Florida's Billy Donovan on cusp of elite company as Gators shoot for title

Friday April 4th, 2014

With his passion and ability to adapt, Billy Donovan has Florida two games away from another title.
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DALLAS -- When Shaka Smart worked with Billy Donovan at Florida, he found himself drinking wheatgrass and apple cider vinegar concoctions to stay healthy. Richard Pitino watched the intensity of Donovan's daily workouts and teased him: "Are you training for something?" Florida assistant Matt McCall said that Donovan's only flashes of arrogance come when catching red fish or working out. "He'll try to crush you in the weight room," McCall said.

After all these years, Donovan has grown up before our eyes. He's gone from the chubby Providence guard who willed his team to the Final Four in 1987, to the young head coach who peeved the old guard with his aggressive recruiting, to the greying 48-year old who finds himself on the cusp of his third national title.

When No. 1 Florida faces No. 7 Connecticut in AT&T Stadium on Saturday night, Donovan sits on the precipice of joining some of the most elite company in college basketball. A third national championship will make him one of just six coaches with three titles, tying Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun and trailing only Mike Krzyzewski (four), Adolph Rupp (four) and John Wooden (10) on the all-time NCAA titles list.

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To get to this point, Donovan has maintained the same unrelenting discipline and quest for self-improvement that he held as a player. He's always searching for an edge, be it in a health drink, with a fishing lure or his maniacal daily workouts. He's made difficult staff decisions, frequently consults mental coaches and always asks a simple question: "How can we be better?" He's ditched his morning Diet Cokes for coffee, embraced Florida's football atmosphere while building an indelible basketball culture and established a program where player development can trump high-end recruiting. (A notion that could be put to the test again this weekend if Florida faces Kentucky in the national championship game on Monday night).

Donovan's methods are constantly under self-scrutiny as he has an incessant quest to get better. Pitino, now the head coach at Minnesota, calls Donovan "the most structured and self-motivated guy I've ever met," and this Final Four represents a marriage of that relentless focus with a seasoned perspective and open mind.

"He is still who he is in terms of genuine care for people and genuine pursuit to be the best we can be," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, who worked for Donovan at Marshall and Florida. "But he's evolved and grown and you look at what he's accomplished, it's amazing."

The beginning

The University of Florida's six-seat private plane took off from Gainesville in the spring of 1996 with two destinations. Athletic director Jeremy Foley targeted Duke assistant Tommy Amaker and Marshall coach Billy Donovan to replace Lon Kruger, who had left for Illinois. They stopped in Durham first to interview Amaker and then hopped to Huntington, W.V., to speak with Donovan.

Donovan inherited a nine-win team at Marshall in 1994 and had just seven scholarship players after his conditioning drills scared off some guys. When the Thundering Herd went on a trip through Portugal and Spain that August, they were so shorthanded that assistant coach Donnie Jones had to play. When Jones turned over the ball a few times, Donovan looked him square in the eyes during a time out and asked, "Donnie, are you shaving points?"

During nearly every staff meeting, Donovan lamented that he had just seven scholarship players and walk-on Jason Hammond. Assistant coach Anthony Grant recalled Donovan saying, "We only have seven guys, and Jason" so often that the staff would chime in chorus -- "and Jason" -- to finish his sentence. But his plan worked, as Marshall won 18 games that first season and 17 in the second.

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Donovan's passion carried off the court, as the staff, most of whom were in their 20s, would show up most days at 6 a.m. to play pick-up games, work until midnight and do the same thing the next day. Marshall play-by-play man Steve Cotton recalls waking up on a 3:30 a.m. bus ride to Donovan and assistant John Pelphrey intensely arguing. Once he cleared his head, Cotton realized they weren't about to come to blows, rather they were debating who was the best right fielder in Major League Baseball. "That's how competitive and high energy they were," Cotton said.

Florida officials saw that saw energy and made a decision, choosing Donovan over Amaker, that led to unparallelled success. "They were both off the charts," said Greg McGarity, Florida's former associate athletic director who accompanied Foley to interview both men, "but the feeling was perhaps that perhaps Billy was a little bit better."

Change in culture

Steve Spurrier happily embraces his small role in changing the paradigm of Florida basketball. In 1997, Donovan brought a recruit known as "Skinny" by Florida's football office before the Gators played Tennessee. Spurrier charmed the young recruit from South Dakota and then did his part to ensure a happy Saturday night, beating Peyton Manning-led Tennessee, 33-20.

"He had a [great] time at the game and I think he had a [great] time that night," Spurrier said with a chuckle in a phone interview. "We had a bunch of happy Gators at the ballpark."

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Not long after, Mike Miller committed to play for the Gators, giving them their first significant national recruiting win. Spurrier has a tendency to exaggerate, but Miller's commitment over schools like Kansas and Kentucky showed how recruiting momentum was swinging toward Gainesville. (It also prompted then-Kansas coach Roy Williams to turn Florida in for alleged NCAA violations, but only one minor one was found.)

Spurrier's role in Miller's recruitment lingers more as a metaphor, as Donovan leveraged Florida's football culture to use it as an advantage.

"When he got there, everyone said you can't do it in basketball, all they care about it football," Foley said. "He changed the culture because he embraced football."

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That continued after Urban Meyer arrived in Gainesville for the 2005 season, as Meyer lived two doors down from Donovan in a gated community. They bonded over getting better. Meyer, Donovan and a few other Florida coaches traveled to Orlando to see Dr. Jim Loehr, a noted performance psychologist. Meyer and Donovan also grilled streaks on their back porches and exchanged ideas on motivation, work-life balance and team building.

