Donovan: The Core Values Never Change

(Second of two parts) NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. --- In the days that followed winning the NCAA basketball championship back in April, whenever he had a spare moment, Billy Donovan got on the phone to call coaches like Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, Roy Williams and Tom Izzo. It was important to Donovan to hear how these coaches handled the success of winning the big one.

From the moment that the team plane landed in Gainesville after that night of nights in Indianapolis when the Florida Gators beat UCLA for the national championship, the requests for anything and everything Billy Donovan were coming in from all over the country. He knew it would be like this so in typical Donovan fashion, he sought the best advice possible before deciding how to blend in the new time demands and choosing what events to attend with an already-planned recruiting and camp schedule.

That he would seek the advice of others before moving ahead is nothing new for Donovan. Throughout the years he has made it a point to seek out the people he respects and ask their opinions before any big decisions. Handling things the right way is important, too. At no point does he ever want to appear bigger than the school that he represents or the game he loves. He has tremendous respect for the University of Florida and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, plus it is obvious the respect he has for all coaches, not just the ones that win a national championship.

He came to the Nike Peach Jam to watch players that he will be trying to recruit to the University of Florida but from the moment he arrived, young coaches with their sights set on better head coaching jobs and assistants hoping to move up the coaching food chain sought him out for advice. They waited patiently for a free moment when they could have a word in private with Donovan. Sometimes the meetings were brief, only a question or two. Sometimes they were lengthy.

Maybe it is because he remembers that it wasn't all that long ago that he was an assistant coach or the coach at a mid-major, but Donovan never turned anyone away. He was always warm, friendly and approachable. He instantly put one nervous young coach after another at ease. He listened attentively. When the conversation was over, the handshake was often accompanied by a touch on the arm or a pat on the shoulder, a reassuring gesture that let these young guys know he cares.

"I've only had three jobs in the coaching profession for which I feel very lucky," said Donovan. "I was an assistant at Kentucky, the head coach at Marshall and the head coach at Florida. I've only moved three times from an assistant to head coach at a mid-major to head coach at a high major. I've been blessed with some success at each level but it's important to me to never forget that there are coaches that never have the kind of opportunities that I have had. I had a lot of help to get where I am today."

* * *

When he was Rick Pitino's assistant at Kentucky, he was part of an extraordinary coaching staff that produced four outstanding head coaches --- Tubby Smith, Herb Sendek, Ralph Willard and Donovan. Smith took Georgia to the NCAA Tournament twice before returning to Kentucky where he led the Wildcats to the 1998 NCAA title. Sendek, now the head coach at Arizona State, has taken both Miami (Ohio) and North Carolina State to the NCAA Tournament. Since leaving Kentucky, Willard has taken Western Kentucky and Holy Cross to the NCAA Tournament. Donovan has taken Florida to the NCAA Tournament eight consecutive seasons and has an NCAA runner-up (2000) and an NCAA championship under his belt.

Even now when he's out on his own, coach of a national championship team and heading up one of college basketball's most successful programs, Donovan stiff refers to Pitino as "Coach." They are close friends and coaches who have won a national championship but it doesn't matter. Calling Pitino "Coach" is a sign of the respect Donovan has for the man who was his college coach at Providence and his first boss in the coaching profession at Kentucky. Herb Sendek, who started out as a first year graduate assistant under Pitino at Providence Donovan's junior year and a fellow assistant at Kentucky, was and always will be Coach Sendek.

"He will always be Coach Pitino and not Rick," said Donovan. "Herb Sendek coached me. Even though I worked with him as an assistant under Coach Pitino and the age difference isn't very much at all, he will always be Coach Sendek. There will always be a great respect for Tubby Smith because when I first came into the coaching profession he took so much time to work with me and help me. There are so many people that have gone out of their way to help Billy Donovan. I am forever grateful to all the people who helped me because I couldn't be where I am today if people hadn't taken their time along the way."

With Donovan there is a constant element of respect. You see it in the way he treats the coaches and people that have taken the time to mentor him along the way. You also see it in the way he treats young coaches that come to him for some little nugget of inspiration that can help get them over the hump.

You also see it in the way that he remains humble at a time when there is so much attention heaped his way. He was always polite, always thoughtful and always approachable long before he coached an NCAA championship team. If anything, winning a national championship has only brought out those qualities even more while making him more aware of how fortunate he is.

"I've often said that if you win one national championship in a lifetime you're a lucky man," he said. "Look at all the truly great coaches out there that never had this opportunity. I don't like it that some people think it takes a national championship to validate an entire career. For example, I've been coaching now for 17 years or so and this was the first time in 17 years of coaching that I've been part of a national championship. For the other 16 years, were they just wasted years? Were they years that didn't mean a lot?

"For ever how long I coach it's still about dealing with the people I'm dealing with and seeing all the people I'm seeing because the games are going to be won and written about. The championships will be won and written about. You win a championship or not, people may not remember what a great year it was but there are things that endure like the relationships you have with people. I would much rather be remembered as a coach that had a real impact on the lives of my players or the people that I met in life. That's much more important."

