ATLANTA – When he took over at Florida at age 30, with older coaches sniping at his credentials, Billy Donovan was certain of just one thing: He would outwork them all, driving this football school to basketball scenes like the one here Monday with consecutive championship confetti falling from the rafters.
He's a machine, Billy Donovan, never stopping, never resting. He is the single, solitary force that has turned Florida into the hottest basketball program in America. The Gators are historic back-to-back champions after an 84-75 dismantling of Ohio State, a win that has made Donovan the single, solitary candidate to take over the most hotly followed and historic basketball program in America, the University of Kentucky.
Donovan is quick to spread the credit for Florida's ascension to the top of the sport, but for all the talk about his boss and about facilities and commitment, this program is Billy Donovan's creation. These titles are the product of Billy Donovan's relentless pursuit of perfection.
"The sacrifice," said his wife, Christine. "So much sacrifice through the years."
You can't count the missed time with his wife and kids, the skipped dinners, the vacations that never happened. You can't fathom the extra days on the recruiting trail, the early morning workouts and all-night film sessions and the constant, 24-hour-a-day concentration on his job. Even in a business filled with Type-A personalities, Donovan simply overwhelms much of his competition.
He used to talk about how even when he was home he wasn't home – a cell phone constantly pressed against his ear, his mind on some practice plan not his kids. He used to say that he didn't even know how to enjoy the victories until the net was clipped, until a title was won.
He's no hearts and flowers kind of guy; he's all white-knuckle intensity, all about tomorrow, all about the job.
"Every ounce of his blood has gone into this program, to resurrect this program," said his dad, Bill Sr. "It took an unbelievable amount of work. He's not a multitasker. He can't focus on more than one thing at a time."
For 11 years, that single focus was doing this with Florida, crashing the Gators into the golden elite of the sport.
"I definitely think it took years off my life," Donovan said.
And so now, Donovan has to consider the rest of the years of his life and decide whether to harvest this powerhouse he created at Florida or take the job he has long dreamed of at storied Kentucky.
He has to decide whether he can walk away from all that work and turn his back on all those ounces of blood.
He has to decide just how great it is to be a Florida Gator.
Kentucky is coming now and Billy Donovan is going to listen because he spent his career waiting for them, working toward them. When he arrived in Lexington as a 24-year-old assistant under Rick Pitino for his first college coaching job, the entire Big Blue experience blew his mind.
The people camping out for Midnight Madness; the standing room only at Rupp Arena even for early season patsies; the all-encompassing interest in the program from Paintsville to Paducah.
He spent years talking about it with friends and family, dreaming of being the King of the Commonwealth, the program Pitino called the "Roman Empire of college basketball."
If Kentucky ever called, he used to tell them, he was answering.
"Things change," Bill Sr. said. "I don't know how it is at this time. Kentucky is a great program, has great tradition, is a great job. He enjoyed his five years in Kentucky. Now he gets to sit back and see where he wants to be with his family."
That there is even a decision is one byproduct of this run of success. Three years ago, when Gators fans were on him for five consecutive early tournament exits, when rival coaches were assailing his ethics, when the old school establishment was trying to keep him and his hard-charging self down, when something like back-to-back titles seemed farfetched, he would have been long gone.
Florida was Florida and Kentucky was Kentucky. But things do change. Florida is on fire and as much as postgame Donovan was talking about the challenges ahead, he knows it will be easier now. Not easy, but easier. The way it is easier to win at historic places such as Kentucky, North Carolina and UCLA.
Florida was no easy job when he got there. It wasn't the Sisters of the Poor, but the program still stands in the shadow of football. Fan support, even in the best of times, is a bit soft – the Gators sold out their 12,000-seat stadium just eight of 18 times this season.
In terms of recruiting to little Gainesville, you're always on an airplane, always going into the backyard of other schools to sign kids – none of Donovan's starting five hailed from within 300 miles of campus. Ohio State's were all within 180 miles of Columbus.
But now Florida means so much to so many young, star-struck recruits. This isn't 1996 or even 2004, when the heart of this team was signed. That's the thing that's changed.
If Donovan stays in Gainesville, he'll continue to win big. Only Bob Knight won two titles at a younger age and unlike Knight, Billy Donovan doesn't fish.
At 41, his drive is as all-out as ever. His mind, soon enough, will be on one more recruiting call, one more individual workout, one more task at hand. He has more blood to bleed.
"I feel like I, over the last 11 years, have left no stone unturned in trying to help the program," he said.
Can he walk from that? Can he walk from his own kingdom?
To a man, Donovan's friends and family say he hasn't spent more than a minute thinking seriously about Kentucky. As his dad said, he can't focus on more than one thing and winning this title was it.
But the future is now. Kentucky will break the bank, will offer creative enticements, business opportunities, anything he wants. Florida will match in as many ways as possible. In the end, as absurd as it is to say about a man being wooed by competing $25 to $30 million dollar contracts, it won't be about the money.
To leave UF he'll have to disappoint his athletic director Jeremy Foley and so many friends, so many players. To stay at UF, he'll have to disappoint so many friends in Kentucky, such as mega booster Seth Hancock – the legendary horseman, and a generation of former players he's still close with.
This one is going to be emotional for a mostly emotionless guy, a heart check for someone who thrives on cold, calculating decisions. The future of two programs and any number of future Final Fours rests on it.
Donovan can say the program at Florida is bigger than just him, but that really isn't true. If he stays, the Gators are going to be a contender for a long, long time. Kentucky will return to greatness even if Donovan says no, but he can make it happen in a hurry.
Two titles now and he's positioned himself as the most important person in college hoops; the future is in his hands, choosing between honoring spilt blood or old dreams.
"I'll tell you the truth," his dad said amid the celebratory chaos, "I don't know what he's going to do."
- Billy Donovan