One of our recurring features on Centennial Conference alumni
Jason Donnelly, Muhlenberg Class of 1999 and executive director of athletic development at Villanova University, was joined by more than 70,000 fans at NRG Stadium in Houston and a television audience of millions when Kris Jenkins drained a three-pointer at the buzzer to win the NCAA Division I men's basketball championship in April.
By comparison, Donnelly's "one shining moment" at Muhlenberg – a 55-53 win at Johns Hopkins in the 1998 Centennial Conference championship game – was viewed by a few hundred fans in the stands and nobody watching at home in those pre-streaming video days.
But the two championships had more in common than you might think.
The Muhlenberg men's basketball coaching staff in 1998 included Donnelly (right), Madeira (center) and current Mule head coach Scott McClary '94.
"The way that [Muhlenberg] group came together was very similar to Villanova," said Donnelly. "That was our opportunity, that was our chance to go out and win a title, and that group will always be together because of it."
Donnelly was sitting on the bench as a student assistant coach for the Mules in 1998. This year, he was courtside opposite the Wildcat bench. One of his responsibilities was to get Villanova's president, athletic director and chairman of the Board of Trustees onto the floor after the game if the Wildcats won.
That seemed to be the likely ending when Villanova opened up a 10-point lead with under six minutes to play, but North Carolina rallied to tie the game on a three-pointer with 4.7 seconds left.
Donnelly, standing next to a Philadelphia newsman during the ensuing timeout, knew exactly the play Villanova would run. It was designed to get Ryan Arcidiacono into the lane, but Carolina knew it was coming too and cut off his penetration. So he passed the ball back to the unguarded Jenkins – "the last option on the play" – whose epic shot ended what has been called the greatest championship game ever.
"He hits the shot, and we all go crazy. The whole place erupted," recalled Donnelly. "The streamers start coming down and it just was this amazing feeling of euphoria. I think the special thing for so many of the people that have been a part of this for so long was that it really felt like a validation of so many years of hard work."
The hard work often ended in frustration: Five times between 2005 and 2015, Villanova was eliminated by the team that would go on to win the national championship. "Sometimes you don't control the outcome," said Donnelly. "It really just came down to all the decisions that had been made years prior, with respect to recruiting character, getting great kids and guys that really want to be at Villanova.
"The thing for me that's amazing is that Villanova is so much like Muhlenberg. It's almost the same place; it's just a little bit bigger and our basketball team plays on a larger national scale."
Donnelly as a Muhlenberg player
Donnelly's personal "road to the Final Four" was born of adversity as a Muhlenberg student and basketball player. After his mother passed away during his sophomore year, Donnelly talked to then-head coach Dave Madeira about taking some time away from basketball.
Madeira, Muhlenberg's all-time leader in coaching wins, told Donnelly that he wanted him to be part of the program and offered him a position as a student assistant.
"I didn't know if I was done playing yet, but I fell in love with [coaching]," said Donnelly. "He got me recruiting and scouting, and I was the head coach of the JV team that year. It just was a really unique opportunity that kind of came out of a difficult time.
"The way that Muhlenberg supported me at that time when we were kind of hitting the reset button on our life, I'll never forget that. I'm eternally grateful to everyone there."
Donnelly spent his final two undergraduate years as a student coach, winning the Centennial Conference title one year and earning a trip to the CC playoffs in the other. He then joined the staff at Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington, Va., where he was lead assistant for a program consistently ranked in the national top 25.
Donnelly left Bishop O'Connell in 2005 to become director of basketball operations at Villanova, and since then he has been promoted three times. He was assistant coach from 2008 to 2012, when he was named special assistant to head coach Jay Wright. He moved into his current position, which involves overseeing fundraising efforts for all 24 Wildcat sports, last fall.
Before leaving the bench for his new role, Donnelly helped recruit much of the team that won the national championship, including Arcidiacono (pictured above with Donnelly), the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament.
In the afterglow of the championship, Donnelly's life has been a whirlwind the last four months. The "March Madness" was even madder for him due to the birth of his third child, a boy named Allister, on March 11 – right in the middle of the BIG EAST Tournament and two days before Selection Sunday.
Donnelly as a Villanova coach
"Since we won the championship, none of us have had a chance to even breathe," he said. "It's been parades and banquets and fundraising and our all-time largest gift in athletics history. All these events that we've had to manage and we've had a smile on our face the whole time."
And as Donnelly prepares to go into his 12thyear at Villanova, his alma mater is never far from his mind.
"Everything that I'm doing right now can be directly attributed to what I did at Muhlenberg," he said. "I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to play basketball and to get the education, but one of the things I really wanted to do was have a very well-rounded education. I was also on student government and orientation committee, was a member of a fraternity and a tour guide, and worked at the Life Sports Center.
"Getting all those experiences at Muhlenberg, which allowed me to have a really wide range of skill sets [like] public speaking, organization, leadership, fundraising and coaching, has really shaped what I've been able to do here at Villanova. I've really enjoyed the journey and I think if I hadn't had these experiences as an undergrad at Muhlenberg, I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing today."