Reality is, Billy Donovan has Florida in favorite role
March 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
As the final seconds evaporated Saturday at FedEx Forum, a stoic Billy Donovan made a slow walk toward Dayton’s Archie Miller – a man at the very top of his profession extending his hand to one of the sport’s rising coaches.
Donovan, 48, was about Miller’s age when he first reached the Final Four with Florida in 2000. Since then, the perception of Donovan has changed dramatically as he has evolved and cemented his status as one of the nation’s most preeminent coaches.
The job he has done this season, overcoming early-season injuries and suspensions, winning 30 consecutive games and breaking through after three consecutive Elite Eight losses to earn his fourth Final Four berth as Gators coach, has simply been one of his finest.
“Pretty spectacular,” Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley told USA TODAY Sports as the Gators were celebrating their 62-52 victory over 11th-seeded Dayton. “He is as good as they get. This is a team. He works really hard on chemistry, that’s one of his biggest strengths.”
College basketball is in an age when some fans celebrate the signing of one-and-done recruits more than conference championships. But go ahead and scan Florida’s roster from top to bottom. You won’t find a player guaranteed to be taken in the first round of June’s NBA draft.
Jonathan Givony, the editor of DraftExpress.com, said Saturday that freshman Chris Walker would be picked somewhere in the draft, if he declared, and that senior Patric Young could be selected as well. But no Florida player ranks among the top 40 overall prospects by the Web site.
This team isn’t exactly a mirror image of Florida’s back-to-back national championship teams in 2006 and 2007, which saw three players picked among the top nine picks in the 2007 draft. This year’s success, with four senior starters, is a testament to Donovan’s acumen.
“We don’t have the best players in the country,” Florida assistant John Pelphrey said. “They play like they are the best players in the country. That’s because of Billy.”
The Gators (36-2) will play the winner of the Michigan State-UConn East Regional final in Saturday’s national semifinals in Arlington, Texas. Should the Gators play the Spartans, it will be a rematch of the 2000 national title game, when the perception of Donovan was far different than it is now.
He was viewed as a shrewd, aggressive recruiter who, some believed, operated in the recruiting world’s gray area. There’s the oft-told story of Donovan’s exhaustive recruitment of Mike Miller in the late 1990s. The NCAA’s in-home recruiting period did not begin until one Saturday.
Well, for Donovan, that meant 12:01 a.m. Saturday morning. And Pelphrey was at Miller’s door in Mitchell, S.D., just after midnight. Florida signed Mitchell, who helped Donovan reach the 2000 national title game.
“He did aggressively recruit,” Pelphrey said Friday.
It can be hard to change perceptions. Baylor’s Scott Drew, deemed by critics as an aggressive recruiter and an inferior bench coach, has battled that in recent years. He has hoped to follow the path of Donovan, referencing the Florida coach as someone who has seen his perception evolve over the years, as on-court success continued to separate Donovan from many of his peers.
“Fourteen years of success will do that to you,” Pelphrey said. “I don’t think in two years became this Hall of Fame coach. Obviously he must have been a good coach while he was being an aggressive recruiter. Perception is not reality.”
In recent years, Donovan has talked plenty about how the unique, arduous journey of each season is now what he cherishes most about his job. What will his players take from the experience of each season? How equipped are they to take the next step in life? How much can they come together during each season?
“We all want to win, and I hope we go all the way through, I’d love that,” Donovan said. “But that stuff, I probably have a lot more appreciation for now than maybe I did when I was younger.”
When asked what Donovan’s best quality is, the senior Young did not hesitate in the locker room after Saturday’s game: “Honesty. Integrity. He is the man that he appears to be on TV, that he appears to be in the light. He is the same man in the darkness as well. It’s great having a guy like that who is going to be very honorable.”
Donovan celebrated another Final Four appearance Saturday, with a keen eye on a potential third national championship. Coaches get labeled early in their careers, and those labels are often wrong. Just look at how the perception of Donovan has changed since his first Final Four berth.
“If you don’t deal in reality, reality will deal with you,” Pelphrey said. “Maybe we can say everyone else was not dealing with reality then. They are dealing with reality now.”