ORLANDO, Fla. – Ever see Bill Belichick jump to his feet and cheer?
It happened here Saturday, when Florida Gators power forward Patric Young converted an alley-oop with a monster dunk and the New England Patriots coach, seated six rows behind the Florida bench, hopped up and clapped along with a full house of Gators fans. By then the third-round game was slipping away from the overmatched Pittburgh Panthers, and Florida was on its way to its fourth straight Sweet 16 appearance.
Belichick has been friends with Donovan for 15 years. "He’s a great motivator, a great fundamental coach," Belichick told Yahoo Sports after Florida’s 61-45 win. "He’s great with scheme and team stuff."
The two friends talk "a lot," Belichick said, and although so much has changed for both men over time, "at heart, he’s the same guy. A team-builder."
Seated across the aisle from Belichick was Florida president Bernie Machen. Asked to comment about Donovan, he said, "How many pages do you have in your notebook?"
"He is the personification of what a university would like to see in its athletic program," Machen said. "He lives his life the way you’d like to see players live their lives."
This is the year of appreciating Billy Donovan. The Gators' coach, who might be the most underrated leader in the college game, is finally getting more of the applause he's deserved for so long. On Friday, mentor Rick Pitino said Donovan deserves his name on the Gators' home court, and on a campus where statues to Steve Spurrier and Tim Tebow stand, that tribute seems obvious and a little late.
Asked if there should be a Billy Donovan Court, Machen said, "Damn right." He said the school is currently raising money for a renovation of the basketball facilities and, "We’re going to honor him in some way."
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There are a few reasons Donovan hasn’t been mentioned in the same breath as someone like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, despite having a better career winning percentage.
First, Florida is a football school. The springtime game that gets most people around these parts talking is the Spring Game. Second, Donovan is not animated. He's thoughtful, passionate but not a court-stomper. He doesn't go "Boom" like football coach Will Muschamp. When Young brought the house down and brought Belichick up to his feet, Donovan smoothed out his tie and stood there without a reaction. Third, there's an outdated sentiment that Donovan can recruit but not coach. He brought in a lot of NBA talent early in his career, and won two NCAA titles, but the feeling was that "anyone" could go the distance with Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford. Nearly a decade later, Donovan is on the doorstep of a fourth straight Elite Eight with guys who won't likely make the first round of the NBA draft.
The Gators are the top overall team in this year's tournament, and the world would be much more breathless about that if it was Kentucky and not Florida. Instead, many casual fans and some pundits dismiss the SEC, sniff "overrated" and wait for the Gators to lose to a team like Pittsburgh. No such luck so far.
On campus, though, it's a little different. The football team is starless and struggling. The hoops team is winning and very popular. While former football Gators have made all the wrong kinds of headlines in the last year – Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper – the basketball Gators are heroes on campus and quite involved in community service. That's the Donovan Way; the head coach has a religious background and a philanthropic bent. It's not about him; it's about the community. It's not about winning; it's about growing. That's not a show, either, as there really isn't much of a national audience for Donovan's displays of charity and teaching. Most fans are busy watching Krzyzewski, Pitino, Calipari, and the other finely dressed coaching icons. Coach K, by the way, is the only active college coach with more national titles (4) than Donovan's two.
The key moment in Saturday's game came at the end of the first half, when Pitt was breathing down Florida's neck. The Gators had the ball with five seconds left and Pitt chose to foul to keep them from getting a shot off. But Florida inbounded and guard Scottie Willbekin raced across halfcourt and launched a three-pointer. It fell, and Willbekin grinned at Donovan as he ran off the court. A two-point lead was now five, and Pitt never recovered. (Noah tweeted that it was "sexy as [expletive].") Donovan won't get credit for that as much as Pitt coach Jamie Dixon will get blame, but Donovan is making the kinds of moves (or non-moves) that keep getting his team deep into March. Considering how many goliaths have fallen already this week, that's pretty remarkable coaching.
The irony of this weekend at the Amway Center isn't lost on Florida fans. Donovan nearly skipped Gainesville for Orlando in 2007 to coach the Magic. After accepting the position, Donovan bailed out and returned to Gainesville. "There was something there I can't put my finger on," Donovan told Yahoo Sports last year, "but there was unbelievable unrest."
The Magic let Donovan out of his contract, provided he didn't coach another NBA team for five full seasons. That penalty phase has passed, and Donovan refuses to rule out another chance at the game's most elite level. On Friday, he said there would always be some intrigue with the pro game.
He has time. Donovan is only 48 – 13 years younger than Pitino and nearly 20 years younger than Coach K. The Bulls' Tom Thibodeau, for example, is 56. Donovan could still have a long and successful NBA career if he chooses.
What's assured is a legendary college career. Florida has six SEC titles under Donovan after having only one in 77 years before he arrived 18 seasons ago. Billy D is every bit as important to Florida basketball as Bill Belichick is to Patriots football.
Both will be all but impossible to replace.
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