Back To Where It Started For Billy Donovan

Pardon Billy Donovan if he can't resist the urge to let fly with a couple of three-balls when the Florida Gators do their afternoon shoot-around at the Providence Civic Center Tuesday afternoon. Old habits are hard to break after all, and if you go back 18 years ago, the land beyond the arc at the Providence Civic Center was the place Billy D called home.

In those days, he was known as Billy the Kid, the unconscious long range assassin who never met a three-point shot attempt that he didn't like. He hit so many of them so often that Providence College went on a most improbable Cinderella run to the Final Four that vaulted both Donovan and Coach Rick Pitino into the national spotlight. Pitino would go from Providence to coach the New York Knicks, coach Kentucky to a national championship and coach the Boston Celtic before returning to the college game at Louisville, where he has the Cardinals ranked in the nation's top ten.

As for Donovan, he played a year for the Knicks, spent a year as a stock broker on Wall Street, and then turned to coaching, first as an assistant to Pitino and then as head coach at Marshall before he came to Florida 10 seasons ago. He's taken the Gators to consistent prominence among the nation's elite basketball programs including a 7-0 start this season that goes on the line Tuesday night at the Providence Civic Center when Florida takes on the Friars in a homecoming game for Donovan.

"It's been awhile since I've been back there," said Donovan Monday afternoon. "It's probably about 18 years since I've been back in that arena and obviously there are a lot of great memories. It was a great place the four years I spent there so it will definitely be strange going back into that building."

Donovan launched 237 three-pointers in the 1986-87 season, knocking down 97 to lead Providence to a 25-9 record and the East Regional championship. It was Donovan's long range shooting that propelled the Friars past Alabama in the Sweet Sixteen and then past Georgetown in the regional final. Billy the Kid averaged 20.6 points that year and finished with 1,328 for his career (10.9 points per game).

As improbable as that run to the Final Four was, so was Donovan's rise to prominence. Donovan scored 65 points his freshman year at Providence, 92 in his second year. He was already packed and ready to transfer out because "I didn't see an opportunity there" when Pitino, an obscure New York Knicks assistant, became the Providence coach.

Now that he's a successful coach with 200 career wins at Florida and 236 total wins as a college coach, Donovan shakes his head when he considers his first two years at Providence.

"Looking back on my first two years at Providence I wouldn't have played me either," he said. "I was probably a detriment and wouldn't help the team to win."

The young, immature Donovan of 1984 saw his life change because of Pitino. Before he could tell the new coach he was out the door for good, they had a heart to heart talk which forever changed Donovan's life. Pitino didn't try to convince Donovan to stay and he didn't make outlandish guarantees of playing time or stardom.

"He didn't promise me anything," said Donovan. "He was very honest. He just said here are three or four things that you have to get better at if you want to have the chance to play.

"He said I know you're thinking about leaving and he said do you like it here? I said I love it here. I enjoy my time here, the people here. He said if you like it here, I would like for you to stay and one thing I will promise you is if you do the things I ask you to do it will be the greatest experience of your life and boy was that the truth! The thing he provided more than anything else was he gave me hope and he provided me an opportunity."

Donovan took advantage of the opportunity. He lost weight. He re-dedicated himself to playing the game the right way. He became a gym rat again and he did everything Pitino asked. He averaged 15 points per game as a junior as Providence went 17-14 and made the NIT. Then as a senior, Donovan's game and the Providence team blossomed.

Donovan tried the NBA, tried Wall Street and then called Pitino for a chance to coach. He was on a coaching staff at Kentucky that included Tubby Smith (Kentucky coach), Ralph Willard (Holy Cross coach) and Herb Sendek (North Carolina State coach). He parlayed that experience into the Marshall job where he went 36-19 for two years and then came the call from Jeremy Foley to become Florida's coach. In 10 years at Florida he's 200-92, already the second winningest coach in school history with seven consecutive 20-win seasons and seven straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. Before his arrival, the Gators had five 20-win seasons and five NCAA trips.

It all started for him at Providence, however, and particularly with that heart to heart talk with Rick Pitino.

"I really think that as I look back on my life and those experiences there at Proividence, I realize just how fragile and how your life can change or turn," he said. "A lot of it is God's plan and different things that happen to you.

"You step back with a level of humility and say, if this person didn't come into my life and I decided to leave Providence after my sophomore year things could have turned out a lot differently."

He remains close to Pitino, who is back where he belongs in the college game. Pitino coached Louisville to the Final Four last year and has the Cardinals on the verge of becoming a new bully on the block now that they are in the tough Big East Conference. In the years he's been at Florida, Donovan has shown so many times that he's taken the lessons learned from Pitino to heart.

As he has matured as a coach and as a person, he's become more of a listener and more of a coach who is comfortable with all phases of his job. In the beginning, he was known more as a silver tongued devil of a recruiter but in the past couple of years, he's shown that he is an outstanding bench coach as well as exceptional in game preparation on the practice floor.

He looks back at Pitino and Providence College as the influences that got him on the right track some 20 years ago.

"In life, in order to be a part of something successful and in order to be successful you got to have other people around you that you can rely on, that can help you," he said. "He [Pitino] had a great effect on my basketball life, on my career, on my personal life and so did the school.

"There's no question that I've thought about what happens if he didn't come in [to Providence], what happens if I left … there was an unbelievable chain of events that happened. I'm very blessed and fortunate to be where I am right now."

GAME NOTES: Providence brings a 3-2 record into Tuesday night's game. The Friars have lost their last two games on the road at Wichita State and at Rhode IslandRandall Hanke, a 6-11 center, is the leading scorer for the Friars at 16.2 points per game. He's followed by guard Donnie McGrath, who is averaging 13.2. The leading rebounder is 6-7 forward Geoff McDermott (6.8 per game) … Taurean Green has hit 26 consecutive free throws for the Gators. The school record is 33 by Kenyan Weaks … Lee Humphrey is hitting 55 percent from three-point range (25-45) … The Gators beat Providence 84-66 last season in a game played in Miami. In that game Green scored 13 points, which would be his season high. Corey Brewer and Chris Richard each scored four points in that game and Adrian Moss and Al Horford scored two each.

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