Billy Donovan comes of age

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – One of Jeremy Foley's favorite stories about Billy Donovan dates back to when the Florida basketball coach was 29 years old. Foley, the long-time Florida athletic director, had just hired Donovan and took him and some friends of the program out to a huge Italian family-style meal in Huntington, West Virginia, where Donovan had been the coach at Marshall. They all stuffed themselves and then at the end, when the plates were scraped and the napkins were folded up, someone gave Donovan a challenge.

Could he go to McDonald's right now and eat two Big Macs?

Donovan said he could. Foley interjected and asked why on Earth he would want to go to McDonald's after such an enormous meal.

The new Gators coach answered right away: "I don't like it when someone tells me I can't do something."

It's a vintage Billy The Kid story. He's young, aggressive, scrappy – a regular New York-bred point guard wearing a tie and pounding the floor boards in front of the bench. Foley was "blown away" in his interview with Donovan way back in 1996 and went to the school president to inform him he thought he found the right guy to change the culture of the basketball program. Except that, well, he was 29.

"If he's the guy," then-president John Lombardi said, "he's the guy. Go get him."

Donovan is still the guy, nearly 20 years later. But he's not still The Kid. He's 47 now – the same age Jim Valvano was when he passed away. And like Valvano did, Donovan now speaks much more about the meaning of life than the meaning of wins and losses.

"Being a young guy, getting hired at 29 years old, [I was] trying to chase building a program," Donovan said in his office last week. "And then I think, as we've won, that kind of changed. I'm trying to be able to put that a little more in perspective. What is this all about? Is it all about hoisting a trophy? Wearing a ring?"

The answer he comes up with is no.

When Donovan speaks like that, which is often these days, it becomes clear that he's entered a different level on the coaching continuum. Only one active coach, Mike Krzyzewski, has more national titles than Donovan's two. And Coach K is much closer to the end of his career than "Coach Billy."

Although Donovan is nowhere near 900 wins (at least not yet), he's very much like Krzyzewski in the way he's turned Florida into a March mainstay. The Gators have five SEC regular season titles under Donovan after only winning one in 77 years before he arrived. They've also been to three national title games, all since 2000, all under Donovan. In 17 seasons at Florida, he's won fewer than 20 games in a season the same number of times (two) as he's won more than 30. (And those sub-20 years were Donovan's first two.)

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If he never coached another game, he'd have a Hall of Fame career. And he's 19 years younger than Coach K, 15 years younger than Roy Williams, 21 years younger than Jim Boeheim, and 16 years younger than everyone's pick for national coach of the year, Jim Larranaga. Donovan has an entire generation of basketball left, if he wants it.

According to his father and his boss, there's a pretty decent chance the next generation of Donovan basketball will be in Gainesville. That was certainly not clear in the first generation, as the McDonald's eating kid kept his eye on basketball's top rung until finally landing he head coaching job with the Orlando Magic in 2007. Then came a week-long odyssey that still defines Donovan, for worse and ultimately for better.

The Donovan era at Florida was halted until Foley landed in Virginia with his eye on the next Florida head coach. Then he got a call from Billy's wife.

It's crazy to think all the Dwight Howard drama could have happened under Billy Donovan's watch. Donovan could have been the one to lead the Magic to the NBA Finals, could have been the one to try to coax Superman into developing better post moves, could have been the one called out by Howard, and (more likely than not) could have been the one shoved aside as the Howard era came down around him.

Of course it's certainly possible Donovan and Howard may have bonded, yet it's less likely Dwight would have been able to keep his Hollywood dreams shelved. The Magic have been decimated, Stan Van Gundy is out of work, and it's clear Billy D made the right choice.

But back in 2007, the NBA seemed like the perfect next step for a young coach with a huge motor and two championships in the bag. "From an ego standpoint," Donovan says, "coaching at the highest level, two hours up the road, really good people, being a part of two national championships here, taking on a different challenge. People ask me all the time, why did you pull out?"

Why did he pull out?

To hear Donovan tell it, the man simply had a Last-Scene-In-The-Graduate moment. He had something he always wanted, and he realized he didn't want it. "It was crazy," says Donovan's dad, Billy Sr. "He went back and forth for a good three weeks on this thing. It was a real tough decision."

Perhaps even tougher than we all thought. He said the whole ordeal left him with "an emptiness in my stomach."

"I'm dealing with national media, local media, the amount of phone calls, texting, all trying to find out, 'Are you gonna go or stay?' " Donovan explains in his usual lightning-fast patter. "Then the next thing I was dealing with, I gotta call all the recruits parents. I had a level of guilt and felt bad about that. In the midst of dealing with all that stuff, I don't think I ever got connected with where my heart was at."

