‘I came here as a boy. I left as a man.’ – Patrick Young
BY FRANZ BEARD GATORBAIT SENIOR COLUMNIST
It is what Billy Donovan didn’t do that convinced Patric Young the University of Florida was the right place for him to play basketball. A 5-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American out of Jacksonville Providence, Young was looking for a coach with real integrity. His search ended with Donovan.
“You can’t believe some of the things people were offering me,” Young said Saturday night as players, coaches and support staff from the Donovan era at the University of Florida gathered to honor their former coach for whom the court at the O-Dome was being named. “I wasn’t for sale.”
Young wasn’t for sale and Donovan wasn’t buying. That’s not to say promises weren’t made, but the promises had nothing to do with illegal payments or hooking him up with the right agents that would make him an instant millionaire many times over when he turned pro.
Donovan simply told Young that if he became a Gator he would become a better basketball player and more importantly, a better man. That sealed the deal.
“That’s what he promised me and he never broke his promises,” Young said. “When it was time for basketball, Coach was all about basketball and making sure we were working the right way, doing the right things. Right from the start he was pushing us to use each practice as a chance to get better. I know some coaches are all about basketball all the time – 24 hours a day, every day – but Coach invested the time to help me grow as a person. I came here as a boy. I left here as a man. He was more than a coach. He was a mentor, a friend … someone you could talk to about anything. When my four years here were up, I wanted to sign on for four more years.”
Billy Donovan the coach is the cloth legends are made from. He was barely 30 years old when he came to Florida, not that far removed from his days as a Providence All-American where he earned the nickname “Billy the Kid” while leading the Friars to a most unlikely Final Four in 1987. After a short professional career and a few months getting his feet wet as a stockbroker, Donovan knew his heart was still in basketball. So he took a position as the last man on Rick Pitino’s coaching staff at Kentucky where he worked his way to the first seat next to Pitino on game day. After two years as the head coach at Marshall (35-20 record), Jeremy Foley came calling, offering the Florida job.
Florida had a vacancy because Lon Kruger departed just two years removed from taking the Gators to their first ever Final Four in 1994. Two years after that enormous feat, Kruger was convinced he had captured lightning in a bottle for that one unexpected run to glory and that repeating it was next to impossible because there was no commitment to basketball at UF.
With Kruger gone, Foley wasted no time in zeroing in on Donovan. He instantly saw greatness and potential.
“When I met with him I loved his passion, his enthusiasm and his knowledge of the game,” Foley said. “He had incredible charisma. Came across as someone who could absolutely recruit. He had the ‘it’ factor.”
To get Donovan to come to Florida meant Foley had to convince Pitino that he would give Donovan the resources he needed to succeed. That wasn’t easy, but Foley recognized what was possible with Donovan and convinced Pitino to give his blessings.
The rest is history. A 467-186 record that makes him the second winningest coach in SEC history. Back-to-back national championships (2006-07), just the second time that’s been done since John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty. A national runner-up (2000) and a Final Four (2014). Four straight Elite Eight appearances (2011-14). Six SEC championships and four SEC Tournament championships.
The on-the-court accomplishments turned “Billy the Kid” into “Billy the Legend,” but it was far more than the Xs and Os and the ability to adjust strategy on the fly that resonated with his players. Lots of coaches can do that, but only the really special ones can allow their players to grow without stifling their personalities.
The Gators won national championships in 2006 and 2007 with the same starting five of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey. Horford’s quiet, thoughtful demeanor disguised a China Syndrome burning desire to win. Noah had a suck-the-oxygen-out-of-the-room exterior demeanor but an inner desire to fit in and be a part of something greater than himself. Brewer, whose joy for simply playing the game was reflected by the perpetual smile on his face, was the only McDonald’s All-American of the bunch. Green was the point guard, the imp who knew how to push everyone’s buttons on and off the court. Humphrey was the country boy, the deadeye three-point bomber that grew up a stone’s throw from the Tennessee campus but who was never offered by the Vols.
When the 2005-06 season began, expectations for the Gators were lower than they had been since Donovan’s second season when the Gators limped into the NIT. By the time the season was over, they were the Gator Boyz, the team that captured the imagination of the country due to the way they played for each other. They were the magnificent sum of five parts with a bench of ready and willing contributors who knew their roles and what was expected.
Donovan’s greatness as a coach showed in how he could take an off-the-radar team to a national championship in 2006, then with a win it all or it’s a failure season squarely on their shoulders, repeat in 2007. Let’s put it in perspective. Mike Kryzyzewski has gone back-to-back only once (1990-91). Bobby Knight never did it. Dean Smith never did it. Adolph Rupp never did it. Bill Self never did it -- nor has John Calipari. And all of those coaches were at basketball schools with blueblood traditions.
Billy Donovan did it at Florida, perceived as a football school.
