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Brad Brownell comes to Steve Donahue’s defense

January 5, 2014 Columns, Your Phil of Hoops No Comments

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Speculation about Steve Donahue’s job status has taken off, to the point where one might not be off their rocker for thinking it’s gotten out of hand. If the Boston College head coach is looking for an ally, it’s clear he has a willing one in Clemson head coach Brad Brownell, his opposite number on Saturday afternoon. The Clemson mentor added some thoughts unprompted while discussing his team’s win.

Clemson beat Boston College 62-60 on Saturday to send the reeling Eagles to 4-11 on the season. Well before this, though, there had been talk of what could happen to Donahue as the Eagles lost a few early ones. As losses have mounted, so has speculation that Donahue is on some kind of borrowed time at The Heights. Brownell sees some similarities and drew a comparison and contrast at times.

“I think Steve is a terrific coach,” said Brownell, who like Donahue is in his fourth season at the helm. “I know he’s doing it a little different way than some people have done it in the past, but I admire him for the way he’s doing it, sticking with his principles and recruiting really good players, really good kids. They’re just in a tough cycle.”

Certainly, the programs appear to be going in two different directions if you look only at their records, but Brownell knows better. He’s been in and around the game long enough to have a feel for this, and his own recent experience provides some perspective. Last season, Clemson was 4-4 in the ACC at one time, and some thought they might have a chance to be good. After that, the Tigers lost eight of nine before bowing out immediately to Florida State in the ACC Tournament. While the Tigers were slumping, Boston College was finishing strong, including a win in the ACC Tournament and a good battle with Miami. Expectations for both teams were going in different directions.

Brownell knows that some of the things he and Donahue have done differently, he could have done the same way. He’s opted not to, but that doesn’t mean he chose the right path and Donahue chose the wrong one. In the end they might both work out similarly, although that wouldn’t be the case in the interim. Scheduling is one notable difference, as the two teams scheduled very differently this season. As a result, the Tigers are 10-3 after winning on Saturday while the Eagles are now 4-11. They aren’t far apart in RPI, interestingly enough.

“I scheduled soft to build confidence for our team, because we’re coming off a 13-18 year and we needed to win some games so we can think we can beat somebody,” Brownell said. “At the end of the day, they’re not a 4-10 team, and we’re probably not as good as our record. If we played their schedule, I’m sure we’d look a lot like that. It’s just part of it. I think people have to be careful to make quick judgments of situations without understanding the whole picture.”

Brownell is not Mike Krzyzewksi or Roy Williams, but basketball people know his word means something. He can coach. His teams play good basketball at both ends of the floor. He’s won without having the most talent in his league. He’s from Indiana, whose basketball identity needs no introduction, and spent some years in North Carolina, where basketball rules the roost. While he’s a good man, this isn’t one coach standing up for another coach out of the fraternity. It’s a coach speaking up from experience.

When both coaches took over their respective programs, they were similar at first. In their first season, both teams were older, and in March they were both on the bubble when they met in the ACC Tournament in what was widely thought to be an at-large elimination game. Clemson blew out the Eagles and made it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, while BC didn’t make it at all. BC turned the roster over right away, while Clemson did so more gradually over a couple of years.

Besides that similarity, Brownell is keenly aware of the setting at both schools. Considering he’s coached – and won – at places that don’t get McDonald’s All-Americans to dot their roster, he’s well-qualified to speak on the reality of getting talent at both places. There is good talent in the Carolinas, much like in New England, but it’s not so simple for a variety of reasons.

“It’s hard to find a great point guard, it’s hard to find a big guy that can really protect your basket, then all of a sudden the guy gets hurt and you don’t have one,” said Brownell after talking about BC big man Dennis Clifford, who made his season debut on Saturday. “At Boston College or Clemson, where some of the schools in our league have two or three of those guys, it makes our jobs really tough.”

This isn’t a call for sympathy; Brownell understands the business. It’s a coach speaking from experience and one who knows the landscape. This is a high-risk, high-reward business, and for those who think coaches live “the life,” they should think about what Donahue is going through – losing games with a team that has potential and knowing that there are people who think he’ll be canned in a couple of months (or want that to happen). Those who say, “well he’s making a boatload of money regardless of results” miss the point.

“There’s a lot more pressure on these kids than people realize, and there’s no mercy in the league,” Brownell added. “There’s no mercy in the job. It’s a grind, and you’re doing your best, and there’s something to be said for experience, there just is, to being a little bit older team that’s been through the wars and seen a little bit of everything. You go through a cycle like this, and a year from now it’ll make you better. It’ll make you appreciate winning a little bit more.”

Brownell thinks BC will bounce back. It’s not unlike how Donahue said the other day he thinks the schedule will benefit them, but he doesn’t know when. No one knows what athletic director Brad Bates is thinking right now, but Donahue will continue to lead the Eagles as they try to parlay the tough schedule into something tangible down the road.

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