“It’s not about me,” is how Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan began his answer. One of the hundreds of scribes covering the Final Four in Indianapolis wanted to know just what it would mean to him to win the National Championship. “That’s something I want to make very clear,” Donovan continued. “It’s not about me, it’s about the players, the University, the fans, it’s about the process. I’m just a part of it.”
You might know that Billy Donovan is one of my favorite people in all of sports. He might be at the top of the list. He does all of the things I think are right about sports at any level, particularly at the collegiate level. He’s passionate about what he does; he follows the rules, and stretches them to his advantage. He’s not too worried about what everybody else is thinking about him or his program. And he cares deeply about his family, his players and the people he works with.
Donovan is not universally liked in his profession or among the media. Some claim he’s a cheat. Others say he’s on the fringe of breaking the rules at all times. I don’t think he’s either of those. I think he just went out and figured out how to do things differently and a little better. He out-worked a lot of coaches and they didn’t like that. They wanted to sit back and keep the pecking order the same. You know, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, etc, etc. But Donovan didn’t buy into that, instead going around the country targeting guys who would fit into his program at Florida, regardless of who else wanted them.
He endured a lot of criticism and ire of other coaches when he signed Mike Miller out of South Dakota. Miller to Florida? Donovan must have cheated to get him. Actually, Billy was there before everybody else, 12:01 on the first day he could talk to a player, arranging to meet him and his family in the middle of the night. During a “no contact” period, Donovan would stand across the street from a player’s school, just to wave at him as he left class. That’s what it takes to separate you from the pack. \That’s what it takes to build a program.
“Coach (Rick) Pitino advised me not to take the Florida job when I was at Marshall,” Donovan explained. “Too much work and maybe not enough understanding of what it’s going to take to built a program.” Pitino might have been right, but he underestimated both Donovan’s ability and resolve, and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley’s awareness of what it would take.
By necessity, Donovan deals with the underside of college basketball when it comes to recruiting, keeping in touch with the people “on the ground” when it comes to the pipeline of the best players in the country. But notice there aren’t a lot of “projects” on the Florida roster, either as players or as people. Not that Donovan hasn’t had those in the past. But he’s looking for guys who are willful and of course, talented.
“I want us to do well, but I’m as concerned about how these players develop as people, as husbands, fathers, coaches, whatever they become. I want them to enjoy each other, practicing together, being part of a team. But their development as people is more important. I want them to look back on their time at the University of Florida and think that it was a positive part of their life where they learned a few lessons and I helped them along.”
How many coaches are going to give that soliloquy when asked about the impact of a “National Championship.”?
As a basketball coach, Donovan is trying to build a program. One where the alumni players come back and support what he’s doing. In his first ten years, he hasn’t had many players he’d want to come back. But this team, the 2006 squad, he loves. And rightfully so. Even if they never win it, they’ll be the foundation Donovan builds his program on, being contenders each year and sending guys out into the world ready for what it might throw at them.