Florida coach Donovan ranks among the best

Linda Robertson, McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

NEW ORLEANS — Billy Donovan has a memory of Larry Bird that sticks in his head as an incentive.

During his season as a Knicks backup guard, Donovan arrived at Madison Square Garden one afternoon as workers were preparing the arena for a basketball game that night immediately following a hockey game.

“They were piecing the floor together and Bird is in there at 4:45 and there’s nobody around and he’s standing on a piece of wood shooting shots,” Donovan said. “He was going to go down as a Hall of Fame player but he still had that drive to get better.”

Donovan’s drive, his insatiable appetite to improve, has him on the threshold of his fourth NCAA Final Four and his third national title. He has led Florida to the elite tier of college basketball.

If Florida defeats Butler on Saturday, it is time to include the Gators among the usual suspects of the sport, the perennial contenders. Florida has as many Final Four appearances since 2000 as Duke, Kansas and UCLA, one more than Connecticut and one less than North Carolina.

It’s time to acknowledge Donovan’s heavyweight status. At age 45, he is no longer Billy the Kid. Butler’s Brad Stevens, 34, is the new young genius. Donovan is rapidly inserting himself among the all-time greats. Dean Smith and John Wooden hadn’t won any national titles by the time they were 45. If Donovan wins another one, he will have as many as Mike Krzyzewski.

He does not get the recognition he deserves because he coaches basketball in the pigskin peninsula, where the oranges on the license plates could easily be replaced by footballs.

He has transformed not only Gainesville but the entire state of Florida from a basketball wasteland into a flourishing garden.

While football fans were preoccupied with the coaching changes at Florida, Florida State and Miami, Donovan repaired a flawed team and took it to an SEC championship — his fourth, by the way, after UF had won just one in the 77 years before his arrival.

With this squad, one that lacks a superstar and relies on defense, Donovan has proven that he can coach, that he’s more than just a charismatic recruiter. The doubters attributed his 2006 and 2007 titles to an abundance of talent; in the 2007 NBA Draft, Florida became the first school to have three players picked in the top 10, as Al Horford went third, Corey Brewer seventh and Joakim Noah ninth. Eight of Donovan’s players have been first-round picks, by the way, after UF claimed only two before his arrival.

In 15 seasons, with 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, Donovan has done the unthinkable — he’s made a football school into a basketball powerhouse. The O’Connell Center might never be as boisterous as Cameron Indoor Stadium or as hallowed as Rupp Arena, but Donovan has installed a basketball culture where none existed.

Donovan has done it with the work ethic that has defined him since he was a boy in Long Island, propping open the high school gym door after practice so he could return for extra drills after dinner, or shooting so late at night on the backyard court his father built for him that the neighbors complained. His first recruits at Florida, Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller — now with the Heat — were hard-working players who led UF to the 2000 national title game.

“When he was recruiting me he kept coming at me,” said Pompano Beach’s Kenny Boynton, recalling Donovan’s relentlessness. “He came to all my games in the summer.”

Donovan is especially fond of his 2011 team. After December losses to Central Florida and Jacksonville, the players realized that, individually, they lacked panache. An unselfish philosophy was the only way to be successful.

Florida’s three senior starters were toughened during three tumultuous years. Following the back-to-back titles, Donovan became head coach of the NBA’s Orlando Magic — for four days. Then he changed his mind and decided to stay at Florida. Over the next three seasons, Donovan endured the turnover that has hurt the sport and made it difficult for fans to identify with teams. Eight players left early for professional basketball or transferred. Plus, Donovan’s assistants left for jobs as head coaches.

To get Florida back where he wanted it, he picked the brains of Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Tony La Russa, Pat Riley and his mentor Rick Pitino — consistent winners always reaching for more. That’s why the NBA intrigued him, the idea of “coaching basketball 24/7, all year long,” he said.

But in the end, he stuck with Florida. The image of Larry Bird — still pushing, still working even with all his laurels — inspired him.

“I talked to Urban Meyer about this: When you have a chance to be part of two national championships, you realized that the trophy brings no value to your life — that’s an illusion,” Donovan said. “You find out that the joy is in coaching, going through a process with a group of guys where you’re trying to accomplish something bigger than yourself that you cannot accomplish by yourself.”

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(c) 2011, The Miami Herald.

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