Kerry Donley did well in his political and banking careers. He’d been mayor of Alexandria for seven years before being named chairman of the state Democratic Party. He was vice president of a large bank.
So when he suddenly left those fields and applied for the relatively low-profile and definitely lower-paying job of athletic director at T.C. Williams High School two years ago, a lot of folks in the community looked at his résumé and figured there must be some dark inspiration. After all, sports programs at T.C.—like those at all of the “inner ring” public schools in the portions of Northern Virginia closest to D.C.—had been getting steamrolled for years by newer, bigger high schools in the farther-out suburbs.
One former political rival was so suspicious he tried to stall the hiring by filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the city to see all the “perks” that were promised Donley before he accepted the job. Upon hearing of that request, Donley told the Gazette Packet, a newspaper serving Alexandria, that the only perk he was aware of was a parking space near the school.
In the two years since taking over as AD, Donley, who grew up in Alexandria, has realized there are other benefits to go with that parking space.
“It’s rewarding to work with kids and coaches,” Donley says.
Among the more obvious rewards: Donley’s been able to spend the last few months watching T.C.’s boys’ basketball team become the No. 1nranked squad in the area—the first time in exactly 30 years the Titans have risen to the top.
Donley was on the sidelines at the Patriot Center last weekend as the Titans, as expected, routed Chantilly and Wakefield in the regional Final Four and advanced to this week’s state tournament. The team hasn’t lost a game to an in-state opponent all year.
These are big times for T.C. Williams athletics of late, even disregarding the boys’ hoops successes. The girls’ team also made the regional Final Four for the second year in a row. Decades’ worth of alumni showed up last week to say goodbye to the school’s gym; the Titans will move to a new court in a new $100 million school building next year. Donley is now looking for a football coach to take over the program, and that’s happening just as the Alexandria City Council is expected to approve a new stadium for the team as part of a multimillion-dollar multisport athletic complex planned for Eisenhower Avenue. Current plans also call for lights at the field, meaning the Titans football team will be able to play home games at night for the first time in decades.
“Kerry Donley brought some political clout with him to the job, for sure,” says Jim Gibson, who runs youth athletic programs for the city of Alexandria and is a longtime supporter of T.C. Williams sports. “That will help with [the stadium negotiations].”
Donley says he deserves no credit for any of the school’s recent on-court successes.
“I don’t have anything to do with it,” he says, seemingly annoyed that anybody would give him credit. “The kids play, and the coaches coach. I just try to get them the tools they need, whether it’s equipment or uniforms, and get some good athletes and teach them how to play and just let them go at it.”
But the success of the current crop of kids and coaches at T.C. didn’t happen in a vacuum. One of the first moves made by the athletic department under Donley’s watch was the hiring in June 2005 of coach Ivan Thomas to take over the boys’ basketball program. Thomas came to the school after a very successful run at rival Edison, where he was the region’s coach of the year in 2004. Thomas hasn’t lost a district game in his two years at T.C. A key to this year’s team is 6-foot-9 center Mike Davis, who transferred from Hayfield. Davis’ array of flamboyant second-half dunks in the regional semifinal inspired his teammates to pull away from Chantilly.
“They’ve put together a program at T.C., not a one-year thing,” says Gibson, who adds that the school has tightened relationships with area youth sports programs to provide a talent pipeline that had been missing for years. “This team’s good. Next year’s team is going to be good. With what they’re doing, the air in the community right now couldn’t be better. Everybody’s following this team now.”
Interest in T.C. athletics, high as it is these days, would only be enhanced if the Titans can match the state championship won by the 1977 hoops team. That squad was as strong on the basketball court as the 1971 football squad—the one that inspired the movie Remember the Titans—was on the gridiron, going undefeated and taking the title game against William Fleming of Roanoke by 32 points.
Repetition is far from a given, however. One of the more amazing statistics in Virginia schoolboy athletics: No squad from Northern Virginia has won a state basketball championship in 26 years. While Arlington and Fairfax counties and the city of Alexandria stand as the state’s population and economic centers, the bluest-chip athletes have historically come from other parts of the Old Dominion: Allen Iverson, Alonzo Mourning, Ralph Sampson, Moses Malone, J.R. Reid, and Joe Smith are among the court superstars reared downstate. (There’s also Lawrence Taylor and Secretariat, if you’re looking off the court.)
Donley admits that after losing in the regional semifinals last year, T.C.’s athletic department went into this season thinking bigger than merely bringing home a regional basketball championship.
“This part of the state hasn’t done too well, but we hope to change that,” says Donley. “The last eight or nine champions are Tidewater schools, so we traveled to play a Tidewater team this year to get some experience playing down there. We also went to a tournament on a college campus, played on a college floor, so we’d be ready when we were playing in a big arena.” (The state championships are held in Virginia Commonwealth University’s 7,500-seat gym.)
T.C. also scheduled a January matchup with Montrose Christian, the perennial nationally ranked prep powerhouse in Rockville coached by talent magnet Stu Vetter. No other Northern Region public school was on Montrose’s dance card this year. (That game was postponed when a Montrose JV player died days before it was to take place.)
Should another state title not come, Donley says, he’s still satisfied with the choice he made to switch careers. Besides, politics and banking aren’t going anywhere while he helps T.C. get back to destroying the competition.
“I like the job I have,” he says. “I plan on staying for a while. I plan on getting involved in politics again at some point, but nothing right now. There’s too many elected Democrats in Virginia around now. Right now, this is fun.”
As the buzzer sounded in the victory over Chantilly, guaranteeing T.C.’s place in the state tournament, Donley didn’t join the team in celebration right away. A mildly profane version of the traditional winner’s anthem, “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” had broken out in the T.C. student section. So while the players and coaches were jumping around at midcourt, the athletic director hustled into the grandstand and, while tapping fists with the students, asked the young singers to knock it off.