Ed Donatell didn’t grow up in a football family in his native Stow, Ohio.
But from the minute he took up the game, he fell in love with being part of something big. Of seeing disparate individuals come together as a cohesive unit.
“I liked being around teams and teamwork and counting on each other,” he said. “That kind of grabbed me.”
So that helps explain why he’s a little uncomfortable with the spotlight that will come his way beginning today when the Washington Huskies open spring football practice.
But it’s as unavoidable as the sight of No. 10 Jake Locker jerseys in the stands next fall.
Today will be Donatell’s first practice as the team’s defensive coordinator, his first attempt to remake a unit that shouldered the most blame for last season’s 4-9 record that has put Huskies coach Tyrone Willingham squarely on the hot seat this year.
Two weeks after last season ended, Willingham fired Kent Baer, who had been his defensive coordinator since 1999 and on his staff for all 13 seasons he had been a head coach. After a well-publicized attempt to lure UCLA defensive coordinator DeWayne Walker and much of his staff failed, Willingham turned to Donatell, defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons from 2004 to 2006 before spending last year as a special assistant with the New York Jets.
Willingham’s future might depend on how quickly Donatell — who won Super Bowl rings as secondary coach with the Denver Broncos in 1998 and 1999 — can turn around a defense that last year allowed a school-record 446.4 yards per game.
Not that Donatell wants it put in quite those terms.
“I don’t see the savior thing or anything like that,” he said. “It’s not about me. I just want to do my part, and do well for the guys here, the fans here, the guys who have been part of this program, just for the tradition that is here.”
Donatell knows that tradition well, having served as a graduate assistant at UW under Don James in 1981 and 1982, earning a Rose Bowl ring his first season when the Huskies shut out Iowa, 28-0.
Donatell played at Kent State, where James coached before coming to UW in 1974, and used those connections to get the GA job at Washington. He was a GA at Kent State following his playing days there, when his initial plan to become a high-school teacher and coach was foiled when he couldn’t find a job.
“I got the [coaching] bug, and it never left,” he said.
He earned his first full-time college position at Pacific in 1983, working alongside current USC coach Pete Carroll, forging another lifelong connection and beginning the typical coach’s whirlwind. He later worked at Idaho and Cal State-Fullerton before entering the NFL in 1990. He has coached with the Broncos, Chiefs, Packers, Falcons and Jets, serving seven years as a coordinator.
He was known in the NFL for molding aggressive defenses out of a 4-3 scheme. In four years at Green Bay, his teams forced 144 turnovers, most in the NFL during that time. One of his Atlanta teams led the NFL in sacks for the first time in team history.
But he spent last year working with the Jets, who run a 3-4, a formation that some think might make sense for UW, given the Huskies’ experience at linebacker and lack of same on the line.
Donatell, 50, said it’s too early to say definitively what the Huskies will do defensively this season. He said he won’t know until he sees his new players on the field.
“Until you get down there and get your hands on these guys in pads and get to experience some things and see some things you don’t see on film, it’s a little too early to tell,” Donatell said. “Our philosophy has always been to figure out a way to play your hand the best.”
For now, the Huskies remain a 4-3 team, the scheme they ran a year ago and the one listed in their depth chart for the spring. But Donatell says UW could use some of each this season.
“We want people to have to prepare for both,” he said.
Donatell worked for a year with Baer at Idaho in the 1980s and has spoken with him a few times since taking the UW job. But he’s reluctant to talk much about what the Huskies did a year ago, saying “none of that matters right now. What matters is we’ve got to play next year, and it’s our responsibility to get a club ready to go.”
He said he’s not worried much about restoring confidence, saying that will come as the players get to know him and have some success. What he says he’s looking for most right now is effort and passion.
Donatell, who signed a two-year contract worth $334,000 per year, said he’s not too worried about what might be at stake for Washington’s coaching staff this season.
“The reason we do this is we love leadership, we love moving groups,” he said. “If you are going to move groups at the highest level, that [pressure] goes with the territory. I kind of dig that. Sometimes, the more [pressure], the better the gain. I’ve been living in this world a long time where you have to prove yourself as a coach every year. It’s nothing unusual. It feels the same to me.”