The big lie

Lots of basketball coaches lie, but not like Don Donoher

By Marc Katz

They lie and say they never cheated to get a player. They lie and tell the world how great they are.

Donoher tells you he lasted 25 years at UD and won 437 games because 7-foot center Hank Finkel decided to stay in school rather than accept a contract to play in the NBA.

Finkel did it twice, by the way. No question he helped Donoher’s career. But what coach do you know who shares Donoher’s appreciation for one of his players?

Donoher, more than 50 years later, remains grateful. He makes it sound like Finkel not only saved his job, but he is the sole reason why Donoher is a member of college basketball’s Hall of Fame and won more games than any other coach in UD history.

“I told him that’s nonsense,” Finkel says in a telephone interview from his home in the Boston area. “I don’t know if he really believes it. At the end of my sophomore year, Bob Sullivan, a starting forward on our team, got a document together. We all signed it. We wanted Donoher to coach the next year.”

Finkel has repeated his feelings often in local interviews the past 15 years. He didn’t exactly call Donoher a liar about his basketball coaching ability, but you know, that’s the wordage Washington leadership uses these days.

In one sense, Donoher may be right. You don’t win, you don’t coach, and as I heard repeated on television recently, “You don’t win with X’s and O’s, you win with Jimmies and Joes.”

In other words, the most brilliant coach at drawing a game plan on the chalkboard loses if he doesn’t have players to execute the plan.

Donoher had the plan (no matter what he says), and the players.

Donoher’s chance came when long-time head coach Tom Blackburn succumbed to cancer at the end of the 1964 season. Finkel was already at UD and had an extra hardship added to his eligibility due to the fact his father had died that year.

Big Hank had played a year of freshman ball at St. Peters near his New Jersey home, but didn’t like it. He left and went to work in the shipyards when Harry Brooks, a former Seton Hall star and a high school coach, spotted Finkel at an ice cream shop one night.

That’s not the usual place to find athletes, but it’s a refreshing story to hear. Brooks wanted to know if Finkel wanted to go back to school, and he did, thinking Brooks was scouting for Seton Hall.

Brooks was scouting for Dayton, and Dayton had just won the 1962 NIT, so Finkel knew all about the Flyers.

Finkel’s mom, a German immigrant, could not have been more pleased, even though she didn’t know where Dayton was or how far it was from home. Her son was going back to college.

He redshirted a year at UD to gain back his original eligibility, then played a year for Blackburn, who went 15-10 in his final season, and first with Finkel.

Donoher took over, but Finkel had already been out of high school four years. He was eligible for the NBA draft, and the Lakers took him in the fourth round.

Not yet the cash cow it would become, the NBA did not appeal to Finkel, who opted to stay with Donoher.

“First of all, he’s a gentleman,” Finkel says. “Number two, he knew his basketball. He used to set up players and work plays. He always knew the opposition. Nobody lasts 25 years in the same place if you’re not great.

“Forget about all the great players. He was a great coach. You just don’t take a great player and create a winner. You have to know basketball,” says Finkel. “Donoher. He’s the best. I’m sorry. We couldn’t think of anybody better. I passed on the draft to stay with him.”

At the end of his junior year, Finkel was drafted again, in the fourth round, by Philadelphia. Wilt Chamberlain was Philadelphia’s center then. Finkel stayed in Dayton.

“That’s how much I loved it,” Finkel says. “I didn’t know anything about the city, university, campus, fans. The only thing I knew is Dayton won the NIT that (1962) year, (Bill) Chmielewski and Gordon Hatton. I went to Dayton.”

The Flyers went 22-7 and 23-6 in Finkel’s two years with Donoher. They made the NCAA championship game the next year, after Finkel was graduated.

“I’d have stayed there,” Finkel says. “I’d have gotten a job out there. There wasn’t one thing about Dayton I could say negatively. If I had four more years, I would have stayed there. Everyone now is one-and-done. I was four-and-more.”

Finkel played nine years in the pros (in Los Angeles, San Diego and Boston), retired and started his own furniture company. He worked until he was 72, three years ago.

“I packed it in,” he says. “It’s just my wife and me now. My kids are married.”

He was lured back to Dayton a couple of times for fundraisers, and Donoher had to beg him to come. Finkel still holds a grudge against UD for letting Donoher go back in 1989.

“I was really, really angry they let him go,” says the man who made Donoher’s career.

There I go, lying, just like Donoher.

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Marc Katz
Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at KatzCopsNSports.com. Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at MarcKatz@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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