Marshall: Billy the Kid Now The Man in SEC

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about one of the SEC's hottest coaches.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley knew it was a big job. It had proved too big for most who had tried it.

In 1996, Foley was looking for a basketball coach, and not just any coach. He wanted a coach who could rescue the Florida program from the malaise in which it had foundered for most of its existence.

Billy Donovan had just finished his second season at Marshall. He'd led Providence to the Final Four as a sharp-shooting point guard under Rick Pitino just nine years earlier. He'd spent five years working for Pitino at Kentucky.

But he was only 32.

It didn't take Foley long to decide that he was plenty old enough.

"When I first met him, his energy was evident, his passion was evident," Foley said. "I was with him about four hours and felt like I'd known him all my life. I talked to guys like Rick Pitino and (former Kentucky athletic director) C.M. Newton. They said his work ethic was second to none, and I thought it was going to take a huge effort to get this basketball program on the map."

Donovan has put it on the map, all right. He's won two Southeastern Conference championships at a school that had won just one in its history. Tonight, the Gators will play in the national championship game for the second time under Donovan.

Personable, yet intense, caring, yet demanding, Donovan already has established himself as one of the best ever in the SEC. If he wins tonight, it wouldn't be a stretch to call him the best since legendary Adolph Rupp.

O'Connell Center was seldom sold out before Donovan arrived. Now scalpers search for tickets outside. Florida is mentioned in the same breath as Kentucky among the SEC's basketball elite.

Donovan's teams mirror his personality. They learn first about work, then about competing relentlessly. Norm Carlson, who retired as assistant athletic director for communications, saw all the supposed saviors of Florida's basketball program come and go. Donovan, he says, brought something different.

"It's his energy level, his enthusiasm, his ability to recruit," Carlson said. "He's a guy who relates to kids this age. He's an unbelievable worker. That's what he does. He's a basketball coach, and that's his life. He doesn't do anything else."

When Pitino arrived as Providence coach, there wasn't much to indicate his young point guard had such a remarkable basketball future.

"When I looked at him, he was the last person I ever thought was a basketball player," Pitino said. "I thought he was the manager."

Donovan spent most of his first two seasons on the bench and told Pitino he wanted to transfer. Pitino agreed to accommodate him, but he couldn't find any takers. He told him to go home for the summer, lose 30 pounds and develop a jump shot.

And that's just what Donovan did.

Donovan returned as a junior and averaged 15.1 points a game as the Friars won 17 games and went to the NIT. The next season, he became "Billy The Kid." He averaged 20.6 points and made a school-record 97 three-pointers to lead Providence to the Final Four.

Pitino later called it his favorite story in more than 30 years of coaching. It's a story of passion and work. Donovan makes almost $2 million a year at Florida, but those close to him says his drive has never waned, even for a day. He pushes his players in practice and in games with his own brand of tough love. He is a relentless recruiter.

Former Auburn coach Sonny Smith competed against Norm Sloan, who moved to Florida after winning a national championship at North Carolina State. He's observed Donovan's program as a television commentator.

"He's totally energized the program and turned it into the toughest place in the league to play," Smith said. "A lot of people other than me say that. He's brought a style of play that's awfully tough to play against--pressing, playing 10-11 players. He also has turned into an unbelievable recruiter.

"If you rated recruiters in the league right now, you'd have to put him right up there at the top."

Donovan made himself a great player because of his passion for the game. He's made himself one of the nation's top coaches the same way. And that's what he looks for in his players.

"Here's what I think about recruiting," Donovan said as we sat in his office not so long ago. "As someone would look at ball-handling, passing and shooting, I place as much of a premium on somebody's love for the game. I love this game. I think my passion for the game shows through to our guys."

It was Pitino who gave Donovan's playing career a boost and who gave him a chance to coach. Donovan had graduated from Providence, played one season with the New York Knicks and gone to work as a New York City stock broker. He hated it. He called Pitino, who had moved to Kentucky, and asked for a job. Pitino tried to discourage him. But he was persistent, and Pitino hired him.

"I wouldn't be standing here today if it wasn't for him coming to Providence and my experiences with him," Donovan said on the eve of the 2000 national championship game.

But Billy The Kid stands on his own now.

As a player, he took Providence where it's never been since. As a coach, he's taken Florida where it's never been before.

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