Anne Donovan: 'You don't have to prove yourself every day. Just take time along the path'

ByRob Trucks | Special to espnW ESPN logo
Saturday, June 16, 2018

Editor's note: Anne Donovan was born on Nov. 1, 1961. This interview, part of an oral history project with 49-year-olds, took place in August 2011, fewer than three months before her 50th birthday. Donovan, who won a national championship and two Olympic gold medals as a player, and coached teams to Olympic gold and a WNBA championship, was back home, in New Jersey, about to begin her second year as the head coach of the women's basketball team at Seton Hall. Donovan, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, died Wednesday at 56 years old.

I wasn't excited about 30 because I had 30 as the time I'd pegged to be settled, personally, in a relationship. Kids, maybe. And so when 30 came and those weren't in line ... just getting past that and realizing your list doesn't work out necessarily the way you plan it to. I think once I adjusted to that and realized that, you know, my plan isn't the plan.

I have lists and goals and I kind of check things off as I move through life, and at 30 I realized very clearly that I was not in control of everything like I'd hoped I was. So you move on. You get past that disappointment, I think, and become more open-ended, less rigid in your goals and your expectations. But you never get rid of the list. In fact, multiple lists.

There's a work list, work lists and professional lists, and then there's the relationship, family, those kind of things that you can't control and put into a box and check it off. Those are the things I learned at 30 not to have expectations for.


I think now is the time to start thinking about a bucket list, but I have not put into that real action yet.

I have been a part of four Olympic gold medal teams and one boycott, but the glitch there is that coaches don't get gold medals.

I took Seton Hall over as a restructuring thing. The university wants this program to rise and succeed, so I came in to see if I could help construct the program into the winner that we all want it to be.

I would say that what I'm looking to do is kind of get my life settled. From a personal standpoint, I've lived in two residences for the last 10 years, my work residence and my home residence. ... So I'm kind of looking to get my life into one place. So coming home is true. It's where I grew up. It's where my sisters are. It's where my family is.

From a professional level, I don't think that I would have made this decision 10 years ago. But at this point in my career, having checked a couple things off that list, this is a challenge that really excites me. People think I'm crazy. They think I've jumped off the deep end, that I would take on this kind of situation. So I wouldn't say that I took it to kind of go off into the sunset. This is definitely not going to be an easy path, but at the same time it's a comfortable choice for me right now in my career.

Would I have taken it at 59? Probably not. Because you need the energy. ... I hope at 59 I don't need the challenge and the competitive day to day in my life. I hope by then I can mellow out a little bit and not need to always be looking to the next challenge. This kind of challenge takes much more energy than I hoped, than I perceive having at 59.


I have to say I think having seven older brothers and sisters has helped me change my thought process around 50. It's funny to listen to my players talk about, "Yeah, she was really old. She was 45 or 50." When my brothers and sisters hit the milestone of 50, I think I realized at that point that 50 wasn't going to be so bad.

My dad passed when I was 5, so I would say life set in then.

I think it became more of -- very brutally honest here -- just the tension that I grew up with, you know, with eight kids, my mother trying to raise eight kids. So I think it was more that we were a much more tense house than a lot of other houses. That's where, I think, you know that you're different. And yet the beauty, the same beauty that I know at 50 that I knew at 5 is what helps navigate through all the stress, whether it be the time bomb in the house or whatever, the highs and lows of life. Having brothers and sisters was just the best thing that my father could have left.


Definitely basketball chose me. Without any hesitation. I was a pretty shy, introverted kind of kid. Because I was tall, because I had that gift, it just kind of reached out and grabbed me. And it's what the family did. It's what coaches expected, of course, because you're such a tall girl. So it reached out and grabbed me, and then it just kind of stuck. I don't think I ever expected to be a coach, but I had such passion for the game, I didn't really want to leave it. So, OK, let me try this.

I've been in coaching since I left pro ball. I left and went right into coaching, but I really kind of left my playing career. ... It was sudden. Health issues kept me from playing any further. ... I had a recreation degree, which was going to take some thinking about where you use a recreation degree. And they asked me at my alma mater to be a part-time coach and a full-time motivational speaker. I didn't aspire to coach. The transition into coaching happened pretty quickly after that year. After that one year I realized that was something that I really enjoyed, so the transition was fine. But that six months of "What am I going to do with my life?" was definitely something I went through.


I feel completely like I'm where I'm supposed to be.

It's a very cool thing to say, just because I haven't always felt that way, and I really feel the full-circle thing at this point in my life, feels very true.

I think truthfully it comes from always wanting to prove myself and finally feeling like I've proved myself to myself. I think the Olympics in '08 and with every step you add to it, even the [WNBA's New York] Liberty, what I was able to do last summer with the Liberty, I'm always looking to prove myself. And so I guess at this point in my career I feel like I don't need to do that anymore. There's nobody pushing on my back to force me to prove myself. I finally feel like I've done that, and that this next step is going to be done with care and determination, but realizing that the hand on my back is me.

I think after that gold medal, it was, "Breathe, take it in and really enjoy this."

Of course I have my days here where I'm like, "When am I ever going to get this done?" But for the most part, I think I have a plan in my head that has worked in the past. And so if I just calmly continue with the plan, and continue with what's gotten me to this point in my career, it'll happen.

I know that a lot of people kind of come back to that -- you've done it in the pros, you've done it with USA Basketball, the college piece, you know, going to win a championship in college. I think I'm realistic to know that that may or may not happen. I guess that's the other thing I've learned. It's like there's so much luck involved with the process and the plan and the goals and the checklist and all that. There's a lot of luck that's involved, too. This is something I haven't done, I haven't tackled. So yes, I guess that that is true. There's some truth to that. But do I have to win a national championship to have another feather in a hat or, you know, make my legacy stand out? Not really. I really, truly am so challenged by the process now. And I hope the winning comes and I hope this program is something that we can all look back in five, 10 years and say, "Yeah, we really grew it," but it doesn't have to be national championship to make this the right move.


I believe, one, that there is a god that's got it all under control, and that you don't have to control everything. I think the other thing is you don't have to prove yourself every day. Just take time along the path. Don't be so concerned about the list. Between each checkmark there's a lot of good stuff happening, so pay attention.

Coming back here, closer to my family, was a big reason. I enjoyed my life in Charlotte and Seattle, New York. I really enjoyed all the places that I've worked and where I lived. But as I've gotten older, family ... [is] a part of enjoying the path more. You've got to have people to enjoy it with. And being blessed with a big, close family, enjoying the path with them was part of it.

I'm one that can retire. I will be a happy retiree at some point in my life, I hope. I hear these other people that couldn't retire, couldn't sit still, have to do something. I could putz. I could be a putzer. I definitely have that side.

I don't feel like I've got a great missing hole because of what I've focused on. I have things to look forward to. I look forward to a slower pace at some point and being able to do some community work and be more involved. But I don't feel like there's anything I would change, or was a severe trade-off.

When I go to become a putzer, I don't know what it'll be. Maybe I'll be racing somebody to the nearest washing machine to make sure I get my load in first. I don't know. But I'm pretty confident that I'll be OK. I'll be able to have more time with my family, and my nieces and nephews. So maybe that would be the one area that has been the trade-off. By moving around all over the country and chasing my work goals, that has sacrificed, somewhat, family time. But I have been blessed. My family has come and been a part of a lot the great events that I've been at. But that would be where the putzer will kind of really, I think, thrive, is just having more quality time with people in my life.

I believe I have the best family on this planet.