And when he did, when he was finally alone with his thoughts, he was slammed by one overpowering question:

What did I just do?

It wasn't that there was anything wrong with Orlando. It was just …

"There was something there I can't put my finger on," Donovan says, "but there was unbelievable unrest."

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Foley was already in Richmond, ready to give former Donovan assistant Anthony Grant the top job. As he turned on his cell phone coming off the plane, it rang immediately. Christine Donovan asked the A.D. to please talk to her husband.

"He was very, very stressed," Foley recalls. "It was apparent that, 'Hey, I need some help here. I think I made a mistake.' "

It wasn't a long conversation. Foley asked if Donovan was saying he wanted to still be the coach of the Gators. Donovan said yes. Foley re-boarded the plane and flew home. Five days after he took the Magic job, the Magic released him from his contract under the condition that he couldn't coach in the NBA for five full seasons.

That was five full seasons ago.

So what now? Donovan became the butt of jokes for a while after his flip-flop, and the Gators went three full seasons without reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Yet, he's going to be mentioned when coaching openings pop again now that Florida is back at the top of the SEC. He's no less qualified now than he was in '07. The Gators are coming off two straight Elite Eight appearances, and Donovan has won both of his SEC Coach of the Year titles ('11, '13) since his Magic dalliance.

Asked point-blank if he's staying in Gainesville long-term, Donovan mentions a lie he told a reporter back in 2007 about his talks with the Magic. He's not going to do that again. So his answer is this: "I don't know where the good Lord has me for the future. I've never coached up there [in the NBA] at all. Right now, today, I plan on being here a long time. But I don't know what the future necessarily holds."

It's a fair answer to an impossible question. He can't say yes for sure, not credibly. He obviously can't say no. So he says, 'No Comment.' His father, however, is more direct.

"At this point in time, I really can't see it," Billy Sr. says. "The relationship he's got with Jeremy and the school, I really don't see him doing it. He really likes challenges, so the last couple years maybe he would try the NBA. But I see him staying here."

Billy Sr., by the way, recently moved to the Gainesville area. So there's that. And Billy's son is a walk-on for the Gators. So there's that, too.

There are other factors keeping him in Florida – important ones. In 2000, the Donovan's fourth child, Jacqueline, was delivered stillborn. She is buried in Gainesville, and the Donovans visit as often as they can. Jacqueline would be getting ready for high school now, probably at St. Francis – the first Catholic school in Gainesville. The Gators coach was so instrumental in bringing it into existence in 2004 that it's referred to around town as "Our Lady of Billy Donovan."

Gainesville will always be the home of the Swamp, yet there really isn't more of an institution in Northern Florida than Donovan. He's a builder, on and off the court, and he's just now enjoying everything he's built. That includes his family, whom he has more time for now that he's got a better sense of what needs to be done at work to keep winning. The loss of Jacqueline, more than anything, made Donovan realize his wants are not as valuable as what he already has.

"Time has made things very clear for him," says assistant coach John Pelphrey. "Like that great player who's in the zone. There's an understanding of the next play. Billy's got that as a coach."

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And there's finally more appreciation of him as well. Foley was once so befuddled that his program-builder won two national titles and zero conference coach of the year awards that he had a plaque made for Donovan. "Sometimes," Foley says, "he's not accorded the respect he deserves."

It is odd how slowly Donovan's name comes to mind when iconic coaches are listed. The knock on Donovan used to be his late-game coaching, yet clearly he's got that figured out. His title teams won with offense, and now he's got arguably the best defensive team in basketball. In fact, the Gators (24-6) are one of the few top-10 teams who don't have a player whose name jumps immediately to mind. Erik Murphy was Florida's only first-team all-SEC selection.

That's OK around here, though. Let football take the spotlight. Let Kentucky and Duke take the hoops honor. Gainesville is happy with its stealth legend. "In the big picture, it's all irrelevant," Foley says. "We at Florida know we have not only a great coach but a great guy. He's perfect for us." And if you listen to how his players talk about him, even at age 47, you see that Donovan's already got his wish. He's got his legacy.

"Coach Billy is a great guy," says guard Mike Rosario. "A very persistent person making sure we come with the right mindset. Playing for him is an amazing experience. Not only do you learn a lot about the game, but what makes you become a man."

To the casual basketball fan who will pick Florida to bounce out of the tournament too early, he'll always be Billy The Kid. But to those who see how life and winning and the Magic experience have changed him, Billy Donovan has become an old soul.

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