After a difficult win at Georgia, Billy Donovan realized all the talking and all the preaching he had done about enjoying this basketball season, about living in the moment, about not responding to the expectations of others, had gone unheeded.
He had walked into the Florida locker room after his defending national champions had pulled away late for a 10-point victory and began talking to his players about getting ready for Kentucky. He went through the practice schedule for the next couple of days and talked about not taking the Bulldogs for granted. He was about to walk out the door to talk to reporters when Al Horford, the junior center who has played a key role in the Gators' success, stopped him.
"Coach," he said quietly. "I know we need to get ready for Kentucky. But can't we just enjoy this victory first?"
The comment brought Donovan up short. Over and over, since the deadline to declare for the NBA draft had come and gone and Horford, Joakim Noah and Cory Brewer elected to return to college for another year, he had lectured his players on the potential pitfalls of looking ahead to March and of thinking that an 10-point win on the road in the Southeastern Conference was no longer a big deal.
"And the one guy who hadn't listened was me," he said, laughing last Thursday behind his desk on the morning after Florida had clinched the SEC regular season title with a win over South Carolina. "That's why we cut down the nets last night. If I'm going to tell the guys to live in the moment, then we ought to celebrate the moment. That's only the second time in school history we've won the SEC regular season outright. They deserved to have some fun and enjoy that."
That's not to say Donovan, 41, is any less driven now that he has coached a national championship team than he was prior to coaching one. After congratulating his players on their accomplishment Wednesday and telling them to have fun that night, he went off to celebrate himself, right?
"I went home and looked at some tape," he said. "I needed to make some notes."
On Thursday, as soon as practice was over, he was on a plane to see a recruit. He was home late Thursday night so he could join his team Friday to fly to LSU.
"I know there's going to come a time when I'm going to want more balance," he said. "I've got four kids [ages 15 to 4], and I really have made a conscious attempt the last few years to make sure I spend time with them. I've seen about half of my son's [high school] basketball games this winter. But right now, I'm still very driven. And I know that this season presents me the kind of opportunity that very few coaches in this day and age are going to ever have. I want to make sure I give it everything I have."
The opportunity Donovan and the Gators have is to do something that only one team (Duke in 1992) has done since John Wooden retired at UCLA in 1975: win back-to-back national championships. What makes it so difficult to do nowadays is that so many underclassmen start running to the NBA moments after cutting down the final net. The four national champions prior to Florida lost at least one non-senior to the draft, highlighted by North Carolina losing four of them after winning in 2005.
"The funny thing is I knew all those kids were coming back," Donovan said. "It was just a gut feeling. People said to me, 'Billy, they ain't coming back; it doesn't happen that way,' but I knew they would. I know kids change their minds when they say they aren't, but I didn't think these kids would."
It certainly helped that Noah, the best of the bunch, is the son of a wealthy ex-tennis player, Yannick Noah. It probably didn't hurt that the Gators came from almost nowhere -- unranked at the start of last season -- to win. It helped too that the players knew that with all five starters back, they really could win again.
For his part, Donovan, turned down a contract extension and raise.
"In 2000, after we went to the championship game I got a new contract and a big raise," he said. "I thought it made perfect sense: Florida wanted to commit to me, I wanted to commit to Florida. When Mike Miller came to talk to me about whether to turn pro or come back, I told him I honestly thought another year of college would help him. He said to me, 'Coach, my friends say you've taken care of yourself and your family; why shouldn't I do the same thing?' I never forgot that. I decided this time, if I was going to ask these kids to pass on the money, I should pass on making more money for myself because of the success they'd had."
All of that done, Donovan began preparing almost obsessively for this season. "I made a list of possible distractions for the players. Nothing earth-shattering: agents, brand-new friends, fans who put them on a pedestal, media obligations and, most of all, the expectations. I knew we were not going to dominate the way people expected us to. I wanted to be sure they understood that. I said to Joakim before the season started: 'You aren't going to be the national player of the year. You don't play that way and we don't play that way. Just worry about winning.' He's done that."
Two early losses -- to Florida State and Kansas -- probably helped. It brought the players to earth after their dominant run last spring. It meant Donovan had their attention. A loss to Vanderbilt on Feb. 17 quelled talk of an undefeated SEC season and left Donovan, in a sense, exactly where he wants to be: coaching a team that knows it is beatable, but will almost certainly go into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed (despite yesterday's loss) and, in all likelihood, as the favorite to win again.
"I have no idea what will happen in March," Donovan said. "I do know these guys have been amazingly coachable. You know as a coach that when they leave you, the message you are trying to get through is going to get diluted when they're out in the world with other people. But they've hung on to most of it. They've been a joy to coach.
"I don't know if we'll win again, but we're a better basketball team now than we were a year ago. If we don't win, I'll sleep well at night knowing all of us did everything we could to try to repeat. I think we've had a lot of fun going through this experience."
He smiled his Billy the Kid smile. "Of course I'd love to cut down the nets in Atlanta. I told the kids after we cut the nets down last night that they deserved it, and it was fun but we still had more to do."
The more to do begins in a little less than three weeks.