He has made it a point to hold steady to his belief that you treat people with the same dignity and respect when they are at their worst moment as you do when they are flying high. He has this quality about him that allows him to make the person he's talking to feel important. Some people might view him as more important now that he's won a national championship but he doesn't allow the praise to change anything. If anything, he's made it a point to remain humble and to be the same Billy Donovan that he was before he won the big one.

"For me to treat people differently would be a real mistake on my part," he said. "If someone said you've changed, you're distant, you big time people … that would bother me. That would bother me tremendously."

Yet, a certain amount of change is inevitable although his core values will never change. With Billy Donovan, God will always be first and the family will always be second. Everything else is prioritized and must be squared with his commitment to God and family. But life goes on and each day's events shape our lives, changing the way we view the things of this world. We get older. We mature. We mellow. Life evolves.

As he has grown older, Donovan has learned to embrace the change that is inevitable. He understands that the things that are at the heart of who he is can remain constant while the world around him is in a continuous state of flux.

"The one thing that I think that's always looked upon as a negative is that he's changed," he said. "Well, we all change and we all have to experience change if we're going to grow as people. The way I look at it, the way I act and the way I interact with people hasn't changed and hopefully it never will. However, I do think you're always evolving as a person. There are always things happening in your life that force you to look at things differently and to grow from the experience.

"When my wife and I lost a child five years ago, there is no question that it changed how I looked at my family, how I looked at my children and how I looked at what's really important in my life. Things changed but that didn't change the basic way I interact with people although I probably have a greater awareness and compassion for people who go through a real tragedy."

* * *

When Larry Brown was dismissed as the head coach of the New York Knicks, Donovan's name immediately surfaced as a leading candidate to take the job. That was a juicy rumor but there was no substance to it. It seems his name is associated with every NBA opening, and any time there is a rumor that Tubby Smith is about to bolt Kentucky for the NBA, immediately there is talk that Billy will leave Florida for the Bluegrass.

On one hand, it might be flattering that he's considered such a hot commodity. On the other hand, it does get old hearing the same old, same old when he's never shown any interest in leaving the University of Florida.

"I hear it all the time too that I'm going to leave and go to the NBA," he said. "I hear that all the time that I'm so interested in the NBA but the only thing I ever said that's interesting about the NBA is that it's all basketball all the time and I love basketball. That's the only thing that's appealing about the NBA.

"My oldest child is 14 and my youngest is four. My family is what is important to me so when I make decisions in my life, it doesn't just affect me but it affects five other people. What's best for me, what's best for my family, is that I'm the coach at the University of Florida. I am proud to live in Gainesville and I hope that I and my family will enjoy the chances we have to contribute and to give back to the community. People don't take the time to look into those things when they say 'well if the NBA comes calling he'll go because of the money and prestige of coaching in the NBA.' I've never made a decision in my life based on money and I never will. There's a lot more things important than money."

Coaching at the University of Florida still motivates and excites him. He's built the program into one that can compete with the best in the country year in and year out. The Gators have been to the NCAA title game twice in the last six years, finishing second in 2000 and winning it all in 2006. With 10 wins in the next season, he will overtake Norm Sloan for first place as Florida's all-time winningest coach.

He's already done plenty in such a short span but he doesn't feel he's maxed out yet. He believes there is still much more that can be accomplished.

"I feel there is still so much to accomplish at Florida and still a lot that I want to be a part of here," he said. "You can get caught up in trying to dispel and trying to put out what people say that I'm going to be leaving but the bottom line is this: I've been here 10 years and I've never even taken an interview with an NBA team or another college program. That should be proof enough that there is a high level of commitment on my part to the University of Florida."

* * *

Before the Florida Gators took the floor for their final warm-ups before they faced UCLA in the NCAA championship game, Donovan urged his team to live in the moment and try to make this night of all nights last forever by playing the game with more passion than ever before.

Billy Donovan at 41 doesn't necessarily think he's all that much smarter than Billy Donovan at 31 or 35, but he has learned the secret of living in the moment and savoring what each day can bring.

"I think that's the whole trick in life," he said. "I'm a big believer that your past does not equal the future whether that's negative or positive. Because we won a national championship and we have a lot of players returning doesn't mean it happens again. Because we got knocked out in the second round by Villanova the year before didn't mean we couldn't advance past that this year.

"I think that we tend to do one of two things: either we're looking so far ahead or so far behind that we don't take advantage of exactly what we have right in front of us. That's one of the things I tried to talk to our guys about … just living in the moment and enjoying the moment for what it's worth because there's no guarantee there will ever be a moment like this again. Whatever has happened in the past and whatever you're anxious about in the future, you can't control those two things. One is gone and one hasn't occurred so you have to live in what's going on right now."

He's doing everything he can to make this moment last forever. It's a good moment. It's a good life. If he could have written his own script he couldn't have done it any better than this.

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