No excuses: The inspiring tale of Arizona State tight ends coach Donnie Yantis (2024)

Donnie Yantis was in professional no-man’s land. Todd Graham, the coach who had hired him, was gone. Fired after the 2017 season. In his place, Arizona State had hired former NFL coach Herm Edwards. Of great importance, a recruiting class had to be saved. As ASU’s assistant athletics director for football recruiting, Yantis had the bulk of this responsibility, and yet, he didn’t even know if he’d be retained.

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Yantis shifted into survival mode, a condition in which, oddly, he felt comfortable. It was how he overcame a difficult childhood, a troubled home life and the early death of his mother. In fact, when recently asked about Yantis’ path to big-time college football, his uncle called it a miracle. “Any other kid probably wouldn’t have even graduated from high school,” Bob Overly said.

Yantis contacted the 15 prospects who had committed to ASU under Graham and reminded them that they had committed to a university, not a head coach. That the chances of having the same position coach for four or five years weren’t great anyway. The academics, the opportunities, this hadn’t changed.

The upside of all this: With the staff in disarray, Yantis traveled with Edwards alone on recruiting trips. He had time to sell himself as a recruiter and coach. The NCAA recently had given programs the freedom to hire a 10th assistant, and Yantis wanted to be on the field. Selling himself didn’t come easily. Yantis preferred to show people his work ethic and coaching values, not explain them, but he didn’t have time.

On Edwards’ first recruiting trip, the coaches flew to Brenham, a small town in east-central Texas. It was late, so the two pilots asked for a ride to the hotel. They all crammed into a 1986 Honda Accord, a “junk heap,” Yantis said. He drove, Edwards rode shotgun and the pilots sat in back. The car smelled like carbon monoxide, and the muffler vibrated like a race car. “Man, you can’t beat this,” Edwards said as they drove the back roads of Texas.

One thing Yantis learned about Edwards: If he didn’t know the answer to a family’s question, he didn’t try to fake it. He explained that he had been on the job for just a few days, that he still was getting up to speed. Then he looked at Yantis and said: “Donnie, can you answer this for me?” Yantis felt Edwards realized he could trust him.

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“I didn’t know anything,” Edwards recalled. “He gave me the list and said, ‘These are the guys we’re looking at.’ I’m looking at a little bit of tape while we’re flying and all that crazy stuff, but Donnie did a great job. He got me to where I needed to go — because it was a whirlwind and we were dead in the middle of it.”

No excuses: The inspiring tale of Arizona State tight ends coach Donnie Yantis (1)

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Growing up, Donnie Yantis remembers lying in bed, listening to his parents party in the living room. He got up and put a towel against the door so he wouldn’t have to inhale the cigarette smoke and he promised himself one thing: He never would live like them.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t loved. Yantis felt love, especially from his mom. And he knows they did their best to provide. It was just all the moving, all the uncertainty and challenges. Yantis was born in Phoenix; the family moved to Ohio when Yantis was a baby, and he estimates they probably lived in 20 places before he turned 14. Relatives recall visiting in the morning, finding Yantis asleep on the dining room floor or in other odd places.

The Yantis family didn’t always have heat. It didn’t always have electricity. For extra money and sometimes food Yantis’ mom would pile Yantis and other relatives into the car and drive behind grocery and drug stores. There, the boys would jump into the dumpsters looking for expired food and discarded make-up. On weekends, the boys sold the make-up at flea markets. Yantis considered this his job.

Yantis’ biological father wasn’t around, and his mom had married a much older man, a man who drank excessively, a man who was abusive not to him, but to his mother. As an eighth-grader, Yantis, then living in Arizona, came home one day from basketball practice and found his parents fighting in the kitchen of their two-bedroom apartment. His stepdad had his mom pinned against the refrigerator and was about to hit her.

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Yantis got in between them and said, “You’re not going to hit my mom.” His stepdad backed down, telling Yantis that if he wanted to act like a man, he’d treat him like a man. A proud moment? In some ways, yes. Yantis had protected his mother. He had stood up to his stepfather’s abuse. But he needed more.

He found structure at Paradise Valley High, where he immersed himself in sports. Football coach Bob Lambie became like a second father, showing Yantis how to commit to something, how to work, how to sidearm excuses. Yantis went to Glendale Community College to play football but got hurt. After recovering from surgery, he got into coaching, track and junior-varsity football.

