Almost fifteen years ago, Kim DeGraw-Cole, then the athletic director at Southern Regional High School made the statement that “If this doesn’t work it will be our fault.”
“This” was the appointment of Chuck Donohue Sr. as Southern’s head football coach. Donohue Sr., who had been a successful head coach at St. Joseph (Hammonton), Haddon Heights and Buena Regional high schools in South Jersey, was taking over a program in Southern that many had always called “The Sleeping Giant.”
Southern , which started playing varsity football in 1957, had had its moments, especially during the 15-year tenure of former head coach Ron Emmert from 1972-86, but it could not establish long-term consistency.
The hiring of Donohue was almost like a last gasp to move Southern, the biggest school enrollment-wise in the Shore Conference, into the football elite.
“The way I look at it is people make a difference,” said DeGraw-Cole, who is now an assistant director at the NJSIAA. “Sometimes, it is a matter of matching the right person with the right situation. You have to have faith in someone. He immediately set the tone we’re going to build a program and do it the right way without taking any shortcuts.”
Fifteen seasons later, Donohue has built a program that has joined the Shore Conference elite, despite its 43-20 loss to powerful Williamstown on Friday night in the NJSIAA South Group V championship game at Rowan University.
“I’m very proud of these kids and I’m very proud of where we are,” Donohue said. “I think we do things right, and we’re going to fight. I would hope people consider us a solid Group V program that is going to be hard to beat and better come to play.”
The Rams have made two appearances in NJSIAA sectional championship games in the last five seasons. Southern has gone 46-19 since the start of the 2007 season and has finished ranked in the Asbury Park Press Top 10 four of those seasons. That’s the type of performance associated with the Manasquans and Middletown Souths of the Shore Conference world.
There were some bumps on the road along the way, but nothing was going to deter Donohue.
“He’s very matter of fact. He never got frustrated,” said DeGraw-Cole, who was Southern’s athletic director until the summer of 2010, when she was hired by the NJSIAA. “He just said, ‘We’re going to get down to work and we’re going to do this’. He cares about the kids – every kid. He coaches every kid. It’s that kind of integrity and bigger picture view that I think makes a difference.”
Donohue had to overcome many of the stigmas that were always associated with Southern.
Southern had never won a playoff game. The Rams, who had made just two playoff appearances from 1974-2000, have now made seven playoff appearances since 2001 and won five playoff games. All of those playoff wins have come since 2007 and all have been on the road, too, including two dramatic wins in this year’s playoffs.
The Rams had won just one Shore Conference divisional championship in their history – the 1972 Class C championship – which was shared with Wall and Asbury Park. Southern erased that phrase from the books last season when it won the outright Class A South championship.
Now the phrases one thinks of or writes first when the subject is Southern football are: Solid program with very good players, like standout junior wide receiver/defensive back Mike Gesicki, senior quarterback Dan Higgins and senior running back Abe Gonzalez. They also think of the solid man who is the head coach and architect of a program that is now among the giants of the Shore Conference and not “The Sleeping Giant.” The “Sleeping Giant” has awakened.
“Chuck has made a true difference in that program,” DeGraw-Cole said Friday morning. “He has built slowly and methodically and made a difference in kids’ lives. I didn’t see the difference he would make in the school community which he has done. Every year, they’re going to be a solid program. I have no doubt about that.”
The only thing Southern is missing now is an NJSIAA sectional championship, but the program is now on track to do that.
“This hurts a little bit, no doubt. But, I think we’ve shown that we deserve to be here,” Donohue said.