Negaunee’s Mike O’Donnell following his dream of coaching college basketball

NEGAUNEE – Mike O’Donnell has long held a desire to be a college basketball coach.

“It has always been a long-term goal – a dream of mine – to coach in the college ranks,” the outgoing Negaunee High School boys’ basketball mentor said Thursday.

O’Donnell now has his chance.

He has been named the Finlandia University men’s coach, replacing Terry Smith. The latter resigned effective April 18 to pursue other career opportunities after coaching the Lions to a 5-18 record last season.

“The timing (of the opportunity) was unexpected,” said O’Donnell, who applied for the job. “It came up quick.

“It’s not easy leaving Negaunee, it was a tough decision,” the 1999 NHS grad said. “But it’s a good time to make the move and fulfill one of my career dreams.”

He won eight district titles, six regional championships and reached the MHSAA Class C semifinals three times in 2008, 2013, and 2014.

O’Donnell said the Miners losing several seniors from a group that went 24-2 overall last season and made it to the state semis before losing to Detroit Consortium 69-54 had “nothing to do” with his decision to leave.

“There’s still a lot of talent there and they’ll get a top-notch coach,” he said.

O’Donnell, who posted a 180-48 career mark in nine seasons with the Miners, is a 2004 Finlandia grad. He helped lead the Lions to the 2001 United States Collegiate Athletic Association Division I championship and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

He said the Lions will “need some rebuilding.”

“They’ve had a couple of tough years with a lot of in-and-out players,” he said. “I’m going to try to sell some consistency for the program and get some recruits to stay four years.”

O’Donnell said he’ll “stay true to my (coaching) beliefs” at Finlandia, the ones he gained from former NHS coach Tom Russo, and former Lions coaches Charlie Kemppainen and Art VanDamme.

“I’m a man-to-man defensive coach who runs a motion offense,” O’Donnell said. “The shot clock will now come into play and I may have to coach to the strengths of my team, but I’ll still coach largely the same.”

He has begun recruiting – saying he’ll try to add “at least” 10 players as he projects he’ll only have four Lions coming back next season.

O’Donnell has also started scheduling games for Finlandia’s 2014-15 campaign.

He said his only regret coaching the Miners was not making the state finals or winning a Class C title.

The Negaunee native couldn’t name one specific highlight of his NHS coaching career.

“We’ve had so many memorable games, players and teams,” he said. “Maybe I’ll have to go back to my first year when we made a late run to the quarterfinals. It was so new to me then.”

O’Donnell said NHS and school district administration have supported his program and helped set the standard “for how things are done, the (basketball) tradition and culture here.

“We’ve prided ourselves in doing things the right way,” he said.