Finally . . . a championship

Kevin Donley and USF bring home a football title

Kevin Donley with players Shawn Ryan, Brian Gegner, Zach Minardo and Shannon Swain, courtesy of the University of Saint Francis

Kevin Donley with players Shawn Ryan, Brian Gegner, Zach Minardo and Shannon Swain, courtesy of the University of Saint Francis

You can ask, but it’s impossible to describe.

What does it feel like to win a championship?

How does it feel to do it after so long?

It’s still fresh in Kevin Donley’s mind all these months later:

Those waning seconds in Daytona Beach, Florida, watching the clock tick down, hugging everybody he could find on the sidelines, his University of Saint Francis Cougars up 38-17 against Baker University in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship football game.

And then being hoisted on the shoulders of his players and carried off the field, his 302nd career win and first title for the football program he built from the ground up, beginning all the way back with its first team, in the bank.

He can feel it all again when asked, but how could anyone describe something like that?

“You can’t,” Donley said. “It’s absolutely incredible. You put so much effort and dedication into it, and you do it every year, to finally reach the pinnacle, it’s just such an emotional thing. You can’t describe it.”

Donley came to Saint Francis in 1997 and started the football program from scratch. Its first season, 1998, the Cougars went 2-8. It’s been the team’s only losing season in the past 19 years – a run that included several trips to the NAIA National Championship game.

“I think we should’ve had a couple (championships) earlier,” Donley said. “We let a few slip away from us. But it’s just like anything – you go through struggles over a 19-year period. There are ups and downs.”

While the team may have come up short on a few of those championship campaigns, the program from the 2,300-student school excelled at something else entirely:

It became Fort Wayne’s team.

Every game day in the fall, fans pack Bishop John D’Arcy Stadium on the west side of the campus along Lindenwood Avenue. Games are broadcast over the radio and yes, there are tailgate parties galore before kickoff.

And fan commitment showed in Daytona Beach, when about 3,000 or so fans from the city showed up to cheer the Cougars on.

“There were so many people there from Fort Wayne, even people who didn’t even have anybody playing,” Donley said. “This town has been so good to the team.”

The turning point for this team – and Donley said he and the coaches as well – stemmed from the 2014 season when the Cougars finished 6-5. That year, Donley said, the team could’ve easily have been 10-1 or even 2-9, the games were so uneven.

“It took a recommitment from players and coaches after that season,” Donley said. “It starts at the top, and I had to look at myself. I spent too much time worrying about things that were out of my control.”

So the coaching staff toughened off-season workouts for strength and conditioning. The players were tested every morning despite rain, sun or snow. Despite the grueling regime, Donley said there was a concerted effort to make the stadium a home away from home – to make the locker room a place of positivity for the players.

“We were mentally tougher, physically better and we developed some confidence,” Donley said. “We changed the environment. They wanted to be here.”

His players’ mental toughness was put to the ultimate test in Daytona Beach, when they were subjected to a vacation atmosphere with family and friends in tow prior to the game against Baker. “I never had to worry about them,” Donley says. “They were on a mission.”

The mission, though, continues.

There is a ring ceremony scheduled for later this month, to almost coincide with the spring game. And soon enough, another season will begin, when the players will have to put those newly minted championship rings on the shelf for a time and begin the task of defending their title.

“There’s no destination point in what we do,” Donley said. “You have to move on. The journey continues.”

First appeared in the April 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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