By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
Jim Donofrio decided it was worth the risk. Why not? This was not how he was going to die, sitting in a section cubicle filing insurance claims for a consultant firm. Besides, there was another world that had been beckoning, a place where he could be content, a universe where he ached to belong, where his bloodlines originated.
So, Donofrio quit a $45,000 a year job in 1998.
Two weeks later, in his late-30s, he found himself patting small sweat pools on his forehead, pushing a lawn mower in Chestnut Hill with grass-stained sneakers and a cut-off t-shirt in sizzling heat.
PW's Jim Donofrio is set to coach his 25th season in 2022-23. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
All to become a basketball coach with little pay and no benefits.
Donofrio looked over the edge of a life-altering cliff and came away with a life-defining experience as the legendary coach at Plymouth-Whitemarsh, on the verge this season of reaching some big milestones, winning 500 games as the Colonials’ head coach entering his silver anniversary 25th season.
At a relatively late stage in his life, Donofrio, the son of the fabled Al Donofrio, creator of the Donofrio Classic, was tired of seeing his life go by without trying a vocation that had tugged at him—coaching.
“From 26 to 39, I decided I wasn’t going to die filing disability claims and once I got offered the head coaching job at PW in 1998, I remember getting up and quitting on the spot, giving two-week’s notice with no idea what I was going to do (to make a living),” he said.
Donofrio, 59, a 1981 PW and 1989 Temple grad, is part of today’s rare breed, on a narrow pantheon with area iconic coaches Gregg Downer of Lower Merion and Neumann-Goretti’s Carl Arrigale, hooded Jedi hoops masters who have committed much of their adult lives to teaching high school kids the game of basketball.
“It was the scariest thing I ever did in my life,” he recalled about quitting his insurance job. “I had no safety net. I did a whole lot of menial odd jobs between the ages of 39 to 41 in working to get certified as a teacher.
“Not a lot of people know that. It messes with your self-esteem. It was very humbling. You’re looking around at 26 knowing that you’re not doing what you want to be doing. From the outside looking in, no one back then would have known, but I was doing everything from mowing lawns for my brother’s landscaping company to working at a country club as a buffet attendant. You have to be mentally tough to keep plucking away. What I learned is that the facade of people aren’t what people really are. It’s helped me as a coach, because you never give up on anybody.
“I can say everything changed when (former PW coach) Al Angelos invited me to be the JV coach (in 1991). I knew the first day I coached. I got obsessed right away. It set off lightbulbs in my head, ‘Hey knucklehead, this is where you were supposed to be all along.’”
Most people are looking ahead at their end games when they reach their 40s. Donofrio, who possesses a graduate degree from Eastern University in multicultural education, was just beginning his path. He is only the third head coach at PW over the last 50 years, following Hall of Famers Hank Stofko, the legendary Plymouth-Whitemarsh boys basketball coach who led the team to a 583-231 record and the 1963 PIAA state championship and Angelos, who coached until 1998 and led the Colonials to a 170-37 record in seven years, including the 1997 PIAA 4A state championship.
In 1998, in stepped Donofrio, who has forged a 494-171 record, with a PIAA 4A state championship in 2010, a District 1 championship in 2016 and blazed a trail of amazing consistency.
In 24 seasons, Donofrio’s teams only had two losing seasons, and both years the Colonials were only one game under .500. In 12 of the previous 24 years, Donofrio’s teams won 20 games or more. Under Donofrio, the Colonials have won 16 Suburban One League titles.
Donofrio (above) coaches P-W during the 2021 Plymouth Whitemarsh summer league. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
His 2010 state championship team, which featured C.J. Aiken, Jaylen Bond and Whis Grant, holds the PW single-season all-time record of 30-2, beating a very good Penn Wood team in the state finals, 58-51, at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
George Wadlin, goes way back with Donofrio, who was inducted into the Montgomery County coaches Hall of Fame in 2017. Wadlin, 70, was first introduced to Donofrio at a Flyers game in the early-1990s by a PW assistant coach.
“Right from the start, Jimmy was a basketball enthusiast, and with Al, Jimmy and myself, we were all workaholics,” Wadlin said. “Jimmy started as the basketball-skills instructor. He taught the game the right way. Coach Stofko’s coaching style was he taught everything from where exactly you stood on a screen to the exact angle, just a perfectionist. Jimmy was that type of player. He was dedicated and he never stopped. When Jimmy came in, you need to understand, he was the JV coach, and you’re really there working two jobs for half the price.
