TAMPA — Their personalities are distinctly different, their backgrounds polar opposites. One is from the largest metropolitan area in the nation, the other from a tiny town in Texas. One always wanted to be a coach, the other became one almost by accident.
But two years ago their lives intersected in Wildcat Nation when Kentucky's coaching search focused first on Billy Donovan before bouncing to Billy Gillispie.
The two have traveled to the heights of their profession in very different ways, but they are bound by a love of what they do, the joys and burdens of coaching in two of the most high-profile basketball programs in the SEC.
They aren't best friends by any stretch of the imagination, but they are friendly. Through the course of the season, the two have engaged in several phone conversations, but the talk never centered around Florida or Kentucky basketball. They've talked about what each believes is a national misperception about the fall of SEC basketball. And when Donovan, 43, earned win No. 300, Gillispie, 49, was among those who left a "very, very kind" congratulatory message, Donovan said.
"He's a class guy," Gillispie said.
"He's destined for the Hall of Fame. He won two national championships back-to-back and he'll probably win some more before he's done. He's always been total class before I was at Kentucky and also while I've been here. He's been great. He has great ideas, and he does a great job coaching and recruiting, and he does it the right way. He's a guy I really look up to."
Each shares a fondness and appreciation for the storied history, tradition and pressures of Kentucky basketball. Having been an assistant and heavily courted to become head coach there, Donovan uniquely understands what Gillispie is going through in a disappointing season by Kentucky's lofty standards.
"We were on a Nike trip together (last summer), and I've got a good relationship with him. We get along and we do talk," Donovan said. "I have a perspective because I was there for five years. There are some incredible, incredible positives in terms of the fanfare and the enthusiasm and the excitement, and there also sometimes can be some negatives there, too. But until you're really there, it's really hard to explain in a lot of ways what a special place it is, and in a lot of ways what a challenging place it is."
By destiny, by chance
In his heart, Gillispie always knew this was what he wanted to do, although rising to the level of coach at Kentucky isn't something he necessarily envisioned. But he was drawn to the profession as a young boy growing up in Graford, Texas, whose population numbered about 500 at the time.
"I always knew I was going to be a coach," said Gillispie, who led Texas A&M for three seasons before being hired by Kentucky. "In my town, there was basketball and that was about it. We didn't have football, but the coach was the basketball coach, the track coach and the baseball coach. And he was a great role model, not only for me but for everyone in the community. And the school was the focal point of the town."
After a four-year playing career at Providence and a short stint in the NBA, Donovan decided to pursue a coaching career after a couple of years as a Wall Street stockbroker. When his former college coach Rick Pitino was hired as the coach at Kentucky, Donovan returned from his honeymoon, packed his new wife, Christine, and their worldly possessions into a Mazda and headed for Lexington, where he spent five years as an assistant coach and still has fond memories.
"I think people know my feelings for Coach Pitino and what he did for me, so there's always feelings for him and there are some very, very emotional things that attach me to that program and to Lexington," he said. "I don't think there's anything out of the ordinary that another person wouldn't feel. And when my time at Florida is done, it's not going to be any different. … Whenever my time at Florida is finished, I'm going to have some very strong, emotional attachments here to Florida."
Donovan is living a situation he created; Gillispie, one he inherited, with a roster still heavy with predecessor Tubby Smith's recruits. Since the back-to-back titles, second-best is no longer acceptable at Florida. At Kentucky, it never was.
Donovan believes it's a learning experience.
"Right now, the dip we've taken, we're not No. 1 in the country and picked to win the national championship like we were maybe in 2007, but I don't think I can really grow to who I want to be as a person and as a coach unless there are some dips in the road," he said. "You just can't stay where you are. The challenges our team is facing right now, I think I'm learning something a lot different than I have before. And sometimes you learn some of your greatest things when you do dip down."
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley knows well the pressures Gator coaches face, but he isn't worried about Donovan.
"You always worry about that (burnout) with your coaches, but I would hope that after 13 years of coaching at this place, you realize that Gator fans have high expectations and that's okay because Billy has high expectations," Foley said. "I don't worry about that getting to him. His skin is thicker than that."
Whether Kentucky fans realize what they have in Gillispie remains to be seen. His players say they know Kentucky hired the right man.
When he arrived two years ago, center Patrick Patterson said he never expected to have to deal with questions about his coach's job security.
"Pretty much all the time, every other day," Patterson said when asked how often he gets asked about Gillispie. "Do you think coach will be here (next year)? What's up with coach? I'm surprised. Just because we lost a lot of games, people are complaining. I still have a lot of confidence in Coach Gillispie and what he's doing."
For Gillispie, his greatest concern during the Wildcats' current struggles (four-game losing streak and 19 regular-season wins) is for his players.
"That (relationships) is what coaching is all about," he said. "Wins and losses, the trophies, all those honors and those kinds of things are great, but the most important thing is the relationships that you build that last forever."
And that is what has impacted them most.
"He's always trying to protect us," Patterson said. "I love him. He's a great guy, he's great on and off the court. He's a guy you can talk to about your problems. He'll cry with you, he'll cry beside you, he'll cry for you."
Donovan and Gillispie's teams begin play today in the SEC tournament with both programs sitting at a crossroads. The Gators (22-9) are facing the possibility of consecutive NIT appearances after winning back-to-back national championships. The Wildcats are on the verge of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years.
At Florida and Kentucky, fans consider both unacceptable. Gillispie and Donovan understand that. In fact, they feel the same way.
"There's going to be peaks and valleys, there's going to be highs and lows," Donovan said. "… It's not good enough just to get into the NCAA Tournament, we've got to make a run. And then all of a sudden, you make a deep run in the tournament and people say we've got to stay in there, you're not allowed to drop off. We've got to do it every year. I get that.
"And that's a good thing for me because that's how I feel, that's what my drive is, let's do it. But I also understand there's a process that goes into being really good. And at this point in time with our team, we have only just begun that process."
Despite the difficult season, Gillispie said he still considers Kentucky "the best place to coach." And as for the fans? He knows how they feel.
"I would never want to coach anywhere that they didn't want to win every single game because that's the way I feel," he said. "I've never gone into a game thinking I wasn't going to win, no matter where I've been.
"And I don't ever want to be in a place that has fans that think you don't have a chance to win, or if you don't win, it's okay. I want everybody to be upset, crazy and mad and everything because that's exactly the way I am when we lose a game. I think that's what gives you the greatest chance to strive for greatness. And that greatness is what we're all looking for."