By: Ron Higgins
SEC Digital Network
Somebody please tell me Billy Donovan’s secret.
The guy looks exactly the same as he did in 26 years ago, when I first saw him March 28, 1987. That day, he scored 8 points and had 7 assists as a Providence senior guard in a 77-63 Final Four semifinals loss to Syracuse in the Louisiana Superdome.
His hair is still mostly black, there are few lines on his face. Still looks like Billy “The Kid”, who once wore those skin tight short hoops shorts during his final college year in which he averaged 20.6 points for a hot up-and-coming coach named Rick Pitino.
“He was a great player, but his shorts were a little short,” says current Florida forward Erik Murphy jokingly of his head coach.
Fast forward about 10½ years from 1987, and Billy is in his second season as the University of Florida’s head coach. He’s invited me to speak at a preseason Gators’ basketball booster club meeting.
There are two things I recall from that night. The first is I must have done a lousy job, because I’ve never been invited back. The second is I told the crowd that Billy was about to sign a high school player (Mike Miller) that would make Florida a Final Four team.
The Gator faithful loved it. I remember Billy throwing up his hands like a human stop sign and saying something to the effect, “Whoa, hold on, let’s don’t get carried away.”
Three years later, in Mike Miller’s second and final year as a Gator, Florida lost in the 2000 national championship game to Michigan State.
Now, here we are near the end of Billy’s 17th year at Florida, and it’s easy for me to make this statement. Since legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp recorded the last of his 876 wins in 1972 spread over 41 seasons, there hasn’t a better basketball coach in the SEC than “Billy The Kid.”
While Rupp’s accomplishments are astounding – an 82.2 winning percentage, four NCAA titles, 27 SEC championships, an Olympic gold medal in 1948 when the Wildcats represented the United States in the Olympics – there’s also the fact the NCAA tourney field was smaller and Kentucky had to win three, maybe four games, to capture the national championship.
Rupp was 29 years old when he coached his first game at Kentucky. It took him 12 seasons to get his team to a Final Four for the first time, and 18 years to win a national championship.
Billy was 31 in his first game at Florida. He got to his First Final Four in his fourth season and won his first national title in his 10th year, adding on another the next season. His teams have won five SEC regular season titles, three league tourney championships and have had 15 straight 20-win seasons.
And now, add one more Billy D. accomplishment. With the third-seeded Gators’ South Regional Sweet 16 victory over No. 15 seeded Florida Gulf Coast Friday night in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Billy is now the SEC’s all-time winningest NCAA tourney coach. His 31 wins in the Big Dance move him ahead of Rupp’s NCAA tournament record (30-18) and put the 29-7 Gators in a regional final for the sixth time under Billy and for the third straight season.
“I don't know when I first took the job if I ever knew I was going to be here 17 years,” says Billy, who has 415 wins for the Gators and counting, yet who has amazingly never won National Coach of the Year honors. “After the way it went the first two years (both losing seasons), I just hoped they were going to have me back for a third.”
Billy has gotten a lot of advice over the years from his old college coach Pitino, who won a national title at Kentucky in 1996 (a team that Billy helped recruit the upperclassmen in his four years as a UK assistant).
But the best pieces of advice Billy ever ignored was first Pitino advising him not to go into coaching (when Billy was a New York stockbroker following a one-year NBA career with the Knicks). The second was Billy taking the Florida job when it opened ’96 when Lon Kruger left to coach Illinois.
“When Florida had called, I spoke to Coach Pitino and asked him what he thought,” recalls Billy, who was 35-20 in two seasons (1994-96) at Marshall in his first head coaching gig. “He told me, `Billy, it's not a good situation, you don't need to do that.’
“I think Coach Pitino thought in '94 after Florida went to the Final Four that maybe the expectations of the program were a little bit unrealistic. He just felt like it was going to take a complete overhaul to turn that around, and I would be better off staying with a team that at Marshall was probably going to have a good year.”
But when Billy met with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, his mind completely flipped to accepting a new coaching challenge.
“Jeremy understood where things were, and he understood what needed to happen to try to turn the program,” Billy recalls. “Sometimes when you're in a situation like that, you talk to an administrator, all of a sudden the feeling is `Hey, listen, we have the team to go right back to the Final Four, this is great.’ It wasn't that type of feel.
“Jeremy understood exactly what needed to be done. There was going to be a strong commitment to try to get basketball going.”
Billy, having been raised in Long Island in the heart of the basketball crazy East Coast, had always heard how tough it was in the football-crazy SEC to have a national championship caliber basketball program.
From the day Billy arrived at Florida on March 27, 1996, he was smart enough to embrace football.
“When I first got there, Florida and Florida State used to play in Orlando,” Billy says. “And I'm saying, `Why are we playing this game in Orlando? Let's play it the Friday night before the football game on Saturday. The football team is playing in Tallahassee, we'll play there. When your team is in Gainesville, you come here and play.’ It has been great.”
Those home football Saturdays, when The Swamp is loud and bursting with coeds dressed to work on their tans, has also helped Billy in recruiting.
