Washington’s hire of John Donovan as its next offensive coordinator surprised just about everybody.
Including John Donovan.
At the time, the River Edge, N.J., native was exiting his fourth season as an offensive assistant for the Jacksonville Jaguars. In his more than two decades in coaching, he’d never worked anywhere west of Nashville, Tennessee. He hadn’t been in the college game since 2015, when Donovan was fired after two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Penn State. He didn’t show up on any media lists of possibilities for the position.
But on Jan. 10, without warning, the Huskies announced his hire.
“I really enjoyed my time in the NFL. To be honest, I never thought I would go back to college if I didn’t have to,” Donovan said in a teleconference on Friday, his first interview with local media, explaining his interest in the program. “Then this came about pretty randomly. The one thing I’ll say is, I grew up in New Jersey, which is not close to Seattle. But I remember growing up in the ’90s watching Washington on TV. I know the reputation of the place as a school and as a football program, as a tough program, and they’re always in the hunt. And it’s a great city. So for me, that’s not a hard sell. You know you’re going to attract good, quality players. They’ve churned them out throughout the years.
“So I was like, ‘Holy cow. That’s a different place.’ If it was just any other place, I wouldn’t have thought about it. But that was one of the reasons why, to be honest, it attracted me.”
And, in the months since, the surprises kept coming. After Donovan arrived in Seattle, the program’s spring practices were promptly canceled due to coronavirus concerns. Students were ordered to remain home and take all classes in the spring quarter remotely. College football’s ordinary offseason was essentially torn asunder.
But that hasn’t stopped Donovan from beginning to install his offense nonetheless.
“It wasn’t one of those deals where, boom, I slapped down a playbook and (said to the coaches and players), ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ I took some things that I learned from my college experiences and in the NFL and I put something together to present it to the staff first,” Donovan explained. “We took it from there and molded it towards what we wanted to do. Then we got some of it out to the players and we were ready to go for spring … and then this (COVID-19) thing comes at you. And at first, I was crushed.”
And then he got crafty. Initially, Donovan — who’s also UW’s quarterbacks coach — conducted Zoom meetings with the entire offense to install the program’s essential runs and passes. And for the last few weeks, the position coaches have then held meetings with their specific groups to hammer the concepts home.
This improvised system, while not ideal, has its advantages as well.
“The time you had in the NFL to install and go through plays and go through a practice and actually teach, it’s astronomical compared to college,” Donovan said. “You had two-and-a-half-hour meetings to go into a practice, where in college you have 30 to 45 minutes and you’re up there like an auctioneer (talking so fast) sometimes.
“So that has been good, I would say. You’re able to take your time and go through the details of things at a lot better pace.”
Of course, Donovan is no stranger to atypical circumstances. At Penn State, he inherited remarkably significant recruiting sanctions, and his offenses unsurprisingly struggled. In 2015, the Nittany Lions finished 126th out of 128 teams nationally in third-down conversion percentage (27.57%), 106th in rushing offense (134.15 yards per game), 105th in total offense (348.6 yards per game), 103rd in completion percentage (53.2%) and 100th in scoring offense (23.2 points per game). Their 20.6 points per game in 2014 ranked 113th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten.
In a difficult situation, Donovan did not succeed. But the 45-year-old assistant also says that he learned from those experiences.
“When we got there, it was definitely a challenge,” he said. “We were able to play a lot of good players that were young and we had to make do with what we had with the older groups, and guys had to change positions from D-line to O-line and all that. So it was tough. But it was a great experience as far as trying to figure out different ways to try to be successful. It was a great run. The way I was able to go to the NFL from there was a blessing in disguise, because I was able to go somewhere else and learn under three different coordinators and get rejuvenated in the game and learn about a lot of the different things that I think is going to help me this time around.
“It’s like anything else. You’re in the fire and your head is down and you’re going, you’re going, you’re going, and then you’re able to take a step back and watch other people and how they do it. You take the good and the bad and what you want and don’t want and you’re able to refresh your batteries and refresh your mindset on what you would do when you get the opportunity again.”
Now — surprise! — the opportunity has arrived. And Donovan, in many ways, is a product of his past. His offense will consist of philosophies adopted both at the college and NFL levels. And his demeanor is no different.
“(My approach is) no BS. This is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to do (it). This is why we’re going to do it,” Donovan said. “I think if you tell or teach anybody anything, and they see a reason why — video evidence — then I think they’re going to buy in and trust you and believe in what we’re doing.
“I’ve coached with and for a lot of different personalities all across the board — all serious all the time, all jokes all the time, somewhere in between. I think they get a feel for when I’m serious and when I’m joking. But when it’s time to work they can tell that this is time to work.”
Though physically separated for the foreseeable future, the Washington Huskies are certainly working.
And, if the work pays off, UW football fans will recognize the result.
“I always thought of University of Washington football as tough guys. This is a tough program,” Donovan said. “They’ve always had that reputation, and it’s our responsibility to carry on that reputation for the guys that played before us and the guys that are going to play after that — to continue that toughness.
“That is something that I saw as a kid. That is something that has been consistent throughout my life. I told that to those guys and I think that that’s an absolutely necessity for us to be who we want to be and go where we want to go.”