Sports -- March 08, 2007

Published on Thu, Mar 8, 2007
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by Jack Kintner

Blaine coach reflects on a varied life

Blaine resident Larry Donovan has been coaching football long enough to know just about everything there is to know about the sport, but he may be the first to admit that he doesn’t.

“You never stop learning something new,” he said, “no matter what level you’re watching.”

In a career that stretches back to the 1960s, the newest thing for Donovan is his experience coaching pro football in Japan. The game is the same, he said, but the Japanese put their own twist on it.

“There are cultural hurdles,” Donovan said, “because life there is lived in a much more directive structure, where people are told what to do but are also expected to learn how to do something on their own. That’s where the American coaches found a role to play, to show them how to do the fundamentals of football, not just what to do.”

An example, he said, is the difference between being told to just catch the ball, being shown how to catch it, or how to hold your hands when catching.

A corporate headhunter from Victoria recruited Donovan in 1991 for a probationary tryout coaching in the Japanese X League and has been there every year since. His team, the Renesas Hurricanes, is active from mid-March through early June for the spring season and from late August to just after Thanksgiving for the fall season.

“It used to be that you had to work for the company to play for its team,” he said, “so at one time they were all semi-conductor engineers. Recently they’ve gone to more of a club approach and we can draw from a wider pool.”

Donovan said that the Japanese brand of football is good. “It was introduced there in 1934, and we’re probably three years or so away from having a legitimate Japanese player come to the NFL.”
One interesting difference lies in the meticulous approach to the game that Japanese players take, more one of mastery than their American counterparts.

“They’ll study the films for the last three weeks very closely, and then if our scout team doesn’t line up in practice exactly like the opponent did in the films they’ll stop practice and correct it. Changes can be hard to introduce without a lot of fair warning.”

Donovan says that it’s this self-scouting approach that’s changed his way of teaching defenses about up-coming teams.

“There’s four linebackers, especially, who have taught me a lot about that approach. When it’s game time, these guys are ready for anything they see the opponent do. they’re very thorough,” he said.

Donovan is one of just two American coaches left in the league, and knows his days are numbered.

He has seen a lot of football and rubbed shoulder pads with a number of well-known coaches since his days playing both tight end and defensive end at Nebraska, following a stellar high school career in his native Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska.

He was a first-team all-state tight end and defensive end and a starter in the state’s first high school all-star Shrine game and one of the first high school athletes in the country to clear 13 feet in the pole vault when the poles were still made of bamboo and steel and the national record was still under 16 feet.

The University of Nebraska head coach Bill Jennings recruited him but despite playing a dozen or so future NFL players the team did poorly until his senior year when the legendary Bob Devaney replaced Jennings.

With discipline, a focus on teamwork and a stable staff of assistants Devaney got a team that had gone 3-6-1 the year before to a 9-2 record, national ranking and a televised bowl game victory over a Miami team quarterbacked by George Mira.

“That turn-around began a football legacy that’s lasted 40 years, an amazing accomplishment and one that really got me interested in coaching as a career,” Donovan said.

Still a trim 6 foot-one and within ten pounds of his playing weight of 195, he seldom discusses his own stats on the field, preferring to focus on his first love, coaching.

He served as president of the lettermen’s club his senior year at Nebraska, working closely with athletic director Tippy Dye, formerly basketball coach at the University of Washington.

“Dye was great to work with. He brought Devaney over from Wyoming and just let him coach.” Dye’s basketball coach from 1963 through 1980, Joe Cipriano, also has northwest roots and relatives in Blaine, and one of Donovan’s team mates at Nebraska, defensive back and field goal kicker Dave Theisen, also lives in Blaine.

Donovan went into the Army as an artillery lieutenant after his undergraduate years and served in Korea, where he was awarded an Army Commendation Medal.

When his tour ended, he returned to Nebraska to begin graduate studies and to marry his college sweetheart, a cheerleader and former Miss Nebraska named Georgia Merriam. On July 16 they will celebrate their 41 anniversary.

Though he earned his principal’s credentials, his experience under Devaney drew him into coaching football as a life-long career and passion.

The Donovans went to South Dakota and then to Washington State University in Pullman where he was part of a staff under Jim Sweeney that included former San Diego Charger running back Keith Lincoln and Jack Elway, who would go on to coach at San Jose State and Stanford, and whose son John became one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.

More short-term assignments followed until Donovan landed his first head coaching job with the University of Montana Grizzlies in 1979. An assistant from those days, Joe Glenn, is now the head coach at Montana and was named NCAA division I-AA coach of the year after taking his team into the national championship. Getting fired is part of the coaching life, and the higher you go the more it seems to be based on personality and ego, Donovan said.

“It’s a very unstable environment, coaching, with a lot of uncertainty. If you win you’re moving up and if you don’t you’re getting fired. It’s just part of the way it works,” he said.

In 1985 he joined the pro ranks himself as defensive line coach for the B.C. Lions. Two seasons later, with four games left to play, the head coach was fired and Donovan replaced him.

The Donovans moved to Blaine from White Rock in 1997 with the third of their three girls, Lindsay, who graduated from Blaine high school in the class of 2000. He says that Blaine’s football program looks good to him. “I like the new coach. He knows what he’s doing.”

It’s impossible to define precisely, he said, but a good coach – a combination of a parent, teacher and mentor – has the chance to change lives.

“If I had one statement,” Donovan said, “it’s do your own job. It’s not easy, but it’s key to team play. Don’t worry about the other guy. Just do your work to the best of your ability and it will work out.”