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Penn State Football: Opener in Ireland is Homeland Advantage for John Donovan

by on August 05, 2014 11:00 PM

Talk about a homeland -- er, homefield -- advantage.

When Penn State plays in the Croke Park Classic to open its football season at month's end in Dublin, Ireland, Central Florida’s coach may be named George O’Leary.

But it’s Penn State’s offensive coordinator John Donovan – a former O’Leary assistant -- who has a dual Irish-United States passport.

Not to mention an Emerald Isle lineage that’s tough to beat.

Donovan will have aunts, uncles, cousins and other assorted relatives cheering him and his new team on. To hear the Penn State coach tell it, it just won’t be Penn State-loving Donovans in the stands, either. There will be plenty of Stensens, Clemenses and Dunleavys as well.

“It’s not just the Donovans,” he said the other day, shaking his head with a wisp of a grin. “All four of my grandparents were born there. Both my parents have first cousins in Ireland. Their parents came over, but some of their parents’ sisters and brothers stayed, so they had aunts and uncles and first cousins over there. So we’ll have plenty of relatives from all parts of our family on hand.”

That begins with Donovan’s mother and father, who are first-generation Americans who met as youngsters growing up in the Bronx.

“Both my parents are going. So are dad’s brother and sister,” Donovan said. “So is my cousin – my dad’s sister’s daughter. My dad’s cousin who is here right now will be there. My sister’s parents and my wife’s parents are looking at going. My wife (Stacey) is going (sans three children). My sister’s husband’s parents are both from Ireland, too.

“My mom’s first cousin and my second cousins might go. We got it all covered. I’m just trying" -- Donovan says with a legitimate sigh -- "to figure out how many tickets we’re going to need.”

(After all that, I’m just trying to figure out if I got all the apostrophes correct.)

How’s this for a potential good luck charm? Among the Donovan contingent who might make the trip is a football-loving uncle, an Irish Catholic priest from Pawley’s Island, S.C. Fourth-quarter Hail Marys by Hack never looked so good.

For Donovan, who coached under O’Leary at Georgia Tech from 1998-2000, the trip will be all business. Donovan might be able to say a quick “Dia duit” before or after the game, but his focus will be the Nittany Lions’ season-opener against Central Florida. It will be his first game as a Penn State coach, along with head coach James Franklin and the rest of the Nittany Lion staff. 

Donovan has previously toured his ancestral homeland, most recently in 2002, with his sister and his cousin. On that trip, he met a number of relatives, some of whom will be in the stands for the Aug. 30 game, which kicks off at 1:30 p.m. local time – and 8:30 a.m. back home -- current, not generational -- on ESPN2.

“It will be a very surreal feeling going into that game,” Donovan said. “It’ll be special. And it’ll be special for my parents to go there and have me be a part of that.”


At one time, Donovan thought he might be actually representing Ireland on the playing field – or court.

Donovan was a high school hoops star at River Dell in New Jersey – an all-county player who was inducted into his high school hall of fame after a stellar career under Brian Long. (Although Donovan was an all-league quarterback and kicker as well.) He harbored desires of playing basketball internationally and earning spot on the Irish national basketball team seemed to be his best route. So he applied and received a dual passport.

He played one year of basketball collegiately at Johns Hopkins, then got injured, So he stuck to football at Hopkins, earning three letters at defensive back and All-Centennial Conferences honors as a senior after grabbing seven interceptions. (His dozen career picks are a Hopkins record.)

“In order to try out for the Irish national basketball team I had to have a passport,” he recalled. “So that is one of the reasons I got it. I’ve kept it ever since and got it renewed recently.”

For his part, Franklin has his own roots in Ireland – specifically tied to his late father and mother.

“My dad was in the Air Force and was stationed in Manchester, England,” Franklin said in an interview in the spring. “They eloped to get married – my parents – so that’s kind of a unique story. So I’m trying to get relatives who are still in England to come to the game.”

We know Franklin can recruit (but overseas?), so don’t discount his own homefield advantage. Still, it’s hard to beat Donovan’s distinct version of Irish home cooking. Franklin, for one, is jealous – at least about the insider’s advantage Donovan will have when the Penn State team plane lands at Dublin Airport in the County of Fingal.

Customs for the only blue-and-white party member with authentic green should be easy.

 “The only guy that’s not going to go through that is John Donovan ’cause he’s got dual citizenship,” Franklin said on the Coaches Caravan trail. 

“So as we’re all over there going through the nightmare of customs, John’s going to be through that with his 40 family members sitting at some bar drinking Guinness waiting for us to get through.”

Talk about the luck of the Irish.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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