Imagine walking in the Carrier Dome and set to play the eventual national runner up Syracuse Orangemen before 70,000. The man leading you is a coaching wunderkind and later that season about to shock the world during March Madness by motivating you and your Cinderella teammates into the 1987 Final Four. This is the first year of the three point shot on the college scene and there’s no way you’re envisioning becoming a prodigious college coach yourself with a 450–168 (.728) record, two National Championships, four Final Fours, 4 SEC tourney championships, 6 SEC regular season championships and one helluva future ahead of you. That was the Providence Friar then, but Billy Donovan is no longer an understudy; he is an iconic Florida Gators head coach now. Donovan is going for his 3rd National Championship this weekend and his coach at Providence, Rick Pitino, has to be most proud of his protégé.
A not too in shape Donovan averaged 2 points as a freshman and 3 as a sophomore in 4 minutes of playing time a game before Pitino got the job and was looking to transfer in hopes of more burn. Pitino tried unsuccessfully to talk Fairfield and Northeastern (where Jim Calhoun was at the time) into taking Donovan. Calhoun called Donovan slow and not much of a reliable shooter and the Stags’ Terry O’Connor said his team had better guards and that Donovan shouldn’t have gone to Providence in the first place. Pitino lied to Donovan and said both schools were interested but told Donovan to lose 30 pounds (running the drills Pitino gave him) to get ready for his running offense and pressing defense. Donovan shed 30 pounds off a 191 pound frame, stayed at Providence, put up 15 points as a junior and another 20 points as a senior.
Billy the Kid was born.
As Coach Donovan prepares his team for a 4th Final Four in Dallas with the top overall seed in the tournament, do you understand what you are witnessing? Do you understand that Donovan is already seen as legendary as Pitino (the only coach to take 3 schools to the Final Four) despite almost 20 less years coaching?
Players want to play for him. In his starting lineup, Florida employs 4 seniors. That is a rarity in college basketball on a big time conference level. One and dones are the norm. This senior leadership is one of the major reasons why the Gators are on a 30 game winning streak.
G: Sr. Scottie Wilbekin
G: SO. Michael Frazier
F: Sr. Casey Prather
F: Sr. Will Yeguete
C: Sr. Patric Young
Top reserve Dorian Finney-Smith is a redshirt sophomore.
In his 18th season at Florida, Donovan has changed the perception of a school previously known more as a football school. The program has won 3 chips in those years and it’s incredible Billy Donovan potentially can win a 3rd of his own if the favored Gators do what they’ve done all year long – win out.
Donovan accepted 5 year, 25 million dollar offer to coach the Orlando Magic after the Gators went back to back in ’06-’07, but changed his mind after a Magic press conference, stayed in Gainesville and now most likely will take over for Coach K as USA Basketball head coach at the end of the decade.
He’s that good.
The 48 year old Donovan has found out how to get it done by building a team with upperclassmen in a way Mike Krzyzewski has not…recently. Most of his players remain on the college level with Donnell Harvey and Bradley Beal being the exceptions. Prather, Young and Wibekin averaged a combined 8 points as freshmen and now are in the enviable position of being the favorite to cut down the nets Monday in the National Final. If Florida does win it all, Donovan will join John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, Bobby Knight, and Coach K as the only coaches to win more than 2 championships.
But not yet…
The Gators must get past the Connecticut Huskies. Donovan’s pick and roll spread offense will be an interesting matchup for UConn and though Florida has won 8 of its last ten by more than 10 points, Shabazz Napier and Kevin Ollie’s crew will be ready and are very familiar with Donovan’s squad. Napier’s clutch foul line jumper at the buzzer for a 65-64 win on December 2 was the last time this Gators team lost a game it played.
With Kevin Ollie on the opposing sideline looking to earn seminal legacy points Saturday with a confident team after upsetting Tom Izzo and Michigan State, Billy Donovan is now the hunted. Florida was on a three straight Elite 8 losing streak before taking out Dayton, so something has to give.
In Gainesville, fans wait in earnest as the career or their head coach looks to become just a little bit more decorated.
Donovan is up for the task…
Let a legend be legendary.