Billy Donovan: Securing His Place in History

    
April 3rd, 2007

As a player, Billy Donovan will always be remembered as the pudgy point guard who willed his Providence team to the Final Four.

As a coach in 2000, Donovan earned the right to be remembered for going one step further than he did as a player.

And now, he will be remembered as being one of the greatest college coaches of all-time.

Donovan now has more rings than Lute Olson, Jim Boeheim, Tom Izzo, and even his mentor, Rick Pitino.

Bob Knight has never won back-to-back titles. Jerry Tarkanian couldn’t do it with his legendary UNLV team and the Fab Five never even won one for Michigan. In fact, leading a college team to consecutive national championships is so rare that Mike Krzyzewski is the only other coach to have done it since John Wooden did so over 30 years ago.

Donovan hasn’t just been the last coach dancing after the last two Big Dances, he’s also reached three national championship games in the last eight seasons. But his single greatest accomplishment could be turning a football school with little hoops history into the most dominant program in college basketball.

Donovan arrived at Florida in 1996 after two mildly successful seasons at Marshall. At the time, critics felt winning in Gainesville was harder than growing a garden in the desert. And, in his first two years on job, Donovan experienced a drought. The Gators failed to finish above .500.

But something sprouted in 1998, as his team was ranked in the final Top 25 polls for just the second time in school history. A year later he was coaching in the national championship game.

Unlike his days as a floppy Friar, everything about Donovan is now impeccable. His tie is never loose, his shirt is never wrinkled, and even in practice, his shorts are always tucked in. Every hair on his head is carefully placed, as is his demeanor on the sidelines. Donovan doesn’t panic and he doesn’t lose control.

Donovan’s poise is contagious. His teams play with intense energy, but appear to focus solely on each possession. The players rarely show interest in the score, the clock, or a call that doesn’t go their way. Their confidence is maddening to opponents and, obviously, custom-built for tournament success.

Donovan’s teams play with balance. They can score from mid-range, three-point land, or on the low blocks. They relentlessly rebound and defend with anger. And, most importantly, they play unselfishly, with everyone equally willing to share the ball and the spotlight.

As a recruiter, Donovan is unmatched. The rare players on his roster who weren’t McDonald’s All-Americans probably should’ve been. Elite prospects consistently rave about Donovan and how he could take their game to another level. And he has a knack for pulling players from all over the country. He signed Mike Miller from South Dakota, Brett Nelson from West Virginia, David Lee from Missouri, Anthony Roberson from Michigan, Matt Walsh from Pennsylvania, Corey Brewer from Tennessee, and Joakim Noah from New York, to name a few.

Donovan simply outworks everyone else on the recruiting trail. If he doesn’t sign a top-notch player, it isn’t for a lack of effort.

When 76ers’ forward Shavlik Randolph was a North Carolina high school star, every major college coach in the country tried getting his attention. During the period when coaches aren’t allowed to speak with prospects, Donovan flew to Raleigh, drove a rental to Randolph’s high school, and waited for the 6-foot-10 All-American in the parking lot. When Randolph showed up at the school, Donovan was waiting for him. The Florida coach waved to the star recruit and then drove back to the airport. He didn’t land Randolph, but the story is legendary among those in the college basketball community.

Of course, Donovan’s greatest recruiting job may have been convincing Noah, Brewer, Al Horford, and Taurean Green to pass up NBA riches to vie for a second straight title. But even when Donovan loses players, he still wins. The program never lost a step after former Gators Mario Boggan and James White each excelled after transferring to Oklahoma State and Cincinnati, respectively. And, in fact, Donovan won his first national championship the year after he lost Roberson, Walsh, and Lee.

Once the dust settles from the 2007 National Championship, Donovan will realize that he is losing Lee Humphrey (the NCAA Tournament’s all-time leader in three-point field goals) and super sub Chris Richard to graduation. He will lose Noah, Horford, Brewer, and possibly even Green to the NBA. If he takes the Kentucky coaching job, he will even lose plenty of love from the Gator faithful.

But Billy Donovan doesn’t lose very often. And, after Monday night’s victory, there’s one thing he certainly can’t lose… His place in history.