By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor
When Notre Dame High School made Dan Donigan its new varsity soccer coach March 25, it did more than hire a man who won 172 games and made eight NCAA Tournament appearances as a college coach.
It also brought in a man who placed a heavy emphasis on Catholic values, which is exactly what Athletic Director Rich Roche and the search committee had in mind.
“That was something that was asked of me in the process,” said Donigan, who attends St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Township. “It’s very simple. I was born a Catholic kid; I grew up going to church. I am a full believer of a faith-based environment for people with freedom to worship whenever they want. I also worked at St. Louis University [a private Roman Catholic research school] for 13 years. I know what it means to have those faith-based mission values and culture.”
With that thought in mind, Donigan feels character is the No. 1 trait he will look for in his players. “We all learn from our experiences,” he said. “Character is at the forefront of everything I’m trying to do moving forward in my life.
“I’ve had a lot of great players and great kids of character. We’re always trying to assess and evaluate to bring in the best possible kids to give us the best chance for success. That starts with character and relationships. You’re gonna find some pretty good kids that are looking to go to school at a place like Notre Dame with those values already in place.”
A native of Hamilton Township, which is one town over from Notre Dame’s Lawrenceville campus, Donigan was one of Steinert High’s all-time great players and owns the school’s single-season goal scoring record. He is a member of the Steinert Hall of Fame, the Mercer County Soccer Hall of Fame and the New Jersey Soccer Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He moved on to the University of Connecticut, where he was named the Adidas National Player of the Year in 1989 and the Big East Player of the Decade for the 1980s.
Donigan served as a UConn assistant before moving to St. Louis and becoming an assistant. He was quickly elevated to head coach and, in 10 years, amassed a 117-40-30 record with six NCAA Tournament appearances. When the opportunity to return home arose, Donigan took it and spent the past nine years at Rutgers. He was named Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2015 and took the Scarlet Knights to two NCAA tournaments. But the program fell on hard times the last three seasons, leading to Donigan’s dismissal.
His plan became to develop the Player Development Academy at Hamilton’s Hibernian Club. When the Notre Dame job came to light, the urge to coach returned, especially since it meant he could still work with the Hibernian Club and remain in his hometown while spending time with his family.
In finding a replacement for Rich Leedom, who coached the previous two years, Roche’s main concern was whether Donigan would come on board for the long term.
“I’m very serious about the position and the opportunity,” Donigan said. “I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for Notre Dame. It has a tremendous history of great players, great teams, great coaches. I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
“It’s not about money,” he continued. “It’s about what I’m associating myself with, what I think I can bring to Notre Dame and their program. It’s a big deal for me to be able to begin a new era of Notre Dame soccer and try to take them to new heights. It’s a challenge and it’s exciting for me, I can’t wait to start.”
Said Roche, “We had a great pool of candidates and interviewed some great coaches, but Dan’s credentials speak for themselves.”