Monday, April 03, 2000

Donovan runs foes, himself into ground

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — They're all the same, more or less, middle-aged men hanging their lives on the whims of 18-year-olds. They watch more tape than Ebert. Their cell phones are surgically attached to their ears. When college basketball coaches sleep, it's by accident.

        Billy Donovan, who coaches the Florida Gators, is another one of them. Only more so, if that makes sense. Most college hoop coaches run themselves into the ground because they think they have to. Donovan does it because he wants to.

        “People are telling me, Enjoy this,” Donovan is saying. “Right now, I don't want to enjoy it. I want to exhaust every possibility I have to win.”

        Absolutely. Smelling the roses might interfere with calling a recruit.

        Donovan's Gators, a tireless mix of mostly freshmen and sophomores, are a win away from winning it all. To get to tonight's title game against Michigan State, they ran Duke and North Carolina right into the wood. “Use your legs to wear down their legs” is how Donovan explains it.

        Discovering who Donovan is, is no mystery. Just watch his team play.

        He might have four McDonald's All-Americans on his team. But they are infected with the same gym-rat sensibility Donovan was born with. When Donovan was in high school in New York, he cut the screens off a window of the gym at St. Agnes High on Long Island, padlock and all. He replaced the padlock with a combination lock, so he could get in anytime he wanted.

"I love this game'
        One of Donovan's favorite stories concerns his star sophomore Mike Miller. After Florida won at Florida State last year, despite Miller playing poorly, Donovan stopped at his office to pick up some tapes. It was 1 a.m.

        “I hear the ball bouncing,” Donovan says. “I'm like, who is in the gym? Mike Miller is in a dead sweat running up and down the floor. He says, "Coach I played terrible. I've got to work on my game.' Those are the type of kids I have. That's the way I was when I was a player.”

        He hasn't changed. To sign Miller, he called him at 12:01 a.m. July 1, 1998, the first instant allowable under NCAA rules. For 24 days in a row, he went where Miller went: South Dakota, California, Las Vegas. Camps and tournaments.

        Is this ridiculous? Compared to what?

        “Here's what I think about recruiting: As someone would look at ballhandling, passing and shooting, I place as much of a premium on somebody's love for the game, 'cause I love this game. I think my passion for the game shows through to our guys,” said Donovan, all in one breath.

        He talks like a machine gun. He could sell sand to the Arabs, so selling a selfless basketball style to a squadron of self-absorbed prep all-americans isn't such a task.

Face of passion
        It's the same style Kentucky played when Rick Pitino was the coach and Donovan his assistant: Running, pressing, subbing freely, three-bombing at will. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine Donovan as Pitino's little brother, right down to the ashen complexion. By the time Pitino got to March, he looked embalmed.

        “With regards to me sleeping, no,” Donovan said.

        There is no sport like this. There are no tales of high school kids busting into the gym to hit off a pitching machine. No left tackles pining for more time to bash the blocking sled.

        College basketball cultivates a peculiar brand of obsession all its own. Today, its face looks like Billy Donovan.

        On Friday night, he showed the movie Rudy to his team. That's the one about the runt walk-on at Notre Dame. “I wanted our kids to see what a hunger, what a passion can do for human beings,” Donovan explained.

        Funny. But couldn't they get that just looking at their coach?

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

        Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty welcomes your comments at 768-8454.

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