"I think what's happened to me in my life, I've just been a guy who's been passionate about basketball and has worked hard and has loved to play, and I'll be the first to tell you as a coach I don't have all the answers--I'm still trying to learn and get better, and I think that's what I tried to do as a player and I think that's what you've got to do as a coach, too," says Billy Donovan, his heavily New York-accented words rat-a-tat-tat-ing nonstop at 90 miles an hour--the speed at which he claims to speak. "I've always been someone who's been very motivated, very positive, very upbeat--and I love what I'm doing right now. But there's a lot of other people could be sitting here in my shoes. And believe me, I count my blessings and realize how fortunate I am."
Donovan pauses to breathe. The University of Florida coach is sitting in his top-floor hotel suite overlooking the swamp of the Meadowlands, all the grimmer beneath dark clouds. A basketball tape is paused on the TV--preparation for the next night's opponent, Rutgers, which would be victimized easily, 85-65. In his fourth year as coach of the Gators, Donovan has revved a talented collection primarily of sophomores and freshmen into the 10th-ranked team in the country. The Gators (14-3) run and gun and trap relentlessly on defense--Billyball, it's called in Gainesville, where fans are talking about a sport other than football.
Donovan, 34, is widely considered the hottest young Division I basketball coach in America. He looks young enough and fit enough to be the Gators' point guard as he was for Providence during the Big East heyday of the mid-'80s. He has on a black sweatsuit. He wears his coal-black hair slicked straight back, affecting the Pat Riley look.
In reality, he's a disciple of Rick Pitino. Donovan played as a junior and senior during Pitino's two seasons as coach of Providence; the Friars made it to the Final Four in 1987. Later, Donovan worked as an assistant for Pitino for five years at Kentucky. In between, Donovan played 44 games in the NBA--for the New York Knicks, when Pitino was coach. "Through my family and through Coach Pitino I learned a work ethic," Donovan says.
The up-tempo style his teams play and his quick mannerisms and fiery coaching demeanor as he crouches on the sideline are straight from his mentor Pitino. Donovan became the country's youngest Division I head coach when Marshall hired him at age 28 in 1994; he stayed just two seasons, like Pitino at Providence. Donovan stayed long enough, however, to recruit the exciting guard Jason Williams, now with the Sacramento Kings. When Donovan left Marshall for Florida, Williams followed and played a season for the Gators. That ignited controversy at Marshall.
But, first, the most controversial story involving Donovan--his recruitment of the prize 6-foot-8 forward Mike Miller, from South Dakota. Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA also wanted Miller badly. "Going to Florida went against most people's opinion back home," says Miller, now a sophomore and an NBA prospect. "They wanted me to go to Kansas. I really liked Florida. I had confidence in what Coach Donovan was selling to me."
Kansas Coach Roy Williams cried foul after Miller chose Gainesville, alleging to the NCAA improper recruiting tactics by Donovan. The NCAA investigated and found no wrongdoing. Later in 1998, Southeastern Conference coaching rival Eddie Fogler of South Carolina suggested, without naming names, that Donovan gained recruiting advantages from a friendship with an Atlanta man who operates overseas summer trips for high school stars. During the summer of 1998, Miller and two other current Gators journeyed to France. Donovan admitted a "relationship" with the man, but denied any transgression. The SEC cleared Donovan, then issued letters of reprimand to Donovan and Fogler for their feud.
Williams's charge especially troubled Donovan because the Kansas coach is so well-respected. Florida's athletic director, Jeremy Foley, responded, in effect, that it was sour grapes on Williams's part. "It was like, 'How can a guy like Mike Miller want to go to Florida?' Well, I think Mike Miller wanted to play for Billy Donovan."
While Kansas and Kentucky have basketball tradition and high-profile head coaches, Florida has football tradition and an upstart basketball coach in "Billy the Kid"-- Pitino nicknamed him for his quick-release shot at Providence. But in recruiting, Donovan counters the odds by applying his parent- and Pitino-instilled work ethic. Florida's roster certifies that Donovan will go anywhere to recruit: to West Virginia, to New Hampshire, to South Dakota. And wherever he goes, he puts on a recruiting full-court press.
Donovan traveled to Mannheim, Germany, in April 1998 and stayed a week watching the prospect from West Virginia, guard Brett Nelson, now a Gators freshman, play in the Albert Schweitzer tournament.
Donovan phoned Miller at midnight on July 1, 1998, the first moment he could under NCAA rules. Donovan pursued Miller relentlessly.
"Twenty-four straight days," Donovan says. "In South Dakota, Long Beach, Calif., Las Vegas, the ABCD camp [in Teaneck, N.J.], at different AAU tournaments. We were all over the place recruiting him. That's what we needed to do. Because we were recruiting against Kansas and Kentucky. . . . My thing is, if you got 24 hours, I'm going to use all 24 hours. Now if [other coaches] want to go in and use two hours on a home visit, that's your prerogative. But don't criticize me because I'm taking advantage of every single minute."
