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 defendant’s table.
“Hey listen, I’ve 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 Georgia’s program during the past 50 years, was acquitted Friday by a federal jury on 41 charges related to an alleged Ponzi scheme.
Several members of Donnan’s 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 reading, “Our prayers answered.”
Donnan said he received more than 200 texts and 27 voicemail 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 wasn’t sure. He said he couldn’t 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 GLC’s collapse.
“I had an inner calm from the standpoint of I knew my innocence. But at the same time there’s a lot of what-ifs involved, you know?” Donnan said. “Particularly at my age, you’re 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 company’s collapse. 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 the trial, the witness stand was a revolving door of wealthy Athens residents. Donnan was Georgia’s head coach from 1996 to 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 FCS national title game). He was also an ESPN commentator from 2001 to 2007.
Donnan was asked where he thinks he stands in both communities after all this.
“It’s just like in coaching; people are gonna think what they’re gonna think on the periphery, because they don’t know you. But people that know you know what you’ve done and you’ve 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 I’m sure if they had found something different, they might’ve 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 head coach.
“They lost money. But they’re two great kids, and they’re 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. ...
“I’m not somebody who wears my faith on my shoulders or anything, but I’ve felt pretty good about what’s happened to me my whole life. Even though it was stressful, certainly, you worry about it. I’ll give you a good quote; The fear of the unknown is worse than the unknown itself.”
What Donnan knows is that he’s 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 granddaughter’s high school graduation in Oklahoma, something he wasn’t sure he’d 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 television work if anyone is interested.
“I feel like I’m in the fourth quarter,” Donnan said. “I’ve got some time left, I’m gonna make it happen.”