Second crown elevates the grinder to greatness

With his second national title, lifetime grinder Billy Donovan has cemented himself as one of the game's great coaches, writes Andy Katz.

Originally Published: April 2, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- His dad knew when he was a little kid shooting hoops outside. His wife knew when she met the spirited teen in college. His friend knew as soon as he saw him lead the rest of his crew out of their formative collegiate years. His staff knew the moment they signed on to be his trusted aides.

They all knew Billy Donovan was the hardest-working person they had been around, someone who loved challenges, who couldn't wait to prove you wrong and who was destined for greatness in his profession.

At 11:51 ET Monday night, Donovan climbed to the top of the ladder at one end of the Georgia Dome and trimmed the last piece of a net, waved the twine to the crowd and smiled as he walked down. With chants of "Billy! Billy!" reverberating in the arena, it was easy to see how much Donovan had elevated himself in the game.

Donovan officially is one of the elite coaches in the sport. He has won two national titles -- back-to-back, no less, in this age of early entries to the NBA draft. He is one of only four active coaches, with Texas Tech's Bob Knight, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun, to have won more than one national title.

He is only 41.

Billy Donovan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyDonovan's Gators outdueled Thad Matta's Buckeyes for the crown.
"I think back to when he was a kid shooting baskets, growing up playing high school and college basketball, and it's just unbelievable," said his father, Bill Sr., who is at nearly every game, and is as much a mentor as a friend.

"I've always said one thing -- as a player, he had to outwork everybody, and as a coach he had to do that, too," Bill Sr. said. "That's how he got it done.

"It brings a tear to your eye," Bill Sr. said as he looked out at the court with confetti streaming down on him. "I can't express the inner pride and satisfaction. Plus, he's a good person -- great to everybody. He's a good boy. That's the main thing."

Christine Donovan, Billy's wife and mother of their four children, has been with him since they were together at Providence College in the 1980s.

"No one knows how hard he works and how much he sacrifices and is dedicated," she said. "He's not going to be outworked. He'll never lose for a lack of trying."

About the same time, in 1985, Billy met good friend Bill Creamer, who goes to a number of Florida games throughout the season even though he lives in Connecticut.

"He has matured in ways I can't even describe," Creamer said. "He's always been a leader."

The assistants, a current one like Donnie Jones and a former one like VCU head coach Anthony Grant, signed on to follow Donovan's lead because of his work ethic.

"Billy's a winner, and anybody that knows him from his playing days and coaching days knows that," Grant said. "He has a tremendous work ethic. You know that from the first time you meet him."

Donovan isn't one to put himself on a pedestal. He's not going to discuss his legacy. He knows getting a class of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer to go to Florida, then actually develop into NBA talent, when no one projected it, was fortunate.

A year ago, the Gators were in the right bracket, got hot at the opportune time and won six games for the title. Once the three highest-profile juniors decided to return, the target was on their backs to win it again. Handling that kind of pressure was the most difficult thing Donovan has done in his coaching career.

"It's all been a blur," Donovan said of the past two years. "The thing that you realize in coaching is that nobody has this stuff figured out. It's such a roller coaster.

"There was a stretch [from 2001 to '05] where we were getting knocked out of tournaments early, and then we win two national championships," Donovan said. "I haven't figured that much out. I'm working hard. I love the game, and I'm trying to build Florida."

Christine Donovan said she knew this team was too special to lose. She said she couldn't imagine this team failing, not after everyone came back.

"There's so much turnover in college basketball and it's so much different than it was 25 years ago," Billy Donovan said. "This was such a rare group, and I had a chance to coach them for another year."

Now, seniors Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard definitely are gone, and there's no guarantee the four juniors will return; the odds are against their coming back.

"This was better," Donovan's father said of comparing these two titles against his son's getting to the 1987 Final Four with Providence as a player. "That was a special time in our family's life, but this is more special because he won."

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said that winning this title, when everyone expected the Gators to, is even sweeter than last year's.

"That guy is a grinder," Foley said. "He works his tail off. He hasn't changed."

Donovan said he hasn't worked harder this year than in any other year. That's all he knows.

So, what did Grant say the 41-year-old will do for an encore? "Win three."

Doubting him now would be foolish. So far, Donovan hasn't met a challenge he couldn't meet.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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