ATHENS — Jim Donnan hasn’t been in coaching for a long time. It has been a decade-and-a-half, in fact, since he turned in his whistle at the University of Georgia.
But the man still watches a whole lot of football.
There is rarely a day that goes by that Donnan isn’t either watching football on video or live and in person. Every week this time of year he’s at Oconee County High School watching his grandson play quarterback on the junior varsity team. And every day this time of year you’ll find him in the basement of his Athens home plugged into his Macintosh computer watching game and practice video that has been sent to him from one of his many buddies in the football business.
“It’s good for them to get another set of eyes on it,” Donnan said in a recent interview at his house. “The thing about video now, they can go to practice and have their guy email me their video five minutes after he downloads it. It’s the same as the players taking it home with them. So I’ll give it a look and let them know what I think. I’ve had guys call me at halftime before.”
Donnan also will work again this fall as a studio analyst and occasional color commentator for the American Sports Network. The network broadcasts Conference USA, American Conference, Mountain West and some FCS conferences around the country.
Donnan, the Bulldogs’ head football coach from 1996 to 2000, will also be doing some analysis work for DawgNation.com this fall. In regularly-scheduled video segments, Donnan will tell us what happened in Georgia’s games the previous Saturday and then what we should expect in their next contests.
That’s the thing about Donnan. While he was fired from Georgia at the end of the 2000 season, nobody ever questioned his knowledge and insight of the game, particularly from an offensive standpoint. The man could flat-out draw up some plays and identify mismatches in defensive schemes.
A 2009 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, he has been doing it at a high level since starting out as an assistant coach in 1969 at N.C. State, his alma mater. Since then, his teams won national championships at Oklahoma and Marshall.
But while he no longer does it for a university paycheck, Donnan remains deeply immersed in X’s and O’s every day.
“I’m just a football junkie,” Donnan said in a recent interview at his house. “I just love football. It’s something I enjoy keeping up with. It’s like some guys enjoy reading novels or studying the Civil War or something like that. I like watching tapes and keeping up with what’s going on in football.”
What’s most interesting about Donnan is he still lives exactly two miles from the Bulldogs’ football complex and still refers to the Bulldogs as “we.” Keep in mind, this is a man who coached at eight different schools in eight different cities over 30 years.
And he had numerous opportunities both before and after he left Georgia. He turned down the opportunity to leave UGA for North Carolina and Oklahoma while he was still coaching and passed on the chance to coach in the NFL and at some other college stops after he was dismissed.
But Donnan had three years remaining on his contract when he was fired. And by then, he and his wife Mary had grown quite enamored with Athens.
“My plan was to get back into coaching,” Donnan said. “I felt like, and my wife did, too, to move just to move wasn’t the answer. We liked living here; we’ve got a lot of friends here. So we were just trying to get our feet on the ground for that next year. It wasn’t as uncomfortable for me as it might have been for other people.”
Donnan found opportunities right away with ESPN doing analysis and commentary. He was eventually offered some other opportunities to coach.
“After a couple of years I just started the think I enjoyed going to see my grandchildren play and playing golf and tennis. So I figured I’d just stay in TV and do ESPN stuff.”
Donnan flourished in that role for a while. But in 2011, Donnan became ensnared in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation. That ultimately led to bankruptcy proceedings and accusations of orchestrating a Ponzi scheme.
Donnan fought the charges and was found not guilty on 41 counts of investment fraud in federal court in Athens in May of 2014.
It has been hard to put that whole episode behind him, but Donnan intends to.
“Most people outside of this area that don’t really know me don’t know that I was exonerated,” Donnan said. “All they did was read those big headlines when it all came out. … But I wouldn’t have been much of a coach or much of a father or a grandfather if I hadn’t stood up and fought for my name and that’s why I did what I did.
“It took its toll. But I’m not going to say anything else about that. It was just about defending myself and I’m glad it’s over with.”
Donnan is moving on by once again saturating himself in family and football. He and Mary have four grandchildren. Their daughter Paige married former Oklahoma player Greg Johnson and have two children, Grant and Payton Johnson. Grant just graduated from Oklahoma and Payton just started there.
Donnan’s son Todd and his wife Kristi live in Watkinsville and also have two children. Grandson Jeffrey Todd Jr. – who goes by T – plays quarterback on the junior varsity team and Donnan catches almost every practice. And he and Mary attend almost every volleyball match seventh grader Julia plays.
“I really enjoy watching them practice and play,” Donnan said.
He also does a little coaching on side, pro bono. He coached coached the Shirreffs boys of Jefferson, Evan and Bryant, who play quarterback at Miami and Connecticut, respectively, as well as Connor White of Texas State and Nick Colvin of Wofford.
“That’s just avocation,” Donnan said. “I enjoy doing that. We have a good time.”
Donnan also enjoys watching the Georgia Bulldogs. When his duties prevent him from watching them live, he records their games and watches them as soon as he can on his basement projector screen.
And he doesn’t watch them the way Joe Fan does. He watches them from the perspective of a coach, slowing the action and playing back crucial plays until he’s sure he knows what they were trying to do and what happened.
Occasionally, he may offer some input.
“When Coach Richt first got here, I reached out to him and told him I’d do anything I could to help him,” Donnan said. “Ray (Goff) did the same thing with me. I just said, ‘I don’t want to interfere, but I’ll be glad to help you with anything you need to know.’ And he’s always been very open to me. I don’t go around there a lot, but I feel very comfortable being around him and his staff. Particularly when Bobo was there. I knew Mike so well. But I’ve got a pretty good relationship with these new guys, too. I just try to stay out of the way but I do enjoy knowing what’s going on.
“If you’re a coach, you like watching football.”
And a coach Jim Donnan very much still is.