many people get to go home and do what they’ve dreamed of doing for 20-some years?

“Not a lot of people get to do that, so I’ve been very blessed and fortunate. I’ve had a lot of good people who have helped shape me and done a lot to help.”

Donahue has had his share of ups and downs through his tenure. He took over a team that had been 0-10 and 2-8 the previous two years and led them to four straight years with improving records, culminating in a 9-3 record and district title in 1996.

After two straight losing seasons, the Dragons rebounded again in 1999 with an 11-2 mark and another district championship. Harlan was 9-3 in 2004, 8-4 in 2006, 7-6 in 2009 and 6-5 in 2001, alternating winning and losing seasons through much of the decade before falling on hard times again of late.

After posting records of 6-5 in 2011 and 6-6 in 2012 with a senior-dominated team, the Dragons struggled through a 2-9 mark last season.

“It was tough, but I said it all year last year that I have a lot of respect for those kids,” Donahue said. “Nobody quit us all year. We went into some games with 17, 18 kids, but those 23 kids stuck it out, and they will be great people, great dads. In the grand scheme of things, that’s a whole lot more important.”

After losing 10 seniors, this year’s squad is one of the youngest in the Donahue era.

“I think our guys are capable of competing for a district championship, but there is no secret potion for coach Donahue or anyone else,” he said. “Except for a handful of teams, you will have ups and downs in Class A football. You just don’t have enough kids, enough people.”

Despite speculation about his future the past couple of years, Donahue said he has no plans to retire from coaching anytime soon.

“I don’t know how to do anything else,” Donahue said with a laugh. “To me, I’m a football coach. That’s what I know and who I am. My family has been around it for years. I have one of the biggest female football fans in the state at my house because she wanted to be with her dad. Even if I retire teaching, I’d love to keep coaching. I don’t have a timetable on it.”