As Pitino once said of his Kentucky assistant: "I'd always prided myself in working 16-hour days. Billy was a guy who took that to another level."
"I've got my own personal feelings about Roy Williams," Donovan says. "Roy Williams and I have had a chance to talk several times on the phone. I would say we agree to disagree with each other. I've got tremendous respect for Roy Williams as a coach. I did not like per se the way Roy Williams handled the whole situation. I wish he would have picked the phone and called me and talked to me." Donovan does not slow down enough to say "picked up" the phone, just "picked."
Did Fogler's criticism surprise him?
"Well, it did," Donovan says. "But, obviously, Roy Williams and Fogler worked together for a number of years. [They were assistant coaches together at North Carolina]. Again, I have a tremendous respect for Eddie Fogler--he's a terrific coach. I think that Eddie Fogler has some issues with the way recruiting is set up. He never used my name, but it kind of was implied. I wouldn't say that Eddie Fogler and I have ever been close friends. Or Roy Williams."
Donovan grew up on Long Island in Rockville Centre, N.Y. His father, Bill, played for Boston College from 1959 to '62. The father started the son in basketball. "I used to coach CYO ball and Billy was always down there playing, from the time he was 2 years old. He got started early."
The father worked the son hard because Billy was going to play at St. Agnes High, which was extremely competitive in basketball. Frank Morris was the coach. "He was a legend. He was ahead of his time," the elder Donovan said. "When schools were still scoring in the fifties and sixties, his teams were scoring in eighties and nineties. He brought that fast-paced basketball into New York ahead of others."
Donovan's father described his son as one who outworked others even in high school. "He had to work. He was not very fast. He didn't jump very high." But the kid had the key to the gym, and there he went every minute he had. And when he didn't have the key, he went in a window. And when he wasn't in the gym, he was on outdoor courts. St. Agnes went 51-5 with him as point guard his final two seasons.
Still, he received few major college scholarship offers. Joe Mullaney recruited him for Providence. Eager to play in the Big East, Donovan accepted. He pined on the pine for two years, gaining weight as he sat and pouted. He was thinking about transferring when Pitino became coach. Pitino put Donovan's college career--and life--on its course. He told Donovan that he had to lose 15 pounds from 190, that he had to stop feeling sorry for himself, that he had to work hard over that summer. Billy did everything Pitino commanded. After seasons averaging 2.3 and 3.2 points, he averaged 15.1 as a junior and 20.6 as a senior. As Donovan's father said, "Coach showed Billy the way."
Donovan never has slowed down.
Friends on the Providence team used to have to wait for him to complete his shooting routines after practice, recalled former teammate Ryan Ford, who was best man at Donovan's wedding. In one of his drills Donovan would make 10 jump shots in a row after running the court at top speed. "Most guys would rationalize that they did well enough if they made eight or nine in a row six times--but not Billy. He's not going to leave until he makes 10 shots."
On the way to the '87 Final Four, Donovan was most valuable player of the NCAA Southeast Region. He made honorable mention all-American.
After his NBA stint and a brief time in the Continental league, Donovan took a job on Wall Street with an investment banking firm. He wasn't happy. He called Pitino at Kentucky and in 1989 hooked on as a graduate assistant. Five years later he was the associate head coach.
At Marshall, Donovan inherited a 9-18 team and promptly produced 18-9 and 17-11 records. The Thundering Herd played "Billyball," scoring more than 100 points 11 times. Attendance at the Huntington, W.Va., school's games went up. Then in 1996, Florida coach Lon Kruger moved to Illinois. In search of a replacement, Florida's Foley phoned Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton and Pitino. Both praised Donovan, although Pitino told Foley he already had advised Donovan to decline any offer from Florida. Donovan recalls: "He told me, 'Billy, they're not even close' " to the respectability Kruger had gained with a 29-8 record and Final Four trip in 1994. It may be the only time that Donovan did not take Pitino's advice.
"We hadn't had success year in and year out," Foley said. "We wanted to go in a different direction. We wanted an up-and-comer. I liked his style of play. We weren't selling any tickets." Foley flew to Huntington and spent a Saturday afternoon visiting with the young coach and his wife, Christine; they had two children then, three now. "After four hours together," Foley said, "I felt I knew him all my life." Foley had filled his coaching vacancy in six days.
Marshall was unhappy to lose Donovan after just two years--unhappier still when Jason Williams expressed a desire to follow.
Marshall refused to grant Williams a release from his scholarship so he could go to Florida, citing, among other things, a concern about his academic standing. He had played there only one season. Williams's parents announced plans to sue the school. "I think a lot of guys go to programs because of who they play for," Donovan said at the time. After several weeks of negotiations, an agreement was reached so that Williams could move on, to be reunited with his coach at Florida.
