ATLANTA – Considering who his boss had been, it didn't dawn on Denny Crum that winning his second national championship at Louisville in 1986 carried any kind of historic significance. Crum had been an assistant under John Wooden, whose 10 titles at UCLA made Crum's pair seem piddling.
But Sunday morning as the rain fell outside the Hilton, where all the coaches, current and former, are staying, Crum saw things a little clearer. Across town Florida's Billy Donovan was preparing his team to play Ohio State for his second national title and Crum, 70 and long retired now, was well aware what that meant.
To win a single national title puts a coach in an exclusive group, 45 men and counting. But to win two is to join a significantly smaller fraternity of just 11.
"Winning one championship is tremendous," Crum said. "Winning two is perhaps more than anyone could ask for."
Donovan won't just be asking for it Monday, he'll be pleading for it while pacing the sideline in his trademark starched white shirt and tie. He isn't just trying to become the first repeat champion since Duke's Mike Krzyzewski 15 years ago; he is trying to barge into a pack of coaching greatness.
Henry Iba (Oklahoma A&M), Phil Woolpert (San Francisco), Branch McCracken (Indiana), Ed Jucker (Cincinnati), Dean Smith (North Carolina), Jim Calhoun (Connecticut) and Crum are the other two-time champions.
Wooden (10 at UCLA), Adolph Rupp (4 at Kentucky), Bob Knight (3 at Indiana) and Krzyzewski (3 at Duke) are the only coaches who have won more than two.
While it sounds absurd to discuss things like legacy about a 41-year-old, the fact is all but Jucker (whose coaching career was brief) are enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame. A victory Monday would put Donovan, regardless of age, into a rarified stratosphere of accomplishment.
And considering only Knight, who won his second title at age 40, would have done it at a younger age, its quite possible Donovan is just warming up.
"The thing that impresses me most about Billy is he always seems to have command of his teams," Crum said. "And his teams play defense much better than I think most people realize."
For Donovan, the surge of success the past two seasons has vaulted him to the top of his profession. This week, he will be offered the storied University of Kentucky job and the most aggressive coaching compensation package – perhaps $3.5 to $4 million per year – in NCAA history.
Whether he chooses to head to Lexington, where resources and tradition await, or remain in Gainesville and continue building his own dynasty, there is little doubt he will continue to contend for championships. Only a jump to the NBA would derail – or delay – what promises to be an incredible run of success at the collegiate level.
That's what has all the coaches over at the Hilton buzzing about Donovan, who was long pegged for success but is now poised to lap past everyone from his mentor, Rick Pitino, to coaches who’ve worked longer at more prestigious programs such as Roy Williams (Kansas, North Carolina).
That he's done this so quickly, at a place with limited tradition, is even more impressive.
"I know Kentucky is looking at him," Crum said. "It would be very interesting to see what he would do there."
The thing about Donovan is he will win wherever. He is both young and experienced – he was just 28 when he got his first head coaching job at Marshall and 30 when Florida hired him in the spring of 1996. He is both the longest tenured coach in the SEC and the third youngest.
For many coaches one championship, let alone two, tends to douse the competitive fire, even if just slightly. For his part, Crum never returned to the Final Four after title No. 2. But it is impossible to envision Donovan, a relentless worker, resting on his laurels.
"Love the competition," he smiled Sunday before practice.
He wants no part of discussing his place in history and who can blame him. He knows that success can be fleeting. He took Florida to the 2000 Final Four, had it poised on the brink of dominance, only to go through a five-year string of early NCAA tournament losses.
"A lot of it is out of your control as a coach," he said. "You try to go out, work as hard as you can, try to make the best decisions on the recruiting trail, in coaching and developing (talent). Sometimes it works out really, really well. Sometimes it struggles."
Donovan isn't wrong. But that doesn't mean he is right, either. Championships are championships. Luck might be a part of winning, but in intense competition you can create your luck through drive, determination and skill.
There is a reason just 11 men have won multiple titles.
"I've often said this, the ingredients to winning are the same as they were a hundred years ago as they are today," Donovan said. "Nothing has changed."
Nothing at all. Which is what Crum was saying back at the hotel. This is a young coach, a new era, but a win Monday would launch Donovan into the same old rare echelon of greatness coaches have been chasing forever, into a collection of champions who consider him worthy of membership.
- Billy Donovan
- Denny Crum