Marshall: Billy The Kid's Love of the Game

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the accomplishments of Florida coach Billy Donovan.

Gainesville, Fla.--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 floundered 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.

Donovan was only 32, but 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. Monday night, he celebrated a second consecutive national championship. No SEC team has done that since Kentucky pulled it off in 1953 and 1954. Even before he recruited the remarkable team he put on the floor Monday night, Donovan took the Gators to the national championship game in 2000.

Before Donovan arrived, Florida had won just one SEC championship in its history. O'Connell Center was seldom sold out. Now scalpers search for tickets outside. Florida, at least for now, has surpassed Kentucky as the league's marquee team.

And Kentucky has taken notice. With Tubby Smith gone to Minnesota, Wildcat officials are looking at Donovan with longing eyes.

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 said, 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 Donovan to go home for the summer, lose 30 pounds and develop a jump shot.

So he 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 3-pointers to lead Providence to the Final Four.

"I never realized what would evolve," Pitino said. "It's quite a story. It's my favorite story in 30 years of coaching."

It's a story of passion and work. Those who know Donovan best say 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.

Coach Billy Donovan

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 visited in his office a couple of years ago. "As someone would look at ballhandling, 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 had gone to work as a New York City stockbroker. He hated it. He called Pitino, who had moved to Kentucky, and asked for a job. Pitino tried to discourage him. But Donovan 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, all alone on college basketball's mountaintop.

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