“Passion for football in the southeast is like nowhere else in the United States of America, it's special,” Billy says. “But they are not more passionate about football than they are the University of Florida.
“So I said, `Geez, we've got these great fall weekends, what a great time to bring your recruits on campus.’ When we take the kids to the football games and it's 80,000 (in the stands), I’ve told them that's the same attendance we get for the basketball games.”
It has worked. Because starting with Mike Miller, Billy and his various staffs over the years have recruited some extraordinary talent they’ve developed into cogs in championship teams, players who’ve advanced to enjoy successful NBA careers.
Donovan has had 16 players drafted, nine in the first round. Those players, plus one undrafted player (Udonis Haslem) have combined for six NBA championships, five All-Star team selections, five All-Rookie team honors, one All-NBA pick, and a Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year (both Miller). There have been former Donovan-coached Gators playing in the last four of the last seven NBA finals.
Houston Rockets’ forward Chandler Parsons, who played four years for Florida from 2007-2011 and who was for the first Gator ever to be named the SEC’s Player of the Year, said Billy’s style and intensity prepared him for the pros.
“I looked at guys like Mike Miller, Matt Walsh and Corey Brewer, guys with a similar skill set to me, and how he (Billy) used them and how their careers took off in the pros after playing at Florida,” said Parsons, who’s averaging 15.1 points as a second-year starter with the Rockets.
“Coach Donovan is very tough. He challenges you, he’s brings the very best out of his players. Nothing comes easy with him. You earn everything you get with him. He’s very open. You can go and watch film with him whenever you want. He’ll work with you individually before and after practice, and he’s an unbelievable motivator.”
Bradley Beal, drafted No. 3 overall by Washington in the 2012 NBA draft after averaging 14.8 points last season in his only season at Florida, seconded Parsons’ assessment.
“The biggest thing I liked about him when he was recruiting me is he didn't want to always focus more on basketball,” Beal says. “He wanted to get to know me, but didn't guarantee me anything when I came in. I had to work for it all.”
Billy knows no other way. When he played for Providence, Billy had to re-make his game when Pitino was hired as coach after Billy’s first two years at the school.
Billy weighed almost 200 pounds, frustrated by the lack of playing time as a freshman and sophomore. He wanted to transfer, but Pitino told him if he lost weight he’d have a fair shot.
“He just didn't promise me anything,” Billy recalls. “He said that if I would listen to him and work hard that it would be the greatest two years experience of my life.
“I had to decide what type of commitment I was going to make. So I threw myself into it, worked hard and tried to get better. And he gave me a great opportunity to play.”
Billy became the first guy to show for practice and workouts, and the last to leave. He wouldn’t end a practice unless he hit 10 straight outside jumpers or 100 consecutive free throws.
“The one thing for me as a player going through the things that I went through is that I can relate to as a coach with our guys,” Billy says. “I can relate to sitting on the bench, to wanting to transfer, to running away from a problem and not really addressing a problem.
“I learned through him (Pitino), as well as my parents, is that we all have challenges and issues, but if you confront them and you work hard at them you're going to feel a lot better. You're going to grow a lot more. You're probably going to be able to do a better job in life of handling challenges and adversities that confront you.”
Probably Billy’s biggest challenge to date was realizing how much he loves the college game. For about a week the first week of June 2007, he was coach of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. One day after he signed a five-year deal, he wanted out. He knew where his heart was – coaching kids who wanted to get better, just like Pitino had done with him all those years ago.
“I think a lot of times you got to, as a coach, really go back to why you got into coaching,” Billy says. “I love the game. I learned so much from the game because I had to work so hard. And I felt like I could really offer a lot to a young kid and helping them get better at the game. “Love the competition. Love the camaraderie. Love being around the guys. I love tape. There were all those things I loved. It wasn't necessarily a lot about the winning and the losing. A lot of it was much, much more about the love for the game.”
When you consider that Donovan is still just 47 years old, he could coach at least 15 to 20 more years. If he coached 19 more years and stayed on his average of 24.4 wins per season, he’d surpass Rupp in total wins.
“Someone always asks me, `Did you have some kind of plan or five year plan or ten year plan to try to turn the program around?’,” Billy says. “I've never kind of lived like that. I've kind of lived day by day, trying to do the right things and work hard and hopefully make good decisions that need to be done inside the program.
“It's been really it's hard to believe it's been 17 years. It's hard for me to believe I've been out of college for 26 years. It goes by very fast. It's been a great ride. I've been around great quality people. I've had good staff members, I've coached some really good basketball players.”
“I still really love the game of basketball. I still love going on the court. I think if I ever got to a point where that passion kind of left me, I think I'm the kind of person that would say, `You know what, it's time for me to take a break, move on, take on something else.’
“I'd have a hard time, knowing the way I was in the past, sitting in that chair, having to look myself in the mirror and knowing I'm just kind of faking this right now and I really don't have that fire. And I think once that maybe starts to go you'll probably realize it's time to move on.”
Maybe that will happen if Billy’s hair ever turns totally gray.