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Sports >  UW football

Washington fires offensive coordinator John Donovan after rivalry loss to Oregon

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 7, 2021

The Washington Huskies offensive cordinator John Donovan talks with players, including quarterback Sam Huard (7), before a drill at practice last spring.  (SSR)
The Washington Huskies offensive cordinator John Donovan talks with players, including quarterback Sam Huard (7), before a drill at practice last spring. (SSR)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

A day after Washington’s 26-16 loss to rival Oregon, Husky offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Donovan has been fired, head coach Jimmy Lake announced Sunday.

In Donovan’s place, Husky wide receivers coach Junior Adams will serve as the program’s interim offensive coordinator and play-caller. Quality control analyst Payton McCollum has been upgraded to fill the quarterbacks coach role as well. The team was informed of Donovan’s firing during a meeting at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday.

As for Donovan, even Jimmy Lake’s initial recommendation came with a quasi-concession.

When Washington announced the Jacksonville Jaguars assistant as its offensive coordinator on Jan. 10, 2020, Lake said in a statement that “Coach Donovan has a great deal of experience at both the college and NFL levels, learning from a lot of great offensive minds about coaching the kind of aggressive, pro-style offense we want to play here at Washington.

“From my own experience, I know how much a coach can learn and grow by spending significant time in the NFL. I’m excited for him to get to Seattle and get started.”

If the second half of that statement reads as preemptive damage control, it’s not by accident. Donovan – who was fired Sunday after just 13 games at the helm – was also fired after two seasons as Penn State’s offensive coordinator and tight-ends coach in 2015. That season, the Nittany Lions finished 126th out of 128 teams nationally in third-down conversion percentage (27.57%), 106th in rushing offense (134.15 yards per game), 105th in total offense (348.6 yards per game), 103rd in completion percentage (53.2%), 100th in scoring offense (23.2 points per game) and 99th in red-zone touchdown percentage (54.55%).

Moreover, Penn State’s 20.6 points per game in 2014 ranked 113th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten.

Which, perhaps, is why the 47-year-old Donovan spent four seasons stashed behind the scenes in Jacksonville, before Lake plucked him from semi-obscurity in a surprise hire.

(Eleven days later, Oregon filled its own offensive coordinator vacancy by hiring Joe Moorhead, Donovan’s successor at Penn State in 2016. In his first season, Moorhead’s Nittany Lions shot up to No. 21 nationally in scoring offense – averaging 37.6 points per game. A year later, the Nittany Lions finished sixth in scoring offense and 19th in total offense. And on Saturday, Moorhead’s Ducks ran for 329 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-16 win at Washington.)

Meanwhile, Washington is 4-5 and in danger of missing out on postseason play. And despite going 3-1 and technically winning the Pac-12 North last fall, UW’s 2021 recruiting class ranked just 36th nationally and sixth in the Pac-12 by 247Sports – featuring a five-star quarterback in Sam Huard who was already committed when Donovan arrived. (Thus far, the Huskies’ 2022 class looks even worse – ranked eighth in the Pac-12 and 54th in the nation.)

To make matters worse, Oregon – UW’s primary rival for recruiting prospects, regardless of what Lake said last week – produced classes ranked sixth nationally in 2021 and ninth (so far) in 2022.

Of course, Donovan also encountered unfortunate obstacles along the way. He inherited significant recruiting sanctions at Penn State, which prohibited the program from signing more than 15 scholarship players in 2013 and 20 in 2014. And after arriving in Seattle in Jan. 2020, spring practice was promptly canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic – making it nearly impossible to install his offensive scheme.

Yes, there are available excuses. But UW’s offensive incompetency speaks for itself. And, despite the obstacles, Donovan was awarded a three-year contract worth $850,000 guaranteed in 2020, plus $875,000 apiece in 2021 and 2022, to win games and score points.

While also preserving – and improving upon – a proud tradition.

“I always thought of University of Washington football as tough guys. This is a tough program,” Donovan said in his first interview after being hired, on April 17, 2020. “They’ve always had that reputation, and it’s our responsibility to carry on that reputation for the guys that played before us and the guys that are going to play after that – to continue that toughness.

“That is something that I saw as a kid. That is something that has been consistent throughout my life. I told that to those guys and I think that that’s an absolutely necessity for us to be who we want to be and go where we want to go.”

Under Donovan, the UW offense went nowhere fast – while ranking 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring (22 points per game), 10th in total offense (332.1 yards per game), 10th in yards per pass attempt (6.8), 10th in completion percentage (59.9%), 11th in rushing (115.33) and 11th in yards per carry (3.48).

That’s not the mark of a tough program.

It’s the mark of a program that needed a change.

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