Florida coach Billy Donovan stepped down from his seat at the postgame interview table Saturday in Atlanta and headed toward his team's locker room. The Gators had just advanced to the SEC tournament title game. As Donovan walked, he was surrounded by a throng of reporters. Florida basketball — and Donovan — are relevant again.
In four years, Donovan has gone from the top of the college basketball world to the bottom and back on the way up again. The Gators won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, then made consecutive NIT appearances before a one-and-done run in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
The trials and tribulations did not come without criticism and skepticism. And yet Donovan considers it one of the most rewarding times of his coaching career.
"For me, it's the process I enjoy the most," Donovan said. "When you're on top, it's tough to get to the top, and it's tougher to stay there. Nobody stays at the top forever, I've said that many times. It's the process of building again — remembering what it took to get there, how hard you worked, then going back and working to get there again. That's enjoyable for me."
Even through the most difficult times, Donovan insisted things would be fine. He has compared it to walking up a flight of stairs, then missing a step. The fall may take you back to the bottom. And the only way back up is one step at a time.
Donovan's "fall" came after he lost five NBA draft picks from that 2007 national champion. He told any and everyone he could that rebuilding was going to take time — one step at a time. But along the way, with young players who had no veteran leadership and mounting losses, there were questions about whether the Gators would ever rise again.
Donovan never questioned. And his relentless pursuit of getting back was evident to all around him.
"I think that's his comfort zone," Florida assistant coach Rob Lanier said. "If you trace Billy's history, he's a self-made player. And you know when you go back, I've always admired him as a player because he was an underdog type of guy. And I think there's some carryover from that in his coaching. … He's relentless in his effort to figure out a way to get better.
"It's interesting because everybody has their mechanisms that motivate them," Lanier added. "And Billy always uses the phrase with our team, 'on edge.' He wants you to be on edge, to not take anything for granted. And I really think that speaks to his personal motivation style. I think he finds a cloud in every silver lining. And that motivates him to continue to work."
Today, Florida will begin play in the NCAA Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum with a No. 2 seed, its highest since 2007. There's satisfaction in finally being close enough to see the top of the staircase again.
"No question, we came from a struggle, two years in row with an NIT appearance," senior center Vernon Macklin said. "But I think we've come a long ways. We've grown up. We're really coming together as a team. Coach Donovan is responsible for that. He kept teaching us, telling us to believe."
For the first time since his arrival at Florida, Donovan was voted SEC coach of the year by his peers. Those who work closely with him say it was well-deserved. Unlike the national championship years when he had superior talent, he has molded this group into winners by instilling confidence, building chemistry and bringing out the best in what each has to offer.
"He did not have the most talented team that he's coached, or Florida's seen, but he may well have had the pieces fit as well as any team," associate coach Larry Shyatt said. "These guys had to dig and grind, and learn how and listen to their boss. The job he did on the floor as well as the job he did in the game of life was outstanding, just second to none."
To make it here, the players had to put their trust in Donovan. When the hardest times hit, he was the one who kept them believing.
"He instilled confidence in us from way back, even when things were their worst," junior guard Erving Walker said. "He showed belief in us and never gave up on us, even back then."
Former players are also impressed with the job he has done.
"These guys stuck with him, nobody left early and I think it makes a big difference," said former Gator Al Horford, now with the Atlanta Hawks. "You can see it now. I'm very proud and happy with how successful they've been this year. He motivates people and he really knows how to talk to you. He's very much about his players and doing the right things."
At 45, Donovan is the "dean" of SEC coaches: the winningest coach in Florida history and the sixth coach to reach 300 victories at an SEC school. He has led Florida to four of its five SEC titles.
"For Billy to accomplish what he's accomplished here, I'm blown away," said Alabama coach Anthony Grant, a former UF assistant. "I hope nobody takes it for granted. I was here in 1996. I know what it was like here when he started. What he's been able to build has been nothing short of phenomenal."
But there are still steps to climb back up to the top. It's a work in progress.
"In life, when you have failures, and failures are prevalent all over the place, you identify the problem and then you try to fix it," Donovan said. "But how often when you're successful, do you lose sight of how did we get here? Why did we get here? You're too busy celebrating. You lose sight and focus on what the reasons were. And I think identifying reasons why you lose are just as important as identifying reasons why you win."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.