The Donovan-Jason Williams "relationship"--that's a word Donovan uses often--had begun when Donovan was an assistant at Kentucky. Donovan launches into the story: "I got a call from a guy in West Virginia who was a great Kentucky fan. I never heard of the kid, Jason Williams. I called the high school coach [DuPont High, in Belle]. He said, 'Yeah, he's very, very good.' "
Donovan got out a West Virginia map and got on a plane. And when Donovan saw Williams play, he thought he was about to land the next Jerry West, for Kentucky.
He was wowed by Williams's backcourt play, his passing and ballhandling, to say nothing of his shooting and race-horse style. But in this instance, Pitino disagreed with Donovan. Pitino didn't believe that Williams could help Kentucky immediately and called off the pursuit, according to Donovan. So Williams signed a letter-of-intent at Providence--but never played there because the coach who recruited him, Rick Barnes, went to Clemson (and, subsequently, to Texas). Williams enrolled at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy, but didn't stay there long either. After Donovan took the Marshall job, Williams found his way back to West Virginia, sitting out Donovan's first Marshall season.
After sitting out Donovan's first Florida season, Williams got the Gators rolling at a clip of almost 80 points a game for 20 games. But then Donovan kicked Williams off the team for "breaking school rules." At that point, there was no question Williams would enter the NBA draft early. Without him, Donovan's Gators slumped to a second losing season. But Donovan still had time to resurrect the program. "Jeremy Foley was very, very real with where the program was at," Donovan says. "He felt like it was going to take some time to get things back to where they were." Last season, Donovan's third team finished 22-9 and made it to the Sweet 16 as his highly regarded recruits began to play significant roles.
One of those recruits was 5-9 point guard Teddy Dupay, Florida's Mr. Basketball. And who had been Dupay's coach at Mariner High in Ft. Myers? None other than Frank Morris, Donovan's old high school coach who had taken his up-tempo brand of ball south, allowing Dupay to lead the nation in scoring average at 41.5. How well Dupay assumes a leadership role as a sophomore, how effectively Donovan can impose his will on a speedy but youthful lineup, largely will determine the success of the Gators' season. Donovan has been molding Dupay into a feeder as much as a shooter, a replica of Billy Donovan himself.
Last summer, Foley tore up Donovan's first contract and bestowed a five-year deal worth $3.5 million. "I hope this season is a springboard for a program that year in and year out is one of the country's best," Foley said.
Excitement is high in Gainesville. The 12,000-seat O'Connell Center--nicknamed the O'Dome--is sold out for SEC games. Florida has pumped $8.1 million into refurbishing the place since Donovan was hired. Outside of Gainesville, some doubt that Donovan can make basketball work there because of football's dominance--but such opinion keeps him both working and talking at high speed.
"That motivates me. That drives me," he says. "A lot of times when you go into these situations you feel like you've got to beat your chest: 'I'm going to make this a basketball school. Basketball is going to be the most important thing at the University of Florida.' It's not going to be. We're a part of the athletics department. To me, where could there be a better place to take a kid than to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to watch Tennessee-Florida? I've used the football team. I've used Steve Spurrier. I've used everything there. I've tried to embrace football. I'm not jealous of Steve Spurrier's success. To me, we're a piece of it. I just don't think football or baseball or women's soccer has any bearing on my success. How can that affect me?
"But I think what's happened to Florida's basketball program, if you look back, it's been pockets of success. That's the biggest challenge I have and my staff has. To maintain. It's never been done at Florida, it's never been maintained for a long period of time--five, seven, eight, 10 years."
How will he do it? His friend Ford believes that Donovan will continue recruiting successfully, and coaching successfully, because his youth enables him to relate to his players as one of them rather than as a coach of a different generation.
"I'm going to sell the fact that I'm going to be on the floor with them," Donovan says. "I'm going to be out there sweating with them. Maybe Roy Williams and Lute Olson do that, I don't know. I think I've got to be myself. I want to have a good relationship with these guys. I think if you ask the players, the perception is probably I'm their buddy. I think if you asked those guys, 'Is he your buddy?' I think those guys would say that on the floor, he's extremely demanding, he pushes us, he gets after us, but after we leave the floor he's a guy we can talk to and have a relationship with.
"I take Jason Williams as a perfect example. Jason Williams wasn't one of the top 200 players in the country coming out of high school. The guy had two scholarship offers. I think with the amount of time we spent with him as a coaching staff, and obviously his work ethic and drive, he reached his potential. So I've got a relationship with those guys that I can get after them, push them and drive them, take them to the edge every day in practice, because those guys know that I care about them because I spend time with them after."
Billy Donovan pauses to breathe.