Sue Donohoe's has led a Forrest Gump-like existence in college athletics, traveling light with a humble and approachable attitude rare in big-time sports, yet always ending up near the center of landmark events in what’s been a rapidly changing landscape during the past 35 years.
“Sue Donohoe is someone who always gives back,” said Hall of Fame Texas A&M women’s basketball coach Gary Blair, who gave Donohoe her first college assistant coaching jobs, first at Stephen F. Austin and then at Arkansas. “She’s a good athlete, a pretty fair golfer, a wonderful coach and recruiter, but an even better teacher, communicator and administrator.
“More than anything,” Blair said, “Sue is just a lot of fun.”
One of college basketball’s most accomplished administrators of all time, Donohoe will receive the 2017 Dave Dixon Louisiana Sports Leadership Award at the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Saturday in Natchitoches. Presented annually by the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s 35-member Hall of Fame selection committee, the award honors an individual who has played a decisive role as a sports leader or administrator benefiting Louisiana and/or bringing credit to Louisiana on the national and international level.
Donohoe began her influential career as a graduate assistant at Louisiana Tech, coached high school and college basketball for 10 years, then moved into administration, first with the Southland Conference and finally with the NCAA. Perhaps fittingly, Donohoe is the first woman to receive the award since its inception in 2005.
Two snapshots taken 20 years apart encapsulate the scope of the impact of Donohoe, who grew up “putting up shots until dark” in the driveway of her home in Pineville, the game a part of her life “since as long as I can remember,” she said.
She was a graduate assistant coach of the first NCAA women’s basketball champion, the 1982 Louisiana Tech Lady Techsters. Total attendance for the Final Four was around 7,000; a ticket for the whole thing set a fan back 10 bucks.
Now go to the 2002 Women’s Final Four in the Alamodome and see Donohoe, in the middle of her 12-year run as the NCAA’s Vice President for women’s basketball, standing center court and, preparing to make a presentation, beaming as she looked around at 29,619 fans.
“That night was one of the most telling things for me about the impact of Title IX,” said Donohoe, who recently retired to East Texas, a pond and a fishing pole.
“I’ll never forget that number — 29,619 — for as long as I live. I stood there and thought, ‘We’ve come so far. But we’ve still got a long way to go.’”
Debbie Primeaux Williamson, a backup to an All-America backcourt of the 1981 AIAW champion and 1982 NCAA champion Lady Techsters teams, has traveled a road similar to Donohoe’s through the women’s game, seeing strides and seeing shortcomings.
After coaching for nine seasons and officiating for seven, she began working for the NCAA, first as the organization’s secretary of rules editor and then in various spots as coordinator of officials. When she arrived in Indiana to interview with the NCAA, there was former Lady Techster grad assistant Sue Donohoe, hopefully about to become her boss.
“She's the same Sue as VP of the NCAA as she was as GA at Tech,” Williamson said. “You could sit next to her on a plane trip and never know you were talking to somebody who has been such a big part of the women’s game for the past 35 years, someone who’s accomplished so much — and she did it all with a servant attitude. She has a way with people, a way of getting us all to do things that were best for the game.”
Donohoe’s plan as a freshman at Tech was to study for medical school. By the end of her sophomore year, “I knew I wanted to teach and coach,” she said. “Once I made that decision, I never looked back.”
“Sue always had a plan,” said Sylvia Stroops, head of Tech’s health and physical education department and Donohoe’s academic advisor at the time. Donohoe calls her a “lifetime mentor.”
“Before Sue makes a decision, she really thinks it through,” Stroops said. “Very seldom through the years has she made any kind of change that I wasn’t included in the decision. And she’s always been very organized. The first on-campus tournament the Lady Techsters ever had, she basically ran it. She’s always done ‘a lot of everything.’”
The Lady Techsters program, just out of infancy, had already been to a couple of AIAW Final Fours when Donohoe, “a gem from the get-go, showed up at Memorial Gym to do whatever,” said Sonja Hogg, who was then early in her Hall of Fame career as the program's first coach.
“She was so organized and started taking care of every detail, me and (then co-head coach) Leon (Barmore) turned the summer camps over to her,” Hogg said. “That foreshadowed where she would end up with the NCAA, handling all of women’s basketball. Our president (F. Jay Taylor) allowed us to fly from coast to coast, to play in Madison Square Garden, to have so many opportunities, and Sue was right there with us every step.
"Now teams have directors of operations and assistant directors of operations and so many assistant coaches, but Sue did all of that; she oversaw what you didn’t see out front.
“Each new success Sue had never surprised me,” Hogg said. “She did so many things well, but in a lot of ways, she was made to be an administrator.”
“Every so often, all of us come into contact with somebody who just has ‘it,’ ” said Ruston Daily Leader executive sports editor O.K. “Buddy” Davis. “During her time with the Lady Techsters, you could see Sue was destined for great things in whatever she chose. She’s been one of the most influential, valuable leaders in NCAA history. But no surprise; Sue always had that ‘it.’”
Hogg, Barmore, Blair and others are on a long list of people Donohoe credits for her being honored with the Dixon Award, named for a man whose “leadership, vision, and tenacity” were traits, she said, she tried to emulate.
“I don’t receive this award without so many of those people who guided me, mentored me and picked me up when I was down,” she said.
Credit Donohoe for being a good student, but also for putting those lessons into action in a way that will, as Davis said, “impact the game of college basketball in a positive way for years to come.”
“Sue is a master of everything,” Blair said, “but she really found her niche in administration. Most administrators don’t have this ability, but Sue can talk with people and not at people. What makes her special is her personality. There’s nothing about putting on bigtime airs with her; she’s just Sue.”
“I loved what I did, every day,” Donohoe said. “Some days I loved it more than others — when you pick a tourney field and you have to tell people they didn’t get in, that’s not the best of days — but I still loved what I did.
“I tried to live by this throughout my career: what we do is important; how we do it is more important; why we do it is most important,” she said. “Always, why we did it was the most important thing.”