Horford offered some insight to why Donovan was so successful at Florida.
“Coach Donovan knew how to treat each of us as an individual and get us to play as a team,” Horford, many times an NBA All-Star. “He gave us room to grow individually and I don’t think that’s easy. You could talk to him about anything and he listened to you. He always respected you no matter what you were going through. He made us want to do the right things and to play the right way.”
Without a moment of hesitation, Horford added, “He’s the best coach I’ve ever seen.”
After the two national championship teams, the Gators went through three years of transition. There were two trips to the NIT followed by a first round NCAA Tournament loss to BYU in Oklahoma City. That set the stage for four consecutive Elite Eights, the last one which resulted in a trip to the Final Four.
There for the Oklahoma City loss and a last second missed shot away from a 2011 Final Four was Vern Macklin, a former McDonald’s All-American who transferred to UF after spending two uneventful years at Georgetown. He sat out the 2009 season due to NCAA transfer rules, then blossomed his final two seasons for the Gators.
To Macklin, Donovan is the best basketball coach he ever played for, but more importantly, the mentor and friend he needed at a time when life wasn’t kind.
“I came here from a coach who wouldn’t push me mentally or physically push me or make me a better man,” Macklin said. “It was so different with Coach Donovan. He loved his players and wanted the best for each of us. He learned who we were and found out what we needed. It was amazing. I went through a lot in my childhood and in high school, then Georgetown. Coach D saw that I was on an emotional roller coaster and he got me through it. I could talk to him. He understood. He helped me become a real man.”
It wasn’t only the players who were impacted by Donovan.
Fired as Clemson’s head coach and hurting deeply, Larry Shyatt wondered what was next when Donovan invited him to join the Florida coaching staff in 2004. Shyatt was in his 50s and coming to a program that was already successful, working for a younger coach who already had a lot of things figured out. Shyatt was eager to come to UF, but he wondered exactly how he would fit in.
It didn’t take long to figure it out.
“For a while it had been really tough because I had come up short in my attempt to be a successful head coach in the toughest basketball conference in the country,” Shyatt said. “Right off the bat, Billy let Pam (wife) and I know that we were welcome here, that we had a home. There are not many men in this profession that would allow someone older that had been around awhile to join such an already successful program.”
Yes, Florida was an already successful program but Donovan wanted more and knew that to get the Gators to that next level some things had to change. Shyatt became his Minister of Defense, transforming the Gators by helping them find and unleash their inner piranha. It started with heels on the three-point line and forcing teams to take bad shots. Proof is in the two NCAA championship games. UCLA went 5-23 from the three-point line in 2006 and Ohio State went 4-23 in 2007.
What impressed Shyatt about Donovan after those two championships was the demeanor never changed then and hasn’t changed in the years since. Donovan was Shyatt’s boss then and a friend who allowed a chance to heal. Shyatt sees that as a sign of true greatness.
“Billy gave us a chance to heal and a chance to be a part of something great,” Shyatt said. “And when we had accomplished so much, he was still the same Billy Donovan. The greatest compliment we could give Billy Donovan is this: Power, money and ascension usually changes so many people yet for all the wonderful things that were accomplished and couldn’t have been accomplished without him, he did not change. He still treats people the same, with love and respect. It’s probably the highest compliment I could give him or any person.”
That is the Billy Donovan that Bradley Beal remembers. Beal was the second highest ranked player nationally in the 2011 recruiting class. He was a one-and-done who could have gone someplace other than Florida to score 25-30 points a game (He averages 29 points per game in the NBA playing against the best players in the world; averaged 14.8 at UF). He came to Florida willing to sacrifice scoring to learn to be a better defender, passer and teammate.
He got more than he asked for.
“It wasn’t just basketball,” Beal said. “I knew coming to Florida he was a great basketball coach. He became a mentor, a listener … someone I could talk to. He never talked down at you. Not just me, everyone on the team. There aren’t a lot of coaches like that. I was only here for one year, but I am a Gator and will always be a Gator because of Coach Donovan. He cares about you. It’s never about him. He can let you be who you are and teach you how to be a part of a team.”
As a senior, Young was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year while helping the Gators go through the SEC schedule 18-0. The Gators won the SEC Tournament and then got to the Final Four in Dallas before falling to UConn in the 2014 semifinals. During a Florida career in which he was a three-time winner of the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year while helping the Gators to at least reach the Elite Eight all four years, Young never missed a game. As a professional, he’s had to fight his way through one injury after another. He’s had to deal with such adversity, but the four years playing for Donovan and the Gators prepared him to deal with whatever issues and circumstances life has dealt him.
“Coach Donovan mentored me and took me from a boy to a man who could deal with anything,” Young said. “I loved playing basketball for him, but it was never just about basketball. There are a lot of basketball coaches. There is only one Coach Donovan. He is more than just a coach.”