Billy the Kid is All Grown Up
At the tender age of 40, Billy Donovan, the former Providence gunslinger, became one of only three men (Dean Smith and Bobby Knight being the others) to both play in the Final Four and win a national championship as a head coach.
COACH: Tell us about your childhood? You were born and raised in Rockville Centre, NY. And we know you were introduced to basketball playing for your father, William, in the local Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball league.DONOVAN: I was pretty much around basketball my entire life. The area I grew up in, Rockville Centre, was a real good basketball community. My dad had played college ball at Boston College, so he volunteered his time and coached different CYO teams, probably from when I was about 2-years old. He would take me to practice and I would get a chance to watch his teams play. Then he coached me from the time I was in elementary school until eighth grade. So really, he was the one that got me involved in it, got me around it, and got me exposed to it at a young age.
I was a kid who played everything: baseball, football, and basketball. Things were not as organized on a yearly basis, as they are now for kids, so a lot of my time was spent at the parks. In the spring I played baseball. And in the winter, obviously, I played CYO ball.
COACH: You attended St. Agnes High School in Rockville Centre, graduating in 1983 after leading the team to the Long Island Catholic School League Championship. Tell us about your scholastic career and how it prepared you for the next level?
DONOVAN: The thing that was good for me was that, after I played for my dad, I played for a guy named Frank Morris at St. Agnes. He has since passed away. He was a legendary coach on Long Island. The way he ran his program was that he wanted kids who were totally committed to basketball year round. He had a motto: 12-7-4. Twelve months a year, seven days a week, and four hours a day. That’s how long he wanted you to work on your game. So when I got into high school, in the ninth grade, I totally shifted my focus on basketball. And I gave up football and baseball and played basketball year round. That’s the way it kind of was back then. You picked what you wanted to and you stuck with it all the way through. I started playing on the freshman team, then the JV my sophomore year, and my final two years I played varsity. I played with some very, very good players: A.J. Wynder, who went to UMASS before transferring to Fairfield, and played in the NBA for a while. Bernard Woodside who played at LSU. Frank Williams who played at Fordham. Kevin Quigley, who went to Pace. I think the starting five my senior year got full scholarships to college to play ball.
I was around an environment of a lot of different people. I think the biggest thing that Frank Morris did for me, as a coach, was that we played a very, very difficult schedule. We traveled to Camden, New Jersey to play against Kevin Walls, Milt Wagner, and Billy Thompson. We went into Manhattan and Brooklyn. We played against Pearl Washington’s team at Boys & Girls High. We played against Kenny Smith’s Archbishop Molloy team. Bishop Loughlin with Mark Jackson. We played against Ben Franklin High with Walter Berry and Kenny Hutchinson. We played against the best teams and got exposure playing against the best.
COACH: Providence was your college of choice, yet your first two seasons with the Friars were unimpressive, to say the least. You averaged 2 and 3 points, respectively, your freshman and sophomores seasons. Then, Rick Pitino took over as the head coach and your play did an about face, posting averages of 15.1 and 20.6 the following two seasons. To what do you attribute the offensive turnaround?
DONOVAN: There were a couple of things. One of things, like anything else, when you’re young and immature, you don’t see things the way they really are. As a freshman and sophomore, I would sit there and wonder why I wasn’t playing. I let myself get out of shape. I wanted to point the finger at other people for my lack of success my first two years. The finger probably needed to be pointed back at me because I was not good enough to play and contribute and help the team. I think I was a guy who matured later in life so later in my career I got stronger, I got a little more athletic, and I got quicker.
The biggest thing Coach Pitino did for me was he gave me a great level of confidence. He game me freedom. He played a style that was similar to the way I played in high school. We probably averaged about 95 points a game in high school my senior year. At Providence my last two years, Coach Pitino came in and wanted to play very up-tempo, very fast, he wanted to run and press up and down the court. That’s what I was accustomed to in high school. So for me, it was like a godsend so to speak, because I had an opportunity to get back to playing the way I did, the way I felt comfortable playing.
COACH: You have admitted that you weren’t a superstar player by any means, but instead improved with hard work and diligence. In this era where high-profile athletes have a sense of self-entitlement, is the same work ethic prevalent? How do you reach a player or players who have ability yet prefer to rest on their laurels?
DONOVAN: Back when I was playing, everybody stayed in college for four years. When you think about, guys like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon both played four years. Even the Tim Duncan’s of the world. That just doesn’t exist anymore. Everything has changed. There’s so much more exposure for high school kids. There are more camps opportunities. There are NBA scouts watching high school kids play. That never happened when I was playing in high school. And I think one of the things that maybe hurt the game a little bit is, for every Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, there are also a slew of kids who have a sense of entitlement, they’re going to be a pro, they have it all figured out, and they don’t know how to work hard and get better because they’ve had all of this publicity their entire lives. But I also think there are kids who want to work hard and get better and be influenced the right way.
One of the things I’ve tried to do here at Florida is recruit kids who I have relationships with and who I feel I can coach. That there is going to be a level of trust and a level of commitment to our program. And if there is an opportunity for them to play in the NBA, that’s great. But I think one of the things that is hard is, because we have seen so many kids get drafted out of high school, many of their mindsets are on the NBA at such a young age. A lot of it, I think, has to do with the NBA’s expansion. You have a lot more teams now. And it is a young league now.
Back when I played, there weren’t a lot of roster sports, so a guy coming out of high school couldn’t even get on the floor in an NBA game. There used to be a time when kids in college would have to kind of wait their turn until they were juniors – learning the game their first two years and the last two playing a lot. That’s kind of gone by the wayside. Now, kids are expected to come into college as freshmen and play right away. For the great ones, they’re looking to go the NBA right away. I think so much of the culture of basketball at the high school and college level has changed.
