Tributes from the Golden Bears football family, as well as from Canada West and the Western Hockey League, poured in for Jim Donlevy who is remembered and celebrated as a first class, humble and as an exemplary example of professionalism as a coach, mentor, teacher, leader and winner.
Donlevy spent 26 seasons on the sidelines with the gridiron Bears, including 18 seasons as the program’s head coach, the longest tenure of any coach in program history.
Sports Wall of Fame Bio
Along with his sucsessful run as the coach of the Golden Bears, Donlevy also graduated numerous athletes into the CFL, most notably Canadian Football Hall of Fame receivers Brian Fryer and Joe Poplawski, as well as multiple Grey Cup champions Tom Towns (LB), Marco Cyncar (WR), Blake Dermott (OL) and Leo Blanchard (OL). He coached alongside Canadian Football Hall of Fame legend Gino Fracas, and with Clare Drake, and served as a manager with Golden Bears hockey from 1957 to 1961 when the team won three Canada West titles.
Dale Schulha (BPE ‘72, MSc ‘74, Dip Ed ‘74) joined the Golden Bears football team in August of 1968 as a rookie defensive back where he would be coached by Donlevy. Schulha spent four seasons with the Golden Bears and Donlevy, and played in both the 1971 and 1972 Vanier Cup games. Schulha went on to serve two terms as the Director of Athletics at the University of Alberta, but is also famous for making a critical play during the 1972 Vanier Cup win.
"We were playing Waterloo Lutheran University and the field was covered with sand due to the heavy rains that Toronto had the week before the game. Therefore, the footing was very difficult," said Schula. "I was a defensive back and I also was the holder on field goals and converts. We had tried and missed a couple of field goals during the game as our kicker, Jack Schwartzberg, was having real problems with the footing. I had noticed on our unsuccessful field goal attempts that Waterloo was coming hard to try to block the kick and that they had no contain man in their defensive formation - so the flat was wide open.
As we were running onto the field to try our third field goal, I told Gary Weisbrot, one of our receivers, to run a short out pattern and to be ready for the ball. When Jim Lazaruk, our All Canadian centre, snapped the ball, I placed it on the ground and then pulled it away. Jack had no idea that I was going to do that and he just about blew out his knee when he had no ball to kick.
I rolled out to the right side and saw Gary wide open in the flat. I threw the ball to Gary, he caught it and ran untouched into the end zone. It was great to throw a touchdown pass in a Vanier Cup game, that happened to be the last game of my five-year career with the Golden Bears - and the last game that I ever played!!
After the convert, we were all celebrating on our way back to the sidelines and I noticed that Jim was being interviewed on TV. The TV reporter was congratulating Jim on what a great and gutsy play call that was at a critical point in the game. Jim was smiling and nodding all the while knowing that the coaches did not make the call.
After the interview, Jim walked over to me and sternly said "Really lucky that worked Schu - because it is a long walk home from Toronto".
Jim and I often laughed about that special set of circumstances."
Val Schneider first encountered Donlevy in 1965 when Schneider began playing for the Bears when Jim was a defensive backs coach. Schneider, who won the Vanier Cup MVP award in 1967, spent three seasons playing for Donlevy, and then coached against Jim while he was with the Saskatchewan Huskies for a decade. When Schneider became the Executive Director of Canada West, he added Jim to the staff as football commissioner and convenor.
“He was first class,” noted Schneider. “In all my dealings with him, he was always a perfect gentleman, as well as extremely thorough and well prepared. I also distinctly remember his humility as a head coach. He was taught, by Clare Drake, that the head coach is only as strong as his assistant coaches, and Jim built some really amazing coaching staffs at the U of A. And he was always ready to give his assistant coaches all the credit when they were successful as a team.”
"I’ll never forget how excitable and animated Jim was on the sidelines,” added Schneider. “I’ll always remember a moment in 1965; we were playing at Clarke Stadium, because Varsity Field was undergoing renovations, and Jim was hooked into the wired headset, which had about 20-feet of wire. Suddenly, something happened out on the field, and Jim bolted from the sidelines, forgetting he was wired in, and when the headset wire ran out of slack, Jim ended up on his ass on the field. A great example of his passion, energy, enthusiasm and excitement as a coach.”
Dan Syrotuik (BA, BPe McMaster, MSc ‘75, PhD ‘84), began coaching football with the Bears and Donlevy in 1976, staying together until 1990. He continued coaching with the Golden Bears football team off and on from 1991 until 2012, and is also a Professor Emeritus of the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation where he taught from 1981-2012.
“Without a doubt,” stated Syrotuik,” the student-athletes that Jim was able to persuade to come to the University of Alberta was key to the program’s success during his tenure as head coach. The players were not only the best-of-the-best on the field but were also academically focused. Academic All-Canadians were not tracked or even started back then, but based on how many obtained their degrees and how very successful a lot of Jim’s alumni have built their careers, I would suggest that Jim’s approach to recruiting was a success. Once he had identified a player that he felt was a “blue-chipper”, he would simply ask them if they wanted to win a Vanier Cup and were they willing to work as hard as possible on-field and in the classroom to make their dream a reality. To get there, they had to pay attention to the academic challenges of their elected programs, and their duties as an athlete. Jim ran a football program of excellence across the board, where in the final analysis Vanier Cups and graduations were the markers of his legacy and success.”
“He was truly supportive and nurturing of his young recruits and was interested in their development as men and contributors to society. Many a fine community leader and alumni emerged from their sojourn with the Golden Bear Football program under Jim’s tutelage.”
“His professional deportment and on and off-field conduct was exemplary,” added Syrotuik. “Regardless of the opponent, Jim always treated the opposing head coaches and their staff with respect and professionalism. This was a particularly remarkable feat considering a certain opposing head coach could test the patience of the Pope!”
“I’ll never forget his brief address to the team on the bus back to the hotel in Toronto following a 40-21 defeat of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees in the 1980 Vanier Cup,” laughed Syrotuik. “Never one to gloat, and normally very modest after victory, Jim simply said: ‘to the victor goes the spoils. Now it’s time for some of them spoils.’ Needless to say, the team loved it!”
“His reputation as an astute technician of the game, coupled with genuine love of teaching, helped him become a mentor for many of the young coaches in the league and across Canada, including me,” continued Syrotuik.”
Looking Back: 1980 Vanier Cup Win
Jim Donlevy’s dedication to his work as a coach, teacher, administrator and sport influencer has benefited the development of generations of University of Alberta alumni, as well as countless Albertans and Western Canadians. His legacy enhances the reputation of the University of Alberta, as well as Golden Bears and Pandas Athletics, as a place where excellence is the standard.