Two or three times a day during this year's NCAA tournament,
Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan would drop everything,
call room 605 at Miami's Palmetto General Hospital and discuss
his most private professional thoughts with a man he had never
met. This did not strike Donovan as highly unusual. After all,
the subject of those phone calls was how to inspire his Gators,
and the man in the hospital was Ray Pelletier, a corporate
motivational speaker who has become one of the hottest coaching
consultants in the country.
Pelletier makes no claim to being a sports expert. He happily
admits he can't shoot a basketball, knows nothing about X's and
O's and couldn't name 15 athletes from any pro sport. "My
interest in sports is totally different," he says. "I'm into
team dynamics, and I take what's done in corporate America and
apply it to sports."
He happens to do his job well, which explains why his clients
have included the football programs at Miami, Nebraska and Notre
Dame; why Lou Holtz awarded him a game ball from the Irish's
1990 Orange Bowl victory; and why, after Florida upset Duke in
the East Regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament, Donovan
appeared on national television and thanked God and Ray Pelletier.
How Pelletier, 52, became the guru for the Gators' run to the
national championship game from a Miami hospital bed is a
fascinating tale. Two years ago, on the advice of Florida
assistant coach Anthony Grant, Donovan read Pelletier's book
Permission to Win, and after speaking with Pelletier on the
phone earlier this year, Donovan hired him as a consultant for
the tournament. Pelletier was supposed to join the Gators in
person for their postseason games, but in early March he had a
bizarre accident, injuring a testicle while conducting a
motivational drill with the Missouri football team during spring
practice. While he was being treated, his kidneys temporarily
failed (doctors discovered a protein deficiency in his blood),
and he spent 19 days in the hospital, hooked up to an IV.
During his conversations with Donovan, Pelletier passed along
various motivational gimmicks that Donovan subsequently used,
from having the players draw dots on their shoes (to provide
points to focus on during tense tournament games) to having them
write the name of a loved one on athletic tape they wore around
their ankles (because playing for someone else would make a
tired player give more of himself) to having them wear rubber
bands on their wrists (as a demonstration of team unity). Sure,
some of the tactics sounded more cornball than roundball, but
every one of the Gators who was asked said he bought into them.
"We trust Coach Donovan with our lives, and whatever he tells us
always works," said Florida guard Brett Nelson. "We'd run
through a brick wall for him." Or, as Grant put it during the
tournament, "If Coach told the guys right now to walk back to
the hotel with their shorts on and no shirts, they'd all get in
line and walk back."
Most coaches would rather give up their shoe contracts than
credit somebody else with helping to motivate their team, but
Donovan freely acknowledged Pelletier's influence. "My job is
getting these kids ready to play," Donovan said in Indianapolis
after the semifinal game. "There are a lot of people whose egos
wouldn't allow them to listen to anybody else, but I'm not that
way. I don't have a degree in psychology, so I don't know the
ins and outs of it. But that stuff has always intrigued me, and
since there's so much parity in college basketball, I wanted
something to separate my guys mentally."
Not that the gimmicks were limited to Donovan's players. In
March, during their first phone conversation, Pelletier asked
Donovan the same question he asks all coaches: "Coach, are you
coachable?" Donovan said yes, and indeed he was. For example,
Pelletier suggested the day before the national semifinal that
Donovan ditch his normal blue ties in favor of a red tie worn
with a white shirt. "I need you to look powerful," Pelletier
explained from his hospital bed, "and red is powerful."
Donovan's wife, Christine, went to Jacobson's department store
in Indianapolis and bought her husband a red tie, which he wore
the next night as his team beat North Carolina. Even though
Pelletier's suggestion that Donovan gather the team in a circle
to put on their jerseys for the final against Michigan State
didn't bring home a winner, the coach still views the advice as
Pelletier prefers to work with players firsthand. Usually he'll
start his routine with a game of Simon Says ("my way of warming
up the audience," he says) and continue with magic tricks.
"Magic makes me become fun for the players and shows that I can
do something they can't do," says Pelletier, a former
Pelletier did some of his best work with the North Carolina
State football team in 1997, when he helped the Wolfpack, which
had finished 3-8 the year before, to gain a 6-5 record. His
crowning moment came when N.C. State, a 25-point underdog, was
playing at No. 13-ranked Syracuse. In an effort to convince the
Wolfpack that the Carrier Dome was its own turf, Pelletier
gathered the players at midfield the day before the game and
told them the S stood for State. He placed a rock in front of
every locker on the day of the game to ram home his David and
Goliath theme. N.C. State beat Syracuse in overtime in one of
the biggest upsets of the year, and Pelletier earned himself
another game ball.
These days Pelletier splits his time between 80 or so corporate
speaking engagements a year (for clients that include AT&T,
Disney and GTE) and sports ventures on the high school and
collegiate levels. His health problems have cleared up, and he
plans on going back to Missouri once football season rolls
As for Donovan, Pelletier has spoken twice with the Florida
coach since the NCAA tournament (by phone, naturally), and he
predicts the two will finally see each other in person this
summer. "When it happens, I don't think it will be a handshake,"
Pelletier says. "It'll be a huge hug. He and I have a
brotherhood. I have been with him in the heat of battle at the
most important time of his professional life, and that was very,
very special to me."
America and apply it to sports."