Then his mom got sick.

Breast cancer.

Barbara Overly died Feb. 28, 1991, at age 40. That night, Yantis, who had just turned 20, drove to their apartment. The landlord was waiting for him. He told Yantis: “I’m sorry your mom passed but she hasn’t been able to pay the rent because she’s been sick. We’ve let you guys stay here, but it’s been like five months. We need to rent this out.”

Yantis piled his clothes in the back of his 1985 Camaro. For two nights, he parked in a lot near the Paradise Valley Mall and slept, trying to figure out what to do. Before his mom passed, she had made Yantis promise two things: That he would find God (“Unlikely,” he thought) and that he would finish college (that could be done, but he needed money).

Yantis inquired about an apartment in north Phoenix and was told he’d need proof of employment and $500 for a security deposit. He already worked at an uncle’s trophy shop, engraving plaques throughout the night. He then went out and got a job as a bellman. Before long, Yantis had enough money for a furnished apartment, a new start. At the same time, he took classes and coached track at Paradise Valley High. He graduated from Glendale Community College in three semesters and got a football scholarship to play free safety at Southern Utah, where after a rough start, he flourished on the field and in class.

By then, Yantis knew what he wanted to do with his life: He wanted to coach football.

After all the recruiting trips, ASU had one more game to play, the 2017 Sun Bowl, Todd Graham’s final game with the Sun Devils.

On the job for less than a month, Edwards already had started assembling his staff. Despite his recruiting help, Yantis wasn’t sure where he stood. He initially had been told he was safe. Then he was told Edwards was considering other options.

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Yantis had waited a long time to coach college football. At 28, he had landed his first head job at Glendale High. Then he replaced Lambie at Paradise Valley High, where he made nine playoff appearances in 13 seasons. Yantis had gotten college offers, but he wanted to wait for his daughter to graduate high school, to be the father he never had had. Once she did, Yantis took the head coaching job at Arizona Christian University, where he built the program from scratch. In 2016, Yantis joined Graham’s ASU staff.

Now he wondered if his time in Tempe was ending.

Four days after the Sun Bowl, Edwards told Yantis he wanted to meet him at 7 a.m. Yantis thought he was getting fired. To protect himself professionally, he had inquired about other jobs, but most had fallen through. To protect himself spiritually, he had prayed. With the help of his wife, Yantis had joined a church and gotten baptized, answering his mother’s request.

In his office, Edwards put his feet up on his desk. He looked at Yantis and said simply: “You’re my guy.” He wanted Yantis to coach tight ends. ASU gave him a two-year contract (that expires at the end of this season).

This season, Yantis has a talented group. In addition to dependable senior Tommy Hudson, the Sun Devils switched 6-foot-8 junior Curtis Hodges from receiver to tight end. They also signed Nolan Matthews, a versatile prospect from Texas who earned first-team reps throughout the preseason. For the first time in a while, the tight ends might factor into the passing game. “He’s got some players over there,” Edwards said.

Once upon a time, when he had needed it most, football had given Yantis structure. At ASU, he tries to provide that same environment to his players. At every meeting, the first slide begins with the five Ps: “Proper preparation prevents poor performance.” Yantis also has a motto in which he wants his players to follow:

No excuses.

No alibis.

No regrets.

Keep your poise.

Be physical.

Finish everything.

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“A lot of guys, they get annoyed with him because he’s always yelling at them,” Hudson said. “His whole thing is, the first thought on every play is you want to hear his voice in the back of your head. ‘Make sure you step with your right foot. Make sure you step with your right foot.‘ And everyone’s like, ‘Man, he won’t shut up!‘ But everybody knows exactly what to do because he’s always right on them. I don’t think he’s ever taken a day off in terms of his energy out on the football field. And he never lets us have those days off.”

Everyone has dreams. Some get a head start and reach theirs with little difficulty. Others, like Yantis, have to grind and find a different path. They are tested and challenged, but through determination, they end up in the same place. That’s the lesson of Yantis’ story. “Success is a choice,” he said. “You don’t have to be a victim of your circ*mstances or how you grew up.”

You simply have to work.

(Top photo: Joe Robbins / Getty Images)

No excuses: The inspiring tale of Arizona State tight ends coach Donnie Yantis (2024)
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