Football

Ex-Panthers star Kevin Donnalley hopes Charlotte 49ers’ line honors coach’s memory

Kevin Donnalley, a former Carolina Panthers player, coaches the offensive line for the Charlotte 49ers.
Kevin Donnalley, a former Carolina Panthers player, coaches the offensive line for the Charlotte 49ers. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

No, Kevin Donnalley says, this is not the way he wanted to start a career as a college football coach.

“I never could have seen this happening,” says Donnalley, a former Carolina Panthers offensive lineman who became an assistant coach with the Charlotte 49ers earlier this month after the death of coach Phil Ratliff.

Ratliff, who doubled as recruiting coordinator for the 49ers, suffered what school officials called a “cardiac event” three weeks ago and died several days later. Head coach Brad Lambert asked Donnalley, who had worked in the 49ers’ weight room and as the team’s radio color analyst, to become an assistant coach with the offensive line.

“Coach Ratliff did a great job of building this line,” Donnalley, 47, says. “For me and the players, the job is to keep going what Coach Ratliff started.”

The first test comes Friday afternoon. After two seasons in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly NCAA Division I-AA), Charlotte moves up to the Football Bowl Subdivision. The 49ers’ first FBS foe is Georgia State, with the teams meeting at 3:30 p.m. before a national television audience (ESPNU) in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

“Coach Donnalley is no stranger to our players,” Lambert says. “He got to know them very well in the weight room.”

In some ways, Donnalley says, he knows the players better than some of the coaches.

“Coaches in the weight room are with the players all year,” he says. “Working with them during the past year was a great experience. I got to know them all, from 1 to 100.

“I had no experience coaching at the college level,” Donnalley adds, “but I knew all of the players pretty well.”

He says Ratliff’s work is making the new job easier.

“It wasn’t as if things were going downhill,” Donnalley says. “He was doing a great job.”

The line was part of an offense that averaged almost 39 points and 490 yards a game last year, when the 49ers compiled a 5-6 record. Most of the regulars are back, including three-year starters Danny Book, Jamal Covington, Casey Perry and Thomas La Bianca.

“The players loved him, and he loved them,” Donnalley says of Ratliff. “I can never replace that. Our goal is to honor him with what we do.”

Donnalley played two years on the offensive line at Davidson and then finished at North Carolina. He was drafted by the Houston Texans and played in the NFL with Houston-Tennessee, the Miami Dolphins, and then the Carolina Panthers. His 11-year NFL career ended with the Panthers’ run to the Super Bowl in 2004.

After that, he coached briefly at Charlotte Christian and then worked in various capacities with the Panthers before coming to Charlotte. Donnalley met Lambert when each had a daughter playing volleyball at Charlotte Christian.

“I fell in love with the Charlotte 49ers’ program,” he says. “I had planned to work with them in player development, to help the players prepare for life after football. But things changed. I lost a dear friend, and now I’m trying to honor what he did.”

Kevin Donnalley Bio

Background: Born in St. Louis, he was reared in Raleigh and graduated from Athens Drive High. He played college football at Davidson College and then North Carolina. Donnalley was drafted by the Houston Oilers and played 11 years in the NFL.

With the 49ers: Donnalley was color analyst for Charlotte’s football radio coverage and worked as a weight-room coach last year.

Family: He and his wife Erica (also a North Carolina alum) have a daughter and two sons.

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