Full interview- Sitting down with coaching legends and old friends Pat Donnelly and Bobby McKenney
In more than a combined forty years of coaching, Pat Donnelly and Bobby McKenney have amassed 28 league titles, 17 Section 3 Championships, seven State Titles and a State Federation Title (J-D in 2003-2004). All in all, nearly 1,000 wins between the two coaches.
Coincidentally, the two coaches met more than 30 years ago, playing on the J.V. team at Potsdam State for legendary coach Jerry Welsh, compiling a 16-3 record in the process. That's where they say they became friends.
"It was easy because he was a forward and I was a guard," McKenney said. "He wanted me to pass him the ball, so he was really good to me."
"...I'm still waiting for that by the way," Donnelly interjected.
"He was good to me at the beginning, saying 'I've gotta get the ball' so yeah, I think just right away we had common interests and we're both hard workers," McKenney said.
They say it was their competitiveness as a part of that J.V. squad in college that has translated to their success in coaching. It's easy to see their passion on the sidelines. When the two squads matched up on January 10th at Bishop Ludden, the fans, players and the coaches could all feel the tension in the air (Bishop Ludden won the game 60-52). Throughout the game, both coaches could be seen screaming, either calling plays or just giving the referees some advice.
They say they try not to pay too much attention to each other in the heat of the moment, but on one occasion a few years ago, they couldn't help it.
"We went chest to chest a couple years ago," McKenney explained. "Pat later said, 'I'm so sorry,' but I said, 'It was great, you kidding me? The fans will never forget that!'"
"We were screaming at each other," Donnelly added. "We loved it...nose to nose. Someone asked, 'Do you guys hate each other?' I said no we're..that's just us."
Just like legendary college coaches Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, they say they don't particularly like coaching against each other because they are friends, and share an unmatched respect in the sport for one another.
"What Bobby has done at Jamesville-DeWitt speaks for itself," Donnelly says. "It's really kind of difficult because Bobby is a friend and when you play, obviously you want to win the game, but I would rather play anybody but a friend. It's been a great relationship but its hard to play someone you are close with."
Donnelly had already established himself in the Section 3 basketball world when McKenney arrived in 1996. While McKenney did have success at his previous stop in Milton, VT., he still had his hands full, inheriting a Jamesville-Dewitt team that went 1-19 the year before. Of course, he looked at former teammate Donnelly's recipe for success.
"[At that time] it was kind of Ludden, Westhill, CBA, so I thought, 'Who are you going to model and how are you going to model your program?' We were trying to be like these guys and I picked three pretty good schools and three pretty good guys at the time to kind of shape what we are trying to do," McKenney says.
Donnelly is already in the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame and the New York State Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, while McKenney recently won his 500th game as a high school coach, so they realize they can't do it forever. Once again, they look back at Coach Boeheim and Coach K's thoughts on retirement, saying they will coach as long as they still have the passion for the game.
"If you don't really enjoy the work leading up to the game then you shouldn't be coaching. Coach Boeheim said that if you leave too early then that's a mistake, but if you stay a year too long, that's probably not going to bother anybody," Donnelly said.
"If you've lost the passion to work at it...if I'm going to sit and coach and just sit there, then it's time for me to pass this on to somebody younger that has the fire," McKenney said. "As long as I have the passion to do it, I think Pat would say the same thing, we're going to hang in there. I don't think I'm going to catch Coach Boeheim, I can tell you that, Pat might.."
Donnelly said, "...unless I do from St. Camillus I won't...."
Before any of that happens, this Saturday marks the first time Donnelly's Bishop Ludden squad and McKenney's J-D Red Rams will match up in the Class A Sectional Title game.
As mentioned above, Bishop Ludden beat J-D earlier this season, putting even more fuel to the fire for this mega-matchup. As the 1-seed J-D beat Fowler 75-49 in the quarterfinals and Cortland 72-54 to make it to the final. The 2-seed, the Gaelic Knights took down New Hartford 54-30 and in the semifinals beat Carthage 62-48.
Each coach broke down what scares them the most about their opponent:
"Everything. You know I think obviously, they have great size. I was fortunate enough to have it for a nice run for 7-8 years. And you can practice against the 3-2, 1-3-1, 2-3 or someone's man. But, they are so big, there is no way to practice. There is nothing comparable to that size. So they're long, they have some great players. You know, Danny Kaigler is the most dominant player if not the most dominant player in our section, and they have a great surrounding cast. Unfortunately...they are really well coached," McKenney said.
Donnelly quickly responded jokingly, "Never heard that before."
McKenney continued..."There are not a lot of holes, so it is a great challenge but you know, that is why we do it. We like the challenge to figure out and compete to be successful but sometimes not. The hard part for me, as I've gotten older is actually moving on after a tough loss at the end of the year and getting myself back together and getting ready to do it again. It's a formidable task. I guess the other part for me is they have a lot of big time playoff experience with this group and that helps."
Donnelly, who had the luxury of winning their only matchup this year, broke down J-D's success.
"The best thing I can say about them is how much better they have gotten," he said. "Always from the start of the season you say, 'Well okay it's J-D, they're going to be decent no matter what. But, this team is not only five but they can be 10 or 11 deep. Obviously with Jafar Kinsey and Dom DeRegis I mean they're two great leaders and two of their primary guys, but now they have all these other guys coming off the bench that are giving them good minutes and they buy into each other. You know its a good team and they're not jealous. Kinsey, who's maybe the best guard in the area, isn't point hungry. He's going to distribute the basketball and do whatever it takes to win and they're very, very dangerous on an open floor."
They admit just like a win will bring satisfaction, a loss will sting for a few weeks as it always does, but that regardless of the outcome, nothing about their decades-long friendship will change, and they'll root for whoever wins in the state tournament as well.
Ludden and J-D tip off at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday in the Carrier Dome.