COACH: You began your coaching odyssey in 1989, joining Rick Pitino’s staff at Kentucky, where you worked for five years, climbing the ranks from graduate assistant to associate coach. In 1994, you inherited a struggling Marshall U. program and proceeded to lead the Thundering Herd to a two-year mark of 35-20 and a league championship and were named the 1994 National Rookie Coach of the Year. When did you first realize that you wanted to coach basketball?
DONOVAN: When most players are in college, they have aspirations of playing professionally. I certainly did after the team success we had at Providence, going to the Final Four. Then I was able to get invited to some NBA pre-Draft camps and had a chance to compete at those things. And you begin to have illusions that you’re going to have a career in the NBA. That’s what you want to do. My passion was playing. Who wouldn’t want to play in the NBA for 10-15 years? But it didn’t work out that way. I chased the dream for two years and I think at that point I finally realized that this was not going to be my profession. I spent about a year of my life trying to figure out what I was going to do. I had spent virtually all of my life living in a gym, all day long, trying to get better as a player and had never really been posed with the question, “What am I going to do to make a living now?’
People directed me towards Wall Street. They thought that would be a good avenue of employment. I spent some time on Wall Street and just didn’t like it. For me to be happy, I needed to be around basketball. And since I couldn’t play anymore, I thought the next best thing was being able to coach. So I looked back at the coaches I’ve had in my life and the relationships I had with them and figured that was something I wanted to at least try. Coach Pitino was kind enough to allow me to get in on the ground floor and allow me to gain some experience and knowledge. And I thank him for having a trust level in me as a player and allowed him to promote me and give me opportunities to grow in the profession.
And it was great being around guys like Tubby Smith, Ralph Willard, and Herb Sendek, who were all assistants when I was there.
COACH: Prior to accepting the head coaching position at Florida, no less an authority than Pitino himself advised you against taking the position. As an aside, he also tried to dissuade you from being a coach. What was it that intrigued you about Gainesville that didn’t impress your mentor?
DONOVAN: The one thing about Coach Pitino was he was in the league. So he knew a little bit about the situation at Florida, playing against them twice a year. I was in the league before, so I knew the situation as well. I was at Marshall at the time and Florida had been to the Final Four. Coach Pitino just felt that the expectations about the program and the future were too great considering the program wasn’t very good at the time. No one knew or could understand the amount of time it was going to take to get the program turned around. Really, what kind of convinced me to do it was the relationship I had developed with Florida’s AD, Jeremy Foley, during the interview process. He really convinced me that they were going to make a strong commitment to basketball. People had said for so long that you could never win at Florida. Basketball will never take off. It will never be something of interest.
Listening to Jeremy’s vision, I really began to agree with him and believe him. Ten years ago we both stepped into it together and started at the ground floor. It took a lot of time and energy but I think the players, the coaches, and myself deserve a lot of credit. And most of all, the administration deserves credit. I don’t think at this level, or any level, if there is not a commitment by the athletic administration or organization to do the things that are necessary then it’s going to be very difficult. There’s no question that winning drives fan support and fan interest. And that’s a piece of it. But you have to make sure that you have the support in place and the right people to make it work.
COACH: Florida had experienced minimal success on the national level, highlighted by reaching the 1994 Final Four under Lon Krueger. Since taking over in 1996, you have not only guided the Gators to two Final Fours and a national championship, but you have won over a big-time football school. What has been the secret to your success?
DONOVAN: I had heard for so long that in order to succeed here, you needed to change the culture. Everyone told me that Florida is not a basketball school; it’s a football school. So I looked at different coaches who had been in similar situations and that had never worked. I just said to myself, ‘Football at the University of Florida is great.’ And I couldn’t think of a better place to be then on Florida’s football field on a September Saturday night watching them play. It’s a great, great environment. By the same token, it’s provided opportunities for me. We take recruits to our football weekend. The kids get to see the passion for not only Gator football but for our basketball program and the University itself.
What I tried to do, which is probably different from other coaches, is that I embraced the football program. I felt the football program could be a great ally for us. And it’s been a wonderful experience for me being at a place that has an open mind. People sometimes categorize sports programs on the college level: Kentucky basketball, Indiana basketball, Michigan football, Florida football, Texas football, and UCLA basketball. The way I looked at it was, ‘Why can’t you have both?’ That is what our AD and myself both felt. That you can have football and basketball and both can be good.
I developed a great relationship with Steve Spurrier when he was here. He helped me a lot in recruiting. I’ll never forget when I was recruiting Mike Miller. It was about 11/2 hours before Florida was to play Tennessee, which is their big football rival in the SEC. So I went to meet with our AD and Coach Spurrier had Mike Miller in his office. They were just hanging out and talking. It was things like that which made me realize I had a great ally here.
COACH: An undying commitment and a tireless work ethic have also been the driving forces in your ability to transform Florida into an elite program. From whom have you drawn your inspiration?
DONOVAN: I think we’re all blessed in different ways with different strengths and talents. I wasn’t blessed with great size, jumping ability, or quickness. I guess I was blessed with a great work ethic and competitive drive and a threshold for work. And I take a lot of pleasure and enjoyment in doing that. All the things I’ve done in life I’ve had to work for. I wasn’t the most gifted or talented, but I used what I had and did the best I could with it. With that being said, probably a lot of where I am today had a lot to do with the amount of time, energy, and effort that I put into basketball. When I was coming out of high school, during the early signing period, I didn’t have one