Terry Donahue, the winningest coach in Pacific-12 conference and UCLA football history, died Sunday, July 4, at his home in Newport Beach, California, surrounded by family, following a two-year battle with cancer. He was 77.
Donahue devoted the majority of his adult life to championing UCLA after enrolling at the school as a walk-on defensive lineman. In 1956, his first season as a student-athlete, the 190-pound lineman helped lead the Bruins to the program’s first Rose Bowl victory with an upset of previously unbeaten and No. 1-ranked Michigan State. Donahue went on to serve as an assistant coach for the Bruins under Pepper Rodgers and Dick Vermeil and then took over as UCLA’s head coach, at age 31, beginning with the 1976 season.
Donahue, the first person to appear in a Rose Bowl Game as a player, assistant coach and head coach at his alma mater, would go on to post a conference-record 98 wins (98-51-5) and a school-record 151 wins (151-74-8). In a 20-year span, he won or shared five conference titles while finishing first or second in the league standings 12 times. The Bruins won three Rose Bowls during his tenure. He became the first college coach to come away with bowl game victories in seven consecutive seasons, including four New Year’s Day wins in a row. Donahue’s Bruins recorded seven straight top-20 finishes in the final Associated Press football poll from 1982-88.
“There aren’t enough words to properly honor Terry Donahue and what he means to the Bruin family and anyone who has had the pleasure of knowing him,” said Chip Kelly, the current coach of the football team. “He epitomizes everything you strive to be as a coach and as a human being. Since the moment I stepped on campus, he’s been an incredible mentor and one of the most authentic, humble and toughest men I’ve ever met. He loved UCLA with all he had, and I can’t express how important his guidance and friendship has been for me. He is an irreplaceable representation of the BRUIN WAY. We will always love and play for TD. Our deepest condolences to [his wife] Andrea, the Donahue family and everyone lucky enough to know him.”
During his 20 years as head coach, Donahue’s teams won 40 games against ranked opponents culminating with his final coaching victory, a 24-20 decision in the L.A. Coliseum over No. 11 USC in 1995. Donahue posted a 10-9-1 career record against the crosstown rivals.
Thirty-four players were selected first-team All-Americans, a list featuring some of the top performers in school history — linebacker Jerry Robinson, safety Kenny Easley, running back Freeman McNeil, kicker John Lee, linebacker Ken Norton Jr., quarterback Troy Aikman, linebacker Carnell Lake, safety Eric Turner and offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden. Fourteen of Donahue’s Bruins were chosen in the first round of the NFL Draft, including eventual Pro Football Hall of Famers Aikman, Easley and Ogden.
Donahue was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000. In 1997, he was welcomed into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. Donahue joined the UCLA Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2013, the press box at the Rose Bowl was officially dedicated as the Terry Donahue Pavilion. ESPN named Donahue one of the 150 greatest college coaches in its 2019 celebration of college football’s 150th anniversary.
After leaving the field following the 1995 season, Donahue pursued a career in broadcasting and in professional football administration. He worked broadcast assignments for CBS Sports and FOX around stints in the front office of the San Francisco 49ers. Donahue was the director of player personnel in 1999 and 2000 and then served as the general manager of the 49ers from 2001 to 2005.
UCLA men’s basketball coach John Wooden once recognized Donahue’s devotion to the UCLA community, saying, “I believe that a head coach, particularly at UCLA, should be judged by his or her peers within the university community-at-large as to whether the student-athletes with whom the coach was entrusted become not only excellent athletes but also, and more importantly, better students and better all-around individuals … There is no doubt in my mind that Terry Donahue deserves the recognition of having achieved that very ethereal form of success.”
Donahue is survived by Andrea, his wife of 52 years, daughters Nicole, Michele and Jennifer, three sons-in-law and 10 grandchildren.
A private service is planned for family, and a celebration of life will be scheduled at a later date.
Editor’s note: This story was updated July 6 to correct information about Donahue being the first person appear in a Rose Bowl Game as a player, assistant coach and head coach at his alma mater.