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Teaching His Trade

Posted Jun 1, 2011

The list goes on and continues to grow. In 30-plus years of coaching, Ed Donatell has worked with some of the NFL’s greatest defensive backs. Names like Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott and future Hall of Fame safety Brian Dawkins stand atop the list. And with tremendous experience and Super Bowl triumphs to his credit, Donatell brings plenty of knowledge to the promising 49ers defensive backfield. Click here to watch Donatell's interview.

AT EVERY stop of his career, Ed Donatell practices what he preaches. Just like he expects his players to soak up knowledge at every turn, the 53-year-old secondary coach continues to learn in his third decade of coaching. The quest for information dates back to his youth. “Really, it stemmed from playing college football,” explains Donatell, an All-Conference defensive back at Glenville State College in Glenville, W. Va.

Donatell’s coaching interests peaked around the time he earned a bachelor’s degree from Glenville. Donatell followed it with a master’s degree in administration from Kent State University in 1981. There, he embarked on a coaching career as a graduate assistant. Donatell would spend 11 years teaching his trade to defensive backs in the college ranks, including stints at the University of Pacific (1983-85), the University of Idaho (1986-88) and Cal-State Fullerton (1989). Coincidentally, Donatell worked alongside 49ers special teams coordinator Brad Seely, who coached the offensive linemen on the 1983 UOP staff.

THE BREAKTHROUGH coaching opportunity happened for Donatell in 1990 when the New York Jets hired him as their secondary coach. Donatell’s six-year run in the Big Apple was a rewarding experience in many ways. Most notably, the young coach was fortunate to have Lott for the final two seasons of a Hall of Fame career. “He was coaching me more than I was coaching him if the truth would be known,” says Donatell. “I would have rather coached that guy later in my career, because you can really pull out the differences and special qualities. (As a coach) You’re just more aware. That was kind of a flash. What a wonderful player – one of the greats.” Lott was just the first of many talented players to work with Donatell. In total, more than a dozen of his players have made it to the Pro Bowl.

Besides admiring the work ethic of his veterans, Donatell soaked up lessons from the Jets coaching staff. “There was great people everywhere and great sources of knowledge. And if you take advantage of it, you can improve yourself,” says Donatell.

Donatell grew quite a bit in New York. The same can be said for the next stop of his coaching career, a successful five-year run coaching defensive backs with the Denver Broncos from 1995-99. The Broncos were ranked in the top 10 against the pass for four of his five seasons with the team. Denver’s defense was largely responsible for back-to-back Super Bowl wins in 1998 and 1999. Sure, a guy named John Elway had a little something to do with it, but the same could be said for the Broncos defense, led by former 49ers linebacker Bill Romanowski. “Those guys really took over when the team got to the playoffs,” recalls Donatell.

BECAUSE OF his success in Denver, a promotion was in order for the lifelong secondary coach the following year. The opportunity came when Donatell was offered to be the defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers. It was a challenge to Donatell, one that ultimately benefitted him greatly in his chosen profession as it allowed him to manage the entire defense, not just the back end. Donatell’s defenses were always competitive and consistently allowed the Packers to compete for the NFC North crown, which they won twice during his tenure in Green Bay. However, a loss in the 2003 NFC Championship sealed his fate with the club.

It was a touch outcome, but Donatell didn’t blink. He got right back into his passion of teaching football by accepting the defensive coordinator position with the Atlanta Falcons where he coached for the next three seasons. Donatell later moved on to serve as a special assistant for the Jets in 2007 and as the University of Washington’s defensive coordinator in 2008. But by the start of the 2009 season, the coach with seven years of NFL coordinator experience, felt he was best served to share his all-around defensive knowledge back on the professional level.

THE CHANCE came from a previous employer. The Broncos were in need of an experienced secondary coach in the 2009 offseason and Donatell’s name was high atop their wish list. Though he had been working mainly as a coordinator, Donatell remained eager to share his knowledge of defensive back play and already had a track record with Denver just a decade earlier. Donatell was hired as the team’s secondary coach, a role he had for the past two seasons.

“When you’re in charge of the whole group then you work to a certain position again, you know how to serve the people you’re working with a little better because you’ve been that person in charge,” explains Donatell. “But really, you take all your experiences and dial in on your part.”

The Broncos thrived right away under his direction. They ranked third against the pass in 2009. The next season however, injuries and an inconsistent pass rush took its toll on the back end of Denver’s defense. That was the case when the Broncos lost to the 49ers last season in the 2010 NFL International Series game in London, England. Denver elected to change coaches after a 4-12 finish to the 2010 season, but it didn’t take very long for Donatell to find a new place to teach.

THERE WAS plenty of interest in a former defensive coordinator with 30 years of coaching experience. Donatell quickly found a home on Jim Harbaugh’s first coaching staff with the 49ers. He remains in a familiar role, coaching defensive backs. So far, it’s certainly been an enjoyable start to his 49ers coaching career. The student of the game has long respected the 49ers and the great coaches who have worked for the organization. He’s also quite fond of Harbaugh’s leadership, a trait he witnessed on a regular basis as an opposing coach for much of Harbaugh’s playing career.

Like the 49ers head coach, Donatell’s own experiences allow him to communicate better with his fellow coaches, including defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. “You know how your position ties in, because you’ve been responsible for tying all three levels of the defense together,” says Donatell. “It definitely works in my favor.”

NOT EVERY coach on the 49ers staff is from the Bay Area. But relocating to the West Coast has brought them closer. “It’s almost like we’re on a football vacation together,” says Donatell. Specifically, coaches like Fangio and Donatell who are working together for the first time, have bonded tremendously during the NFL’s current work stoppage. Without players to instruct, the coaching staff has worked hard to form their philosophies and schemes. Donatell says he’s benefitted tremendously from getting to know Fangio. “I see real good things ahead of us,” says Donatell.

Fangio feels similarly about the coaching staff’s interactions. Although he’s never worked with Donatell, the two who have known each other through common associates, are happy to finally be coaching on the same staff. “I always respected his work,” says Fangio of his defensive backs coach. “Since we’ve started working together, it’s been everything I hoped for. Ed’s a great coach, great person. He’ll do a great job with our secondary… It’s an area of urgency for us to improve and Ed is the guy I think to lead our secondary through that transition.”

BESIDES CREDIBILITY from working with household names, Donatell gets his player’s attention with detailed instruction. He considers himself a teacher first, and a coach second. “I think the guys will get a lot of input in a teaching manner and a lot of correction throughout in everything they’re doing,” says Donatell. “There will be a lot of detail, a lot of enthusiasm. We’re going to look like we’re playing very hard and having some fun.”

Donatell’s coaching style fits right in line with head coach Jim Harbaugh. In fact, Harbaugh’s consistent energy has boosted the coaches around him. “I think everybody thrives in that situation,” says Donatell. The staff has been eager to work, mainly because of their confidence in each other. If any group of coaches can restore the team’s winning ways of the past, Donatell is confident this group can do it. “When you’ve been a great team you can come back strong,” says Donatell. “I know that’s where this organization is headed. When you have a great group of guys, a great staff, you can take your team wherever you want to take it.”

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