FORT WAYNE, Ind. — Kevin Donley thought he knew everything about coaching when he took over the Anderson College football program at 26 years old. His goal? Chase down Alabama legend Bear Bryant on the all-time wins list.
"And here I am a few years later," Donley said, "realizing that I don't know anything."
But while he says he's still learning, The Bear isn't far off.
Donley, 65, is the head coach at the University of St. Francis, an NAIA school in Fort Wayne. He's also the newest member of the 300-win club—only the 13th college football coach to ever reach the mark—and the winningest coach in NAIA history.
Plus, now that Ken Sparks has stepped down at Division II Carson-Newman University, Donley—whose team earned a spot in the 2016 national championship game—is the winningest active coach in college football.
"Typically, as a young coach, it's all about the wins and where you're going to be," Donley said. "When you acquire that, at my age, you realize it's the experience that's created with players.
"Of course, winning is enjoyable. We all want to do that. I have a passion for it. I'm a terrible loser."
Fortunately for Coach D, he hasn't dealt with many losses throughout a 38-year career as a head coach.
|Kevin Donley Career Record|
|St. Francis (Ind.)||1998-Present||19||187-44||301-129-1|
|St. Francis University|
Donley's college experience started in 1976 at his alma mater—now Anderson University—as the offensive coordinator. The deal included a yearly salary of about $500, a dorm room, a meal ticket and a Subaru with a gas card, he said.
In 1978, the young assistant was promoted to head coach. Donley posted a 28-9 record in four seasons. His winning percentage remains the highest in school history.
Donley moved on to Georgetown College, where he won an NAIA Division II national championship in 1991. Back then, Donley says, he expected more titles would follow.
"But you learn just because you're up here doesn't mean you're going to be up here forever."
Donley understood that lesson after leaving Georgetown for California University of Pennsylvania. Before then, he'd experienced 12 winning seasons in 15 years. California never won more than four games in four seasons. Donley resigned in November 1996.
"The culture wasn't very positive at the time," he said. "And I didn't deal with it very well."
California had significantly higher expectations than his next stop—a school that was just starting a football program.
Donley heard about the St. Francis job through Terry Hoeppner, a close friend and then an assistant coach at Miami University in Ohio. Hoeppner told him that because there was no college football in Fort Wayne, "it really could be something special."
Hoeppner applied for Donley, who after two meetings with the president accepted the position in February 1997. He started the process of building a program from scratch.
"Enrollment at that time was down, and about 90 percent female. I thought, 'Well, that might be a good place to start football. Even the linemen got a shot to get a date,'" Donley said with a smile.
The Cougars' inaugural campaign arrived in 1998, and "somehow we won two games by an act of God." Now 18 years later, it's the only season with a losing record in program history.
Since then, St. Francis has finished with two losses or fewer 12 times, won 12 Mid-States Football Association Mideast League titles and earned 16 playoff berths—the latest of which started with a 79-20 rout that set an NAIA playoff record for single-game points.
However, the program still lacks one major achievement.
"We haven't won a national title yet. Been awful close," Donley said before the Cougars' recent semifinal game. "But we will."
Six seasons ended in the NAIA quarterfinals. Four others came to a close during the semifinals. And from 2004-06, the program lost in the national championship game.
"Life is full of peaks and valleys," he said. "Sometimes, the peaks are more difficult to deal with than the tough times."
And right now, the Cougars are experiencing a peak. The 2016 team earned a place in the national title game with a 42-24 victory over Reinhardt (Georgia). Donley could hoist that elusive championship trophy Dec. 17 if St. Francis defeats Baker (Kansas).
Whether that happens, though, his fingerprints on the game aren't going away any time soon.
"His philosophy from a coaching standpoint was light-years ahead of most coaches at that time," said Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich, who was a quarterback for Donley at California in 1996 and assistant coach at St. Francis from 1999-2002.
Donley crafted his offensive style with an influence from Red Faught, an early adopter of the Run-'n'-Shoot. While other coaches focused on grinding it out and getting tougher, Yurcich said, Donley's philosophy graduated from tight wing backs under center to a shotgun spread.
He also spurned expansive playbooks in favor of a less-is-more mentality, which is commonplace in today's era of college football. And the results speak for themselves.
St. Francis has twice led the NAIA in total offense. In 2000, wide receiver Jeremy Dutcher set a still-standing NAIA single-season record with 23 touchdown catches. Current wideout Seth Coate has 22 scores heading into the NAIA championship. In 2004, running back Cory Jacquay earned NAIA Player of the Year honors.
But Donley was ahead of the curve on defense, too.
Already 15 years ago, he'd implemented practices with limited tackling—something that is just now being considered the future of football.
"We really didn't tackle," said Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator James Bettcher, who played for Donley at St. Francis and then served as an assistant coach for three years. "We stayed high, we worked on leverage, the fundamentals of tackling."
Yet in 2006, linebacker Brian Kurtz was named the NAIA Player of the Year with 128 total stops. From 2004-09, the Cougars finished 12th or better in scoring defense. Over the last 13 seasons, they've never ranked lower than 27th nationally.
That level of production on both sides of the football doesn't happen without players buying into what the coach is preaching.
"He's a great leader," Bettcher said. "Period. One of the best leaders I've ever been around. He doesn't lead by just demanding you to follow. He leads by example. He leads by moving you to believe. He leads by building confidence with individuals."
Donley's demeanor is a key in building that trust.
"He made it fun," Yurcich said. "I think that's what Coach Donley has done a masterful job of is making it fun for everybody. The enthusiasm is good, but it's not a lot of power and yelling and screaming. That's not his deal."
No, Donley says he's focused on building those unique experiences with young players. Of course, that all happens while he strives to build nationally competitive teams. For nearly 40 years, Donley has accomplished that at an impressive rate.
At 65, his coaching days are numbered. Though not necessarily soon, there will come a day when Donley leaves a program he built and a game that will quietly remember his impact. Right now, though, Donley isn't going anywhere. He still enjoys the seven-day-a-week grind. He's not ready to hang up the headset.
"My friends who are retired say, 'You know when it's time.' I don't know that yet. I feel good. I love it."
Until then, he'll just keep winning.
After all, Donley still needs 22 more to catch The Bear.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter @Kenyon19_BR.