Hopefully now, Billy Donovan will cease to be an afterthought. He has been grossly underrated in a college basketball society that rewards self-promotion, slick fashion, hair gel — b.s., basically — and overlooks a good man with a humble way who squeezes the maximum from a team like no other coach. They mention Krzyzewski, Izzo, Pitino, Boeheim. They’ve been mentioning the brothers Miller, including upstart Archie. And yet they omit a man who soon might win his third national championship, a plateau reached only by John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun.
Mind explaining why?
Is it because he doesn’t schmooze the media? Won’t play the one-and-done NBA game with raw talent? Works at a football school in the Deep South? Has the same barber as Eddie Munster? The nonsense must stop. There may not be one future NBA player on his Florida roster, yet the Gators have won 30 straight games by dragging down the pace, defending the bejesus out of the most talented opponents and carrying out everything Donovan says via an old-school style that works and thrives in 2014. This is not 2007 and 2008, when he won back-to-back national titles and had three players taken in the top nine of the NBA draft. This, friends, is his best coaching and teaching job. By far.
Here are the Gators, back in the Final Four after three straight losses in the Elite Eight, re-establishing their coach as one of the best. And as he eyes a weekend in North Texas, a geographical buzz term that avoids the dusty “Dallas-Fort Worth’’ thing when Jerry World happens to be in Arlington, Donovan makes it known he hasn’t been happy with recent failures. “I thought we played well against Louisville and Butler. I did not think we played well against Michigan — at all,’’ he said, referring to last year.
“This isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going,’’ Donovan told his players after a sluggish opener in Orlando.
Since then, they’ve been brilliant. “From a team aspect, I think we’ve done a great job of just staying in the moment and just trying to chase greatness,” said Michael Frazier II, the resident three-point deadeye. “When you do that, complacency isn’t a factor, so I think we’ve done a great job all year of just staying in the moment and chasing greatness.”
“We just love playing the game of basketball together,” said point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who has become the team’s best overall player and clutch option. “That’s what makes it so special.”
Ask people in the know to name the college coach best equipped for the NBA. It’s Donovan. “There’s no doubt in my mind he would do very well,’’ said Stan Van Gundy, who inherited the Orlando Magic coaching job after Donovan accepted and then immediately rejected it in 2007. In fact, the nondescript Magic, who have been irrelevant and in a tanking mode since Dwight Howard left town, would be wise to rekindle talks with the coach up the highway in Gainesville. Though Donovan signed an extension In February that will pay him $3.7 million a season through the 2018-19 season, he turned heads the other day when he said he still thinks about the NBA.
“I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to (the NBA),” he said. “When you try to project where your future is, where you’re going to be, and you don’t know because I don’t have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida. I love being here. The NBA part of it, the intrigue part of it for me, is just the fact that it’s basketball 24 hours a day. That’s all you’re dealing with is basketball.
“When you say a lifer, that means to me I’m never, ever going to go anywhere and be there. Who knows? They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don’t like coming out and making bold predictions or statements. I’d say I’m extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”
I’m not certain he is fully appreciated at the University of Florida. What Donovan has done, at a school that very easily could be an Alabama in how it prioritizes football at the expense of all else, is maintain a high level in a basketball program that isn’t required internally to win national titles. His mentor, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, hinted at this when he said the school should name the court at the O’Connell Center after Donovan, as schools often do for prominent hoops coaches.
“Do I think Billy will ever coach in the NBA? He’s like a son to me, but I couldn’t answer that question,’’ Pitino said. “The last time around, his dad and his wife were all for him going to the Magic, which was shocking to me. I was the only one against it, I think, in his inner circle. You know, it’s always been, not a dream of Billy’s, but a dream of mine to see a court named `Billy Donovan Court.’ I thought it would happen a while ago, to see his name on the court. I still very much want to see that someday because of what he’s meant to Gator basketball. That being said, if he wants to try (the NBA) someday, that would be great. If he wanted to do that, will be a terrific pro coach because he’s always thinking of plays, defenses and he’d be great at it. Me personally, you know, I just want what’s best for him and his family. Florida is very lucky to have somebody like that for a long period of time. How many years has it been?”
Eighteen years. He took the job at 30, remember?
And he’s still as passionate as ever, particularly as it pertains to teaching life lessons. Last fall, Donovan suspended Wilbekin a second time for breaking team rules. A native of Gainesville, Wilbekin was separated from the team and ordered to live at home with his parents. He came back a new person, mature and team-oriented. “For me, it’s been one of the greatest experiences as a coach going through what he and I have gone through together,” Donovan said. “People get a chance maybe to see him grow as a player. I got a chance to see him grow as a person.’’
“I think it’s helped me become a better leader, be more connected with my teammates and coach. It’s helped me play with a freer mind,” Wilbekin said.
Donovan recruits gifted players, but he’s the antithesis of Kentucky’s John Calipari in that he prefers they remain in his system for multiple seasons. Exhibit A is Patric Young, the 6-9 senior center. Young arrived as a McDonald’s All-American and thought about leaving after his sophomore season, but looking inward, he decided he needed to mature. So he stayed, became an Academic All-American and played with such heart that Calipari used him as an example when trying to make a point to his young team. “What are you willing to do to win a game?” Calipari said as he showed his players a video clip of Young. “I know what he’s willing to do to win a game.”
“He may be the consummate guy that has really got the full capacity of a college experience,’’ Donovan said. “He’s very active on campus. He’s going to graduate on time. People really enjoy being around him. He’s active in the community. He represents himself, his family and our program in a first-class manner.’’
Young returned the compliment when asked to describe what makes Donovan successful. “Honesty. Integrity. He is the man that he appears to be on TV, that he appears to be in the light,’’ he said. “He is the same man in the darkness as well. It’s great having a guy like that who is going to be very honorable.”
Reflecting on it all Saturday night, after beating Archie Miller and Dayton, Donovan lauded the players for preserving through their individual trials within the program. “This group has learned that you’ve got to be able to pull together when things get tough,” he said. “It’s great for those guys that they stayed the course and saw the bigger picture rather than wanting immediate success. They’re better players today for going through what they went through. If it would have been easier on them, I don’t think they’d be quite as good.”
Suddenly, Billy the Kid was the old man in the South Regional final. Miller, just 35, had become the darling of the tournament. He had toppled Thad Matta, Jim Boeheim and Johnny Dawkins. He was not going to topple Billy Donovan.
“I have the utmost respect for him, always have, as a player and as a coach,” said UCLA coach Steve Alford, Donovan’s Sweet 16 victim. “He found his niche early at Florida. He found an institution that supported him and provided the things that he needed to be successful. Then he put his stamp on it in just about every way, shape and form. It’s been fun to see because he’s one of the good guys in the business.’’
That’s it. Donovan doesn’t receive his just due because he’s too decent a guy in a scuzzy profession.
If he wins a third championship, he will be impossible to ignore.