Monday, December 11, 2017
Sports

Donovan wins, wears many titles

ARLINGTON, Texas

There is powder in the hair these days. There are lines around the eyes. It has been a long time since anyone referred to him as Billy the Kid.

These days there is a regal presence to Billy Donovan, the best by-gum coach the University of Florida has ever had. He stands at courtside, his arms folded, his face calm, studying the floor in front of him.

For 17 seasons he has been here, and for most of them the Gators have been a pretty darn good basketball program. Who knew he would be here for a lifetime? Certainly not him. He was a master of the universe. He was going to come, most of us believed, and he was going to go. Enjoy him while he's here.

Instead, Donovan has become a lifer at Florida, and along the way he has instilled life into his program. Seventeen seasons and he has developed a legacy. Seventeen seasons and how many coaches has he been?

He was Billy the Kid, and he made some coaches sit up and take notice by the way he dived into recruiting. He was Billy the Upstart, leading his third team to the NCAA final. He was Billy the Underachiever, getting knocked out in the first or second round of the tournament. He was Billy the Champion, with back-to-back national titles. He was Billy of the Orlando Magic, although that lasted for a cup of coffee. He was Billy the Rebuilder. He was Billy the Coach, reaching the Elite Eight the past three seasons.

And now? Now he is Billy the Bully, leading his team past the scrappy little sweethearts from FGCU. He is William the Conqueror, and that little team across the floor was a bunch of Bravehearts.

In the end, perhaps this is the finest picture of Donovan available. His team was jumped coming onto the floor Friday night in their NCAA Tournament South Region semifinal, and it fell behind 15-4. It looked grim and tight compared to the Eagles, who approached the game as if it was a bouncy castle at a friend's birthday. There in the opening minutes, FGCU was every bit the miracle team it had begun.

Yet Donovan calmed his team, and his defense forced 19 turnovers. And slowly the Gators built a 10-point lead. They shot horribly (20-of-55, including 4-of-15 from beyond the arc), but they managed to advance to Sunday's region final against Michigan with a 62-50 victory.

It is odd. Someone suggested to Donovan the other day that losing wouldn't bother FGCU as much as it would bother the Gators. Donovan has been here long enough to recognize the hooey in that statement.

"Both teams are playing for finality," Donovan said. "I would think that Florida Gulf Coast would like to advance in the tournament as much as we would. The name of the game right now is to try to survive, move on and advance. I don't know if at any time you lose in this tournament is ever a good feeling, whether it's the Elite Eight or the national championship or the Sweet 16. The exciting part is to get the opportunity to play another day."

So there he is, an older and wiser Billy Donovan. His children are grown now. Two of them are in college, and three are driving. He has outlasted three football coaches at Florida. He has been to 13 of these NCAA Tournaments, and he has reached the Sweet 16 in seven of them. If he can survive Sunday, he will tie North Carolina with four Final Four appearances (one shy of Michigan State and Kansas) since 2000.

In other words, he has been a long, successful journey for Donovan, who has cut down a net or two during his time. Put it this way: Donovan set a school record for victories … seven years ago.

"Someone always asks me, did you have some kind of plan or five-year plan or 10-year plan to turn the program around?" Donovan says. "I never lived like that. I've kind of lived day-by-day, trying to do the right things and work hard and hopefully make good decisions in recruiting, coaching, things that need to be done inside the program.

"I don't know if I ever knew I was going to be here 17 years. It's been a great ride, a lot of fun. There have been some very low moments. There have been some very high moments."

Along the way, the reputation of Donovan as a coach has grown. Once, he was known as a recruiter but not much else. The years have changed that.

"When I was an assistant coach at FSU, we got to play Florida every year," FGCU coach Andy Enfield said this week. "I got to see Coach Donovan, his brilliance, and what a great coach he was. He makes adjustments during the year, during the season and even during a game. He's as good a coach as I've ever seen."

In the business of coaching a high-profile team, most of the keeper moments have come in the tournament. That's how the good teams keep score. Not by draft picks or regular-season wins. You judge by the NCAA Tournament results. Donovan is now a nifty 31-10.

"There is nothing like this," Donovan said. "Even if you're going through a regular season and maybe you get a great road victory that you weren't supposed to get or you're a complete underdog at home and you win a game. I don't think anything compares emotionally, mentally and physically to just the tournament because the nation is captivated by it.

"It's something that's really enjoyable. And it's also very, very painful. Listen, for me, going to a Final Four as a player changed my life in a lot of respects. Things change for people. Coaches get opportunities. Players get a chance to go the NBA. Assistant coaches get the chance to move on."

For now, Donovan has another hill to climb. At 47, he is still a young man.

Sunday, against Michigan, there is another game to coach. What coach could ask for more than that?

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