ATHENS Jim Donnan spent most of his life playing and coaching games in front of thousands of people. Then his most nerve-wracking moment came Friday in a small courtroom, as he sat anxiously at the defendants table.
Hey listen, Ive played in front of 80,000 people at Lincoln, Nebraska, played in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, played for the national championship at Marshall, played against Florida every year (at Georgia). Nothing even comes close to approximating that minute when the judge announced the verdict, Donnan said. The apprehension and anxiety was overwhelming. And you could see the emotion of my family and myself.
Donnan, one of only four men to lead Georgias program over the past 50 years, was acquitted Friday by a federal jury on 41 charges related to an alleged Ponzi scheme.
Several members of Donnans family cried after the judge announced the verdict. Donnan whooped loudly minutes later as he and his team entered a private room. At his home a short time later the Donnan mailbox bore a small yellow sign saying: Our prayers answered.
Donnan said he got over 200 texts and 27 voice mail messages after the verdict, including text messages from Mack Brown and Barry Switzer. Those two coaches were among the failed investors in GLC, the company that imploded in 2011, leading to the charges.
In an interview at his Athens home after the verdict, Donnan said he turned down a plea bargain that involved jail time, the amount of which he wasnt sure. He said he couldnt face his children or grandchildren if he took the easy way out, so he decided to go to court, a decision bolstered by wins in three bankruptcy court cases related to GLCs collapse.
I had an inner calm from the standpoint of I knew my innocence. But at the same time theres a lot of what-ifs involved, you know? Donnan said. Particularly at my age, youre looking down the barrel of trying to speculate, and I tried to keep from doing that as much as possible.
Donnan, who did not testify at the trial, defended his handling of the companys collapse after Friday's verdict. He said he tried to rectify the situation once he discovered what was going on, and has continued to work to repay the failed investors.
When several of us found out that this was going on, then we went through the process of trying to save this company and a lot of those people knew that, and they knew that I made a tremendous effort to do that, and actually paid a lot of people to find out what was going on, Donnan said.
At trial, the witness stand was a revolving door of wealthy Athens residents. Donnan was Georgias head coach from 1996-2000, and after he was fired he remained in Athens, and maintained friendships and relationships.
Fellow coaches also testified, as Donnan reached into that network for GLC investors. Donnan is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, on the basis of his time at Marshall (64-21, four trips to the Division I-AA national title game.) He was also an ESPN commentator from 2001-07.
Donnan was asked where he thinks he stands in both communities after all this.
Its just like in coaching, people are gonna think what theyre gonna think on the periphery, because they dont know you. But people that know you know what youve done, and youve built up a reputation with them, and they stood behind me, Donnan said. I said that I felt good that so many people were basing on it not the innuendo or the allegations, they were basing it on genuine friendship, and Im sure if they had found something different they mightve changed.
Donnan was also asked about Kendrell Bell and Jonas Jennings, his two former Georgia players who testified about losing money in GLC after trusting in their former coach.
They lost money. But theyre two great kids, and theyre good players, and I hate it for them, Donnan said. I had a lot of support from my players and my ex-coaches, and people all over the country.
Im not somebody who wears my faith on my shoulders or anything but Ive felt pretty good about whats happened to me my whole life. Even though it was stressful, certainly, you worry about it. Ill give you a good quote: The fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself.
What Donnan knows is that hes not going to jail. There could be a civil case ahead, his lawyers acknowledged, but his freedom is not an issue anymore.
He can also now attend his granddaughters high school graduation in Oklahoma, something he wasnt sure hed be able to attend because of the trial. Donnan started tearing up as he mentioned that.
Donnan also would like to get back into some commentating if anyone is interested.
I feel like Im in the fourth quarter, Donnan said. Ive got some time left, Im gonna make it happen.