"It's Billy's moment, not mine," said Pitino, who coached Donovan at Providence and with the New York Knicks. Pitino added Donovan to his staff at Kentucky in 1989 as a graduate assistant. Donovan became a full-time assistant under Pitino a year later and then in 1994, he left the Kentucky staff to become head coach at Marshall for two seasons before taking on the task of rebuilding the Florida program in 1996.
It took some tough love for Pitino to get Donovan's attention when he first became the Providence coach. Pitino saw a classic underachiever so he told Donovan bluntly that he had to lose weight, get in shape and decide if he wanted to be a good basketball player. Donovan took the challenge, lost the weight and spent the time in the gym to improve his game. He became an All-American, leading Providence to the Final Four in 1987. Donovan was "Billy the Kid" in those days, a dead-eye three-point bomber who carried Providence's offense to four very unlikely wins in the NCAA Tournament, a run that ended in the semifinals against Syracuse.
"You see a Cinderella story as a player and then you turn it around and see it as a coach and that doesn't happen too often in life," said Pitino. "He was a great player with a mediocre team. We lost to Georgetown by 30 and 33 points the last two out of four games of the season and in the Elite Eight it was never a game because of him."
Pitino went to the Knicks, drafted Donovan and Billy lasted a year in the pros. He went to Wall Street for a year but when Pitino went to Kentucky, Donovan called and said he wanted to coach.
"I didn't know whether he should go into coaching because I thought he would be great on Wall Street," said Pitino. "I told him, Billy, think about it man. This is a different business. Why don't you think about it 36-48 hours and call me back. He said Coach I want to do it. I said head down to Lexington and you've got a job."
It didn't take long for Pitino to see the potential in Donovan.
"From the first day at practice I knew he would be great," Pitino said. "He got in at six, stayed late, played one-on-one with the players. I knew he would be great so this is a dream come true."
As he has watched Donovan's career develop at Florida, Pitino has watched how Donovan has matured as a person and as a coach. He feels that Billy has really helped himself by surrounding himself with a great staff of assistants in Anthony Grant, Donnie Jones and Larry Shyatt.
"He's got a great staff of assistants, probably as good if not the best in the country," said Pitino. "His team plays so unselfish and that's a reflection of an unselfish staff that works well together."
Watching the Gators smash UCLA, Pitino thought the Florida staff had done a marvelous job of game planning. UCLA had held its last two opponents (Memphis and LSU) in the NCAA Tournament to a combined 90 points. The Gators pounded the ball on the inside and that opened up the outside. UCLA's defense was never a factor.
"The coaching staff did a great job dissecting a great defense," said Pitino. "He told me this morning, Coach we can't run our offense against this team so we have to draw their defense because they help so well and find open people on the baseline and the perimeter. They choreographed it beautifully because UCLA has one of the better defenses in the country."
Pitino thinks the Gators will have a chance to repeat as NCAA champs because he doesn't believe any of the Gators will jump early to the NBA.
"I think they will all come back because they should," said Pitino. "I know the NBA game. He has 4-5 guys who should be great pros. If they leave now they'll sit on the bench, never play and never get a great second contract. If they stay one more year they'll play right away and get a great second contract. That's what it's all about in the pros, get a great second contract. If you sit on the bench like Kwame Brown did, you'll never make the grade. One more year and these guys will be ready for the next level."
Outside the Florida locker room an hour later, Donovan talked about Pitino.
"He didn't want to come out on the floor and I know he didn't," said Donovan. "I said Coach, you played a role in this just like my father, as does my sister, my family, my wife and my kids. There are so many people who molded and shaped me and playing for him and working for him … what he's handed down to me, I hope I can hand down the same things to my players.
"I look at all the things he instilled in me and I just told him, Coach, you're a part of this too because without you I wouldn't be here and I told him I loved him."