For an entire day they had waited for him to arrive, the signature coach that validates the Nike Peach Jam as the big-time summer AAU event that it's become. Every year, when the coach of the NCAA champions arrives, it's like Peach Jam is now officially a prime-time tournament. Earlier in the day word was out that Donovan would arrive around 5:30 or 6 p.m. but then the news spread that his flight had been delayed getting into Atlanta. When he finally arrived a little after 7 p.m., the anticipation was over and the whole place started buzzing.
Walking into the gym, there was a rock star quality about Billy Donovan. He shook hands, smiled, laughed, signed what seemed to be an endless number of T-shirts, basketballs, ball caps and programs while slowly making his way to the sanctity of gymnasium one where Nike Team Florida and University of Florida commitment Nick Calathes was playing.
But even in the gym where he could sit in a coaches/media-only designated area, it was still a Billy Donovan love-in. Each time the game clock stopped for a time out, another head coach or assistant made his way over to offer congratulations. With each compliment, with each acknowledgement that he had climbed the mountain of success, Billy smiled graciously, said thanks and then gave his well-wisher something in return that was positive.
If you've followed Billy Donovan over the years, then you would know that the grace under fire is nothing new. He was this way 10 years ago when he first came to Florida. He'll be that way 10 years from now.
* * *
At this star-studded AAU Tournament that many consider the best summer tournament for high school basketball players other than the national championships, the little kids that mop up the sweat on the floor have their own personal rankings system. They wear red T-shirts and the one that has the most autographs of high profile coaches is sort of the unofficial king. Last year, a Roy Williams (North Carolina) autograph was the next big thing. This year, however, a Roy Williams or Jim Calhoun autograph might be coveted but you can't be king unless you have Billy Donovan's autograph in a prominent place on your shirt.
"You gotta have Coach Donovan," says Ryan, a little guy who wears a Florida ball cap proudly. Ryan bounces a basketball behind his back and between his legs. "Taurean Green, that's my guy. Coach Donovan, that's my coach."
Ryan has Billy's autograph high on the right back shoulder of his T-shirt. He's also got a basketball and the Sports Illustrated cover autographed by Billy. It's a close call if he's going to be the autograph king, though. He needs something nobody else has to trump. When he sees Donovan shake hands and walk away from Tubby Smith, Ryan makes his move. He asks Billy to sign the ball cap and Billy just smiles, takes the Sharpie and writes, "To Ryan, from your friend, Coach Billy Donovan."
With that, Ryan is the unquestioned king of the volunteers. Later in the morning, he will be playing three-on-three basketball after the final game has been completed. He's not wearing the cap.
"I can't wear my cap and sweat on Coach Donovan's autograph," Ryan says. "That's too important."
* * *
A year ago, a Billy Donovan autograph was important for the volunteers but this year it's a necessity. In this summer of 2006 and with the glow of April's NCAA championship still bright and shiny, the perception of Billy Donovan is much, much different now. A year ago, Billy was perceived as a very fine basketball coach. Now that he's won the big one, he's perceived as the architect and mentor of one of the really great NCAA championship teams in recent years.
Maybe it's because he's young, good looking and charismatic. Maybe it's because he always has a smile and a handshake for everyone and rare is the person that walks away without a word of positive encouragement. Perhaps it's because he has this ability to make everyone from his coaching peers to the people that mop the sweat off the floors feel important. That particular perception of Billy Donovan hasn't changed. A year ago he was the same nice guy he is now, but a year ago he hadn't coached the NCAA champs. Now that he's won the big one, he's viewed as the kind of coach that could turn the University of Florida into a basketball dynasty that is mentioned in the exact same breath with the Kentuckys, North Carolinas and Dukes of the college basketball world.
He concedes that some perceptions probably have changed somewhat, but quickly he emphasizes that the things that really count in life are the same now as they always have been. What will never change is his desire to be considered a loving, caring husband to his wife Christine, and a devoted, caring dad to their four children. Maybe people think he's suddenly a better basketball coach than he was a year earlier, but in his way of assessing what's important, things like faith, fairness, love, devotion and loyalty form the bedrock of his personal foundation.
"I'm still the same person I was 10 years ago," said Donovan Friday morning in between games at Peach Jam. "Hopefully, I'm a better person and I'm growing and developing in a way that will make me a better husband, a better father and the kind of person that the kids on my team can respect. At the same point people's perceptions of you based on a level of success you achieve or getting to a certain point has a tendency to change and I think the way people view you has a tendency to change because of some success you might have.