"There was an endless conversation," Meyer said. "I'd have him speak to my team. He'd have me speak to his. There were things I could steal and he could use, and motivation was usually the topic."

The Gators' senior core, led by Scottie Wilbekin (5) and Patric Young, have produced 30 straight wins.
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports

Spurrier stays close to Donovan, as they still text and get together on July 4th weekend, as both have places in Cedar Key on the West Coast of Florida. Spurrier holds a healthy appreciation for the job Donovan has done.

"You have to get it going in recruiting," Spurrier said. "He's done it without the greatest of facilities; [Florida's] gym isn't the most elaborate. We have 18,000 and luxury suites all around here (at South Carolina). We're way ahead of them in terms of the gym. But Billy's done it with recruiting and coaching."

And he's done it in harmony with the football program. On Thursday at the Final Four, Donovan still got asked the inevitable football school question. Nearing his third title, Donovan still can't avoid football. "If football season is going on," he said, "that doesn't have any impact on me and what I'm doing."

Turning point

Richard Pitino worked for Donovan from 2009 to 2011, a two-season stint sandwiched around working for his father, Rick. Donovan, of course, played for Rick Pitino at Providence and for the Knicks and still resonates as one of the hallmark examples of how far Pitino can push a player.

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Richard Pitino identifies his father and Donovan as the two hardest working people that he's ever been around, but he's quick to stress that they're different. Rick Pitino clings steadfast to his beliefs in full-court pressing defense, a 2-3 zone and unrelenting intensity. Donovan's passion comes more for finding answers than imposing the will of his beliefs.

"My dad has unbelievable confidence in what he's doing. He'll stick with it and believe in it," Richard Pitino said. "Billy will work hard to figure out the answer, and he'll exhaust every single option until he gets that answer."

After No. 5-seeded Florida lost to 12th-seeded Manhattan in the NCAA tournament in 2004, Donovan hit a crossroads. The Associated Press game story from that game summed up the bottom-shelf expectations of the Florida program, as it called Manhattan's win "an 'upset' that really wasn't much of an upset at all."

Instead it was a pattern that led to Donovan to realize that he needed to make changes. A flurry of early NCAA tournament exits led to him becoming known as an ace recruiter who struggled to coach. In 2001, No. 11 Temple blew out No. 3 Florida in the second round. In 2002, No. 12 Creighton upset No. 5 Florida. In 2003, No. 7 Michigan State hammered No. 2 Florida in the second round.

After the Manhattan loss in 2004, Donovan examined his staff and realized he needed more basketball expertise. He demoted assistant coach and recruiting ace Tommy Ostrom and brought in Larry Shyatt to aid with Xs and Os. Soon things began to change. Donovan is 26-5 in the NCAA tournament since, including two national titles.

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"He's had the ability to make tough decisions on his staff," McGarity said.

To Donovan's credit, he kept searching for answers. A few months after that Manhattan loss in 2004, the recruiting class arrived that would propel his career and rehabilitate his reputation from savvy recruiter to excellent coach.

Privately, Donovan confided to friends that he needed to recruit better character kids, the type he'd want to be around, coach and help develop. The thrust of that philosophy change came through in the class affectionately known as the Oh-Fours -- Joakim Noah, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. Only Brewer was a McDonald's All-American, but all fit the new model that Donovan has built and then rebuilt his program on -- more development and chemistry than recruiting rankings. After Florida won the national title in 2006, the Oh-Fours showcased their unselfishness by returning and winning the national championship again in 2007.

Donovan has been trying to replicate the model ever since. The '06 and '07 title teams became a recruiting beacon, and an archetype of patience for players like Chandler Parsons, Erik Murphy and the current class of four seniors.

Smart, now the VCU coach, worked for Donovan for one season in 2008-09 and said he'll never forget Donovan's advice on how to recruit players to Florida. "You may want to talk to Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green and ask them, 'What is it that coach values in a guy?'" Smart says before adding, "He didn't want the exact same player, he wants the same make-up. That's what makes those guys so good."

Chasing history

With Florida on a 30-game winning streak and a heavy favorite to cut down the nets on Monday night, the Gators are inevitably drawing comparisons to the '06 and '07 teams. But there's a fundamental difference -- Horford, Brewer and Noah all went in the Top 10 of the 2007 NBA Draft. None of Florida's four seniors -- Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young -- will likely be selected in the first round.

"There's a commitment by those guys that they are willing to go through the process," Donovan said. "They don't view themselves of being one-and-done. They view themselves as being guys who are going to take some time to develop."

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One of Smart's big takeaways from his year with Dononvan was the coach's ability to ask questions and his endless desire for information and answers. How selfish is a player? What kind of teammate is he? What kind of fit will he be?

"I think he's really ahead of the curve in terms of understanding what goes into a team a winning," Smart said. "I think he compromises a lot less than a lot of coaches when it comes to putting the team first. I think he's seen it both ways and he's not going to accept something that is not going to lead to excellence."

With the salt winning the battle with the pepper in his hair, the coach once known as Billy the Kid continues to grow up before our eyes. The Long Island accent is still straight off the Rockville Center LIRR stop, and the desire burns just as strong as the overachieving Providence guard. And this Florida team shows a coaching evolution that's occurred since those days.

By Monday night, that could lead Donovan to his third national title and some of the most rarefied air of his coaching profession.

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