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Ursinus' Kevin Small talks about coaching in the Palestra, Steve Donahue and more

12/18/2015, 11:15am EST
By Stephen Pianovich

Ursinus' Kevin Small will get his first head coaching experience in the Palestra this Saturday. (Photo: David Morgan/Stylish Images)

Stephen Pianovich (@SPianovich)

Division-III Ursinus gets a chance to play on one of the most storied stages in college basketball on Saturday against a familiar face.

Steve Donahue, a 1984 Ursinus College graduate, and Penn will host the Bears at 2:30 p.m. in the Palestra. Donahue has coached against his alma mater before when he was at Cornell, but never has had the chance to do so locally until now. Donahue played at Ursinus and was part of the 1980-81 team that reached the Final Four.

While the game has special meaning for Donahue, it also is a big deal for the Ursinus program and coach Kevin Small, who is in his 15th season at the helm of the Collegeville school. CoBL caught up with Small to get his thoughts on the game, his program and relationship with Donahue.

What’s your background like with Steve? How well do you guys know each other?

"Steve and I are good friends. I was chuckling with him a few weeks ago when we were going to the small college banquet because I picked him up and drove him over. One of the questions there was about how well I knew Steve, and I said Steve got me tickets for one of my first dates with my wife (Kirsten), and I’ve been married almost 20 years, came from tickets to a Penn game that Steve got me. So we go way back. And that friendship has only strengthened since I’ve been at Ursinus."

Do you remember when you first crossed paths?

“It probably was when I was an assistant at Swarthmore, so this is about 18, 19, 20 years ago. I don’t remember how or why we met, but there’s that kind of inbreeding that goes on in Philly basketball and you meet a lot of people. We probably met at some of the Final Fours, but I don’t remember exactly how. But I couldn’t tell you how I first got close with Fran Dunphy or Fran O’Hanlon, you just grow up in the area and everyone knows everybody and looks out for everybody.”

What does it mean for your team to play at the Palestra? You have a few local guys on the team, can you get a sense what it will be like for them?

“I can. It’s interesting because since I’ve been here, we’ve played a handful of Division-I schools – Bucknell, Colgate, Princeton and Lafayette and Cornell when Steve was up there. Yet, there’s something very different about this. It’s not just playing a Division-I team. It’s playing Penn, which is a storied program. And it’s playing Penn at the Palestra. I grew up going to Philly Big 5 doubleheaders with my dad, and I still have a cowbell lying in my attic somewhere. I can remember those things. And our guys can, too.

Brian Rafferty (sophomore forward/Landsdale Catholic), his dad played for Herb Magee at Philly U and he went to all those games at the Palestra. Joe LoStracco (sophomore forward/Archbishop Wood) told me his dream was to get to the semifinals in the Catholic League for Wood, but he feels at least he finally gets to play there. There are guys on our team who understand the history of Penn basketball, and also how sacred the Palestra is.”

Have you ever gotten the chance to coach in the building, as an assistant or a head coach?

“I did years ago. When I was at Swarthmore, we played Ursinus prior to a Penn game. And that was under Dunph’s watch. Ursinus, at the time the opponent, came out on top. I also coached against one of the formidable and historic Ivy League teams with Jerome Allen and Matt Maloney, we played them when I was a young assistant at Haverford College. They were really good, and it wasn’t in any way competitive.”

And can you get a read on what this means for the Ursinus community? I imagine a lot of people are happy for Steve and about this matchup.

“It’s funny because we’re 1-4, we’re young and we make all kinds of mistakes and there’s a great energy about this weekend. I was laughing at practice yesterday because there’s so much more energy and vibe for a team that is 1-4 and scuffling along. There’s great energy all around Ursinus about the game. There are others who may not fully understand what this is and are caught up in supporting the players. Our president is going to be there, he’s been texting me and tweeting me about the game, and he’s not a basketball guy, but he’s excited about the opportunity.

For me, the real energy is about the ’81 team. Steve played here when they were really good and a lot of those guys, who have been great to me and our players and support us at things like golf outings and come to our games, those guys are all excited to come back. I’ve been hearing from them and they’re very excited to see and support Steve and our current players. It’s a unique twist.”

That ties into my next question, which is how did this game come about? Do you remember the initial conversations about it?

“I don’t remember exactly. We were all very happy when it was announced Steve was going to get the job. It was probably about a month later when Steve called me and said ‘Hey, what do you think?’ At the time, we actually had a full schedule with 25 contracts. So, there needs to be some gratitude for Chris Carideo, the head coach at Widener, who gracefully allowed us to step out of our game. We went back and forth for a few weeks and I tried to help them find another D-III game, and eventually he said ‘You’re not going to not play them.’”

Last question. What would you tell people who don’t follow you too closely about your team and program?

“We’re in the second phase of a total overhaul here, and we know we’re not where we’re going to be. But this game can help us. I grew up idolizing John Chaney, even as a St. Joe’s grad and from a family of St. Joe’s people. But I loved the fact he went out and play anyone, anywhere, the toughest teams on the road. And he’d come back and it’d bear fruit in Atlantic 10 play. So we try to do something similar, we’ve had a pretty rigorous nonconference every year I’ve been here because we have a higher ceiling doing that. This is a step toward that and our guys understand that. This is a special group because they’ve worked incredibly hard to reconstruct what was a proud tradition. Playing Penn is part of that journey to say this is a great experience. Maybe we can also do some things against a Division-I opponent, and then we should be able to do them against our rivals. So I’m excited to see us take some things from this game that should help us in this second phase of reconstruction.”

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