"The one thing I try to stay consistent with in my life is to work hard to be the best person I can be. I think that's the most important thing. I can't help how other people may view what winning a national championship has done for me or our program. Whatever they say is fine and flattering. It's nice that they think such good things about me but am I really all that different now than I was 10 years ago? Sure, I've grown as a person and I think I'm probably wiser and more mature and I think I've learned to be a better basketball coach because of the experience, but the same things that made me who I was 10 years ago are the same things that make me who I am today."
When he first came to Florida, he was known as "Billy the Kid," a hard working over-achiever living a charmed existence. Just nine years removed from the rags to riches All-American that took Providence to the Final Four, he was the 30-year-old coach for a Florida program that had hit the skids just a couple of years after making the 1994 Final Four. Two years after taking over, he had the Gators in the NCAA Tournament. A year later, he had the Gators in the NCAA championship game with a roster brimming with McDonald's and Parade All-Americans.
The perception of Donovan in those days was "New York slick." Now that he's won the national championship, there is still plenty of New York in him --- all you have to do is listen to him talk to know that. Some perceptions will never change. However, he points out that while he's certainly become a better coach, he's also grown as a person.
"I think when you start out and you're young the perception is a young guy trying to prove himself," he said. "Ten years later the perception is that he's established but I don't look at it that way. I don't look at myself as I'm established or that I've proven myself. My thing right now is that every day in life we should be trying to prove ourselves get better. That should be the way it is in whatever it is in life that we're doing.
"For me, it means getting better at coaching, getting better at recruiting, getting better as a husband, getting better as a father … whatever it is in life that I'm doing I want to get better. When people say okay now that we've won a national championship they say it like there is this perception that I've arrived now and that now I'm looked on as if I belong at this level. I don't really agree with that. That's other people's opinions and perceptions that I can't change. I think it is important for me to get better in every area. I feel hungry and eager to grow and develop as a person and a coach. It's important to remember to be gracious every step of the way, too."
* * *
In 2000, the Florida Gators stormed through the NCAA Tournament brackets, demolishing established powers Duke and North Carolina on their way to the national championship game against Michigan State. Florida's magical run through the tournament ended on a Monday night when Michigan State had all the right moves. As he watched Michigan State's coaches and players celebrate, Donovan was gracious in defeat, going out of his way to congratulate Coach Tom Izzo and each of his assistants as well as each player and manager on the Michigan State team.
Six years later, the Florida Gators stormed through the NCAA Tournament brackets on their way to a national championship showdown with the name of all names in college basketball, UCLA. No, John Wooden doesn't coach at UCLA anymore, but Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich and a whole host of players that are living links to the Bruins' glorious past were there and word circulated that Wooden was in the hospital but would be watching the game on television.
On this night in Indianapolis, the ghosts of UCLA championships past couldn't haunt the Gators into another second place finish. Florida dismantled the Bruins offensively and defensively and the game wasn't even close. As confetti poured down from the ceiling of the RCA Dome and his players danced to the music and celebrated Florida's first ever NCAA basketball championship, Billy Donovan quietly made his way, one by one, down the UCLA bench, congratulating Coach Ben Howland, each of his assistants and each player and manager, telling them they had accomplished plenty and should hold their heads high.
Donovan remembered how he felt when he lost. Win or lose, what was most important was to do it with a measure of grace and class.
"There was obviously a lot of emotion at that moment," said Donovan. "You look at a national championship and obviously it's the culmination of a great year and it's time to celebrate but really, there is a time and a place to celebrate. I've often remembered what it felt like losing in a national championship game and it's such a hard thing when you see that you were that close and it didn't happen.
"I wanted to make sure that I didn't celebrate at that moment. At that moment, it was about going down the bench and congratulating Ben Howland and his kids for what they accomplished. It was important to me to handle this the right way because losing in that game should in no way diminish the accomplishments of an entire year. Just getting to the game is an accomplishment that a lot of coaches will never experience. I wasn't going to let my personal joy diminish what UCLA had accomplished."
That's not to say that Donovan didn't celebrate. He did, just that his celebration was in the locker room with the door closed behind him. His moment was shared in private with his team.
"Back in the locker room when I was with our players and it was the right moment, I had my time to jump around and hug and celebrate with our kids," he said. "For me, personally, it was great having that opportunity to be in a national championship game again. This was a second time for me and there are so many coaches that will never even get there one time, so it was important to me to handle this in the right way. The right way was to have my moment with our kids and to enjoy the moment watching our kids and coaches. I really did get more pleasure watching our kids and our coaches celebrate than I got with me celebrating."
PART II: Billy Donovan talks more about remaining the same person no matter the level of success, how rooted he is in Gainesville and his response to the yearly rumors that he's on the verge of bolting college basketball for a coaching job in the NBA.