“You came in for varsity practice, and after that was over, Jimmy had his junior varsity practice. He made everyone better. We had a kid, Justin Aman, who Jimmy worked with every day. Justin made 18 of 21 free throws to beat Kobe (Bryant) in the district playoffs his sophomore year. Our gym got flooded after a pipe broke and me and Jimmy tried sweeping water out of the side door all night. That kind of dedication is what Jimmy is about. We beat Kobe in the old gym in the high school and we held on to the lead because Justin was fabulous.”
Wadlin recalled a classic Donofrio story. The Colonials were playing a Virginia high school in a tournament that featured two 7-footers. PW was trying to beat this team loaded with talent, and during a break in the game, Donofrio very leisurely leaned into an official, and politely said, “Sir, you’re not very good at this, are you?”
Wadlin laughed so hard that he cried.
“Jimmy was great at not getting technicals, and he really didn’t do anything wrong, he wasn’t ranting and raving, and there were a few times I had to come between him and a few officials,” recalled Wadlin, fondly. “I could say I was an assistant under three Hall of Fame coaches. When Al walked away, I didn’t even apply for the job, because Jimmy was the guy that I wanted to work for. He’s terrific. He still does a lot of the same things he did when he first started coaching.
“He’s excellent at teaching the game and the skills needed to succeed.”
Donofrio (above) admits he's had to change his coaching style over the years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Donofrio, who lost his father on July 17, 1976, to cancer when he was 12, recently lost his mother, Dorothy, on March 25, 2021. Al Donofrio cast a huge shadow. Al was justifiably lauded for his incredible community work, including starting the basketball tournament that bears his name and has endured for over 60 years.
Jim has carried the name well.
Here’s this guy with aching shoulders, creaky knees, a tricky hip and balky ankles waking up on weekday summer mornings at 6 to get to PW in time to open the gym for a camp.
It sounds an awful lot like what Al Donofrio would do.
“It’s getting harder,” admits Jim, who teaches English and philosophy at Plymouth-Whitemarsh. “I wish I had my dad longer. He was 44 when he died. He had Hodgkin’s at 39 and fought it for four years. I would hope my dad is smiling down on me and my brothers (Michael and Christopher). Everyone is fragile. We all need some sort of reinforcement that makes us keep going. I love what I do. After my mom passed away, it opened the door for perspective changes.
“Coaching has changed so dramatically in the last five years. You have to keep reinventing yourself. I don’t want to be the old-school guy who doesn’t change. I’ll admit, the way I used to coach, 10, 15 years ago, that no longer works. Social media has changed a lot of things. Boys are different today. They’re not big on criticism. We’re in an age of more entitlement and victimhood. There’s more vanity. It makes selling the team concept more challenging. You have to find different verbiage to get through.
“The 1998 Jim Donofrio is not coaching today. No way. Phones are attached to kids today. They see things on video quickly, where they base things on highlights, not skills. I’m fortunate because I have tremendous kids to coach and get to know. Ten years ago, if you’re down by 10, you can peel the walls off at halftime and get on them hard, and they go out and win by 15. Today, the same speech zaps all the energy out of the room. I have to be more patient in trying to get to the kids.”
He remembers and can relate to a lot of the kids from differing backgrounds. When his father passed away, the family owned the house, but that’s all the family had.
The Donofrio’s owned a nice suburban home in Plymouth Meeting. On the outside, the appearance was of a well-adjusted family living easy. Inside, however, Jim remembers he and his brothers looking for stray quarters in the cracks of the car seats to pay for a gallon of milk, or the times they put on the oven to heat the house.
“You see why talented, good people would give up, and understand why kids from rough backgrounds don’t see a way out,” he said. “I know. I lived it. My dad made an impact. He was filled with a confidence that made you want to be somebody.”
The week before Al passed away, he made sure a local Babe Ruth League team had uniforms. They showed up at Al’s funeral wearing them.
How much longer does Jim see himself doing this?
“If you bring a foundation based in solid things, it’s why guys go 25, 30, 35 years,” he said. “Every time I finish a season, I ask myself if there is something more I need to do. As long as you’re making an impact, why change it? I’m going to keep on doing it.
“How much longer I plan on doing this, I don’t know? I’m still coaching like Rocky with gloves on, in the gym hitting hard. Honestly, I would not have said this three years ago, when I thought I could do this 10 more years. COVID punched a lot of people in the head, but as long as I keep enjoying it, I’m going to go on.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.