The Curious Case of "The Buffer"
Page 6 of the '61 Columbia-Penn program
Returning to the 1961 Columbia-Penn program, we now find ourselves on page 6 with the Columbia coaches profile.
A short blurb is devoted to Head Coach Aldo "Buff" Donelli. While Buff will never be remembered as much as his predecessor, Lou Little, he is one of the most fascinating figures in the history of American football.
It started in Pittsburgh, where Donelli was a star football, soccer and basketball player in the late 1920's at Duquesne University. He was the captain of the '29 football team, but his years right after college would be dominated by his prowess on the soccer pitch.
"Buff" Donelli as a Duquesne Duke, 1929
In 1934, Donelli made the U.S. World Cup team and scored four goals against Mexico in a qualifying game before netting the only goal against the home Italian powerhouse squad in the first round of the tournament. He was later inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame.
Donelli returned to American football in the late 30's and became head coach at his alma mater of Duquesne in 1939, compiling an astounding 29-4-2 record over four seasons.
But Donelli's 1941 season was truly a remarkable year in the history of American sports. While coaching Duquesne to what would be an undefeated season, the local NFL Steelers were struggling at 0-2. Art Rooney made the drastic move to hire Donelli to coach his club even as Buff remained the head coach at Duquesne! Buff would coach the Steelers in the morning during classes at Duquesne University and then the Dukes in the afternoon. The Steelers still lost all five games under Donelli, but he remains the only person ever to coach a college and a pro football team simultaneously. I think we can be confident in saying that's a record that will never be matched or broken.
In 1944 Donelli went to the NFL again, this time to coach the Cleveland Rams full time. This was before the Rams eventually moved to Los Angeles and then to St. Louis. They went 4-6 before Buff decided to head back to the college ranks.
In 1945, he joined Lou Little's staff at Columbia and helped the team complete an 8-1season.
Donelli rejoined the head coaching ranks in 1947 at Boston University. He guided BU to a 46-34-4 record from 1947 through 1956 before being named to replace Little as the head man back at Columbia.
Donelli inherited a Lions team in decline as Little's squads posted losing seasons in 8 of his last 9 seasons, including the last 5 in a row. Buff started out strong with a stunning win over Brown to begin the 1957 season, but the Lions lost 10 in a row before Donelli won another game. However, he did get the pleasure of coaching his son Dick during those tough early years. Dick Donelli started at quarterback in '57 and '58.
Donelli, front right, with his fellow Ivy head coaches, circa 1962
Things started to look up a bit in 1960, when Columbia routed Brown to start the year and scraped together two more Ivy wins to finish 3-6 on the year.
Then came the 1961 season when the Lions combined a killer defense with a varied running attack to eventually tie for the Ivy title with Harvard, a team they beat ON THE ROAD, 26-14 to claim true bragging rights.
After the '61 season, a slow progression downward began again. 1962 would be Buff's final winning season at the helm and he stepped down after a 2-7 campaign in 1966.
Donelli went into almost total retirement after that, taking time off from playing golf only to help promote a PGA tour event in New England.
Buff died in the summer of 1994 at the age of 87. Columbia's weight and conditioning room, the Aldo T. "Buff" Donelli Intercollegiate Weight Room, was donated by Bill Campbell in honor of his former coach.
Al Paul and John Toner
The assistant coaches pictured with Donelli on page are Tony Zullo, Verne Ullom, Al Paul and John L. Toner.
Of course, Paul eventually became the athletic director at Columbia from 1973-1991. While Paul took a lot of lumps for being at the helm during the true nadir of the football program, he also oversaw the dominance of Columbia's soccer team, (a squad that made it all the way to the 1983 NCAA final before losing to Indiana in double overtime), and the successfull integration of women athletes into the program when Columbia went co-ed in 1983.
John L. Toner became a very famous force in college athletics after he left Columbia. He went on to become the athletic director of the University of Connecticut and then NCAA President. The National Football Foundation's John L. Toner Award is given annually to "outstanding athletic directors who have demonstrated superior administrative abilities, especially in the area of college football."
Speaking of Columbia coaching, another coach who got his start on the sidelines with Ray Tellier is moving up the ranks. John Powers has been named the recruiting coordinator at mid-major Ball State.
Powers was first a graduate assistant coach at CU in 1993 and 1994. He returned in 1997 to be the running game and recruiting coordinator. It should be noted that this was the period when Johnathan Reese, Columbia's all-time leading rusher, was recruited and put in the starting lineup for the Lions. In 2000, Reese broke the single season Columbia rushing record with 1,330 yards and 19 touchdowns.