New Florida basketball coach Michael White balances building on Billy Donovan's work and instilling a culture of his own.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — For college basketball coaches, July is a blur of airports, rental cars and gyms from Las Vegas to Chicago to Charlotte. The pressure to connect with elite recruits during the open period is considerable, and it’s even more pronounced if you’ve just made the leap from a mid-major to a powerhouse program.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise when Florida’s new head coach, Michael White, laughs as he tries to remember the number of times he’s had to hit the alarm on his keys to identify his rental car in the parking lot. But to help you understand how all-consuming recruiting is, consider this scene: At a grassroots event at Emory University in Atlanta in the first week of July, White happened to sit down next to an old friend of his, Steve Prohm. They had started as assistant coaches within two years of each other, and though they never overlapped on the same team—or even in the same conference—they’ve spent time in gyms like these for more than a decade. In the last few years, as each climbed the short list of young coaches to watch, they traded phone calls to advise each other on job opportunities.
But when White saw Prohm in this gym, he just asked his longtime friend about his family and the day’s games. It wasn’t until about 30 seconds later that he glanced at the Iowa State logo on Prohm’s polo and remembered—You’re coaching the Cyclones now.
Both Prohm and White are taking over new jobs under the heavy shadow of their respective predecessors. For Prohm, that means replacing Fred Hoiberg, who played at his hometown school four four seasons and coached there for five before leaving this past spring to coach the Chicago Bulls. White, meanwhile, left Louisiana Tech to replace Billy Donovan, who in 19 seasons won two national championships and took the Gators to more NCAA tournament appearances (14) than all other coaches in program history combined. This summer, White is trying to balance upholding the high standards that Donovan held while also instilling his own style into the Gators. And, of course, he’s trying to turn a team that went 16-17 a season ago into an SEC contender.
Step into his spacious office in Florida’s basketball practice facility and you’ll start to understand how he’s doing that. White was hired on May 7, but his office features fewer than five books and just two framed photos—one of he and his wife, Kira, and the other a collage of his five children, all of whom are under age eight—on the shelves. On the walls hang a photo of alligators, their eyes glowing in the dark, and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley’s “Core Values” for the department. Between settling his family into their six-bedroom home and hitting the road to recruit, White hasn’t had much time to decorate. Instead, the centerpiece of his office is a flatscreen TV on which he’s watched nearly every Florida game and practice from the last two seasons.
“I tell people, it’s been a free coaching clinic that I would have paid a lot of money to have gotten the opportunity to be a part of,” says White, who went 101-40 and went to the NIT three times in his four seasons with the Bulldogs. “Having the ability to ask all the people who have been around [Donovan] and who have worked closely to him how he would have handled this or how he would have handled that, and to have our basketball server with all this technology, to have access to every game and every practice, it’s been fascinating. It’s been extremely educational.
“At the same time, having only been a head coach four years and having only done things one way, definitely to a certain extent, we need to hold onto the only things that we’ve done to be successful.”
Donovan has only been by the office once since taking over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he has talked at length with White on the phone a handful of times and has offered any assistance his successor might need in the future. Because it’s still so early in the summer, White remains focused on making macro-level decisions. To start, he was able to bring his three assistants—Dusty May, Jordan Mincy and Darris Nichols—from Louisiana Tech to Florida. He was also able to convince three of the four players in the Gators' 2015 recruiting class to remain committed to the school. (Four-star forward Noah Dickerson, the lone exception, committed instead to Washington.)
Decisions that seem small on the surface can take months to finalize. Take whether or not to utilize a pressing defense, for example. Donovan’s Gators were known for applying fullcourt pressure, and so were White’s Bulldogs. But Donovan more often used a run-and-jump man press, while White used a zone press. Does he stick with what he knows or what the team knows? What about when the defense sits back in the halfcourt? How will pressing affect John Egbunu, a 6'11", 266-pound transfer center from South Florida? Can he run the court and stay out of foul trouble?
“Again, the decision is about how stubborn you’re gonna be about the way you’re gonna play,” White says. “You want to implement what you know best down the line. You want Chris Chiozza to get good at it now so that he’s better as a sophomore, a junior, then a senior. But you want to win games now too, and it’s a tough deal. Where we meet on that spectrum is important.”
Chiozza, a rising sophomore guard, is one of nine former top-100 recruits on the roster. And many of them had the same reaction after hearing White would be the new coach. “I Googled him right after I heard about him being hired,” says senior guard Dorian Finney-Smith, who led the Gators in scoring (13.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.2 rpg) a year ago. Devin Robinson, a top-20 recruit last season who scored just 6.4 points a game, added: “Right when he was hired, I was like, ‘Who?’ So I Googled him right quick. I looked him up and he seemed like he knew what he was doing.”
White will ask a lot of those two, especially Finney-Smith, whom he believes will be one of the best scorers in the SEC this season. When he began the job, he pulled Finney-Smith aside and asked him to help him win over the locker room and be a leader. Finney-Smith has been through nearly everything at Florida after transferring from Virginia Tech as a freshman: He’s been named the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year and he’s been suspended for violating team rules; he’s been to the Final Four and he’s been on a losing team.
“I still have nightmares about last year, but I try not to think about,” he says. “You have to accept all your failures and accept all your successes. You have got to own up to them. ... I’m trying to go into this season with no expectations.”
Expectations were part of Florida’s unraveling last season. The Gators were a preseason top-10 team in all the major polls but sputtered to their worst finish since 1997-98, Donovan’s second season in Gainesville. But for White, last year's lost season could turn out to be a blessing. Florida will not be a preseason top-25 team and whereas making the NCAA tournament was considered a foregone conclusion at the start of last season, just getting to the Big Dance would be make Year 1 a success for White.
As Finney-Smith answers questions about his new coach following a mid-July Florida practice, White is playing “noon ball,” a pickup game he plays with the managers and assistants every day (although not always at noon). He promised the players he’d be in the locker room, and they say he has been. They like it, too, except for the fact that he never wants to listen to their music (mostly Fetty Wap and Chief Keef). It’s on the court, though, that White—who averaged 5.1 points a game as a four-year starter for Ole Miss in the late ‘90s—stands out.
“When I watched him play pick-up the first time, I asked him, ‘Yo, coach, why don’t you pass the ball?’” Robinson says. “Every time he plays pick up, he never passes the ball. I noticed, and I said, ‘Coach, I’m going to start playing like you.’ He kind of laughed a little bit.”
On the walls surrounding the court are posters that Donovan had hung; they read “95%”, a reminder that you spend most of the game without the ball in your hands and a challenge to work just as hard when that happens. As White streaks past those posters, he hits his third three-pointer in a row, surrounded by his coaches and being cheered on by his players. There’s still plenty of time before the season begins, but for now, he seems like he’s right where he is supposed to be.