Donigan spearheads NCAA?Tourney run

Coach of the year

It is not often a coach can successfully change the culture of a program that struggled for years.

In only his second year at the helm of the Rutgers men’s soccer team, head coach Dan Donigan orchestrated the greatest single-season turnaround in recent history and brought the Scarlet Knights to a level of national prominence it has not enjoyed in years.

After nine successful seasons at Saint Louis that saw seven trips to the NCAA Tournament, Donigan took over a floundering Rutgers team in 2010. The Knights had not made the Big East Tournament in two years, and had not earned an NCAA berth since 2006.

Donigan, the Daily Targum’s Coach of the Year, wanted to make an impact in the state he calls home.

“My mindset was I did not want to disappoint anyone. I am from New Jersey — I have a reputation and an image here,” Donigan said. “I told my guys that I do not want to disappoint, and I do not want to embarrass myself. I did not want to tarnish that image. That is the truth of it, and if people take that approach, they have more of a chance to be more successful.”

Donigan found success.

After a rough transition in his first season, his second year at the head of the team featured triumphs. The Knights ended their regular season on an 11-game undefeated streak and stormed into the Big East Tournament with a first-round bye.

Following the tournament, Rutgers received an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, where the underdog Knights advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, a spot no Rutgers team had clinched in a decade.

“Coach Donigan was probably one of the biggest pieces in our success,” said senior midfielder Bryant Knibbs. “He did not lose faith, and he kept pushing us day in and day out to get better as a team. We did and we took his word because we knew he had been there before.”

But the relationship Donigan shares with his players was not always as strong as it is now. Some players who built a relationship with former head coach Bob Reasso — who was successful on the Banks in the 1980s through mid-1990s — were wary of a change in leadership.

“When the change happened, I was a little iffy about it,” said senior midfielder Nate Bourdeau. “I personally had a good relationship with Coach Reasso, so I didn’t care for it either way.”

But as time went on, members of the team began to buy into Donigan’s system. By season’s end, the players thought he truly made them better people — on and off the field.

“The guys who were comfortable with Coach Reasso are better players. We kind of just went through the motions, but when Donigan came he challenged our better players,” Bourdeau said. “He forced us to rethink whether we would even play because he might bring in other guys.”

A successful player at Connecticut and then later as a professional on the Milwaukee Wave, Donigan shares a bond with his players based on respect for the game.

“I like to think I’m somewhat of a players’ coach in the sense that I have a great mutual respect for the players,” Donigan said. “You are only as good as your players, and you have to get them to play for you. I just want them to enjoy the game and enjoy training, and just go out there and try and do the best they can.”

The relationship with his players gives Donigan the flexibility that bodes well for the program in the future.

“It is a pretty simple philosophy, but you kind of formulate your team as the season goes on and as things evolve,” Donigan said. “I’m never set in my ways, and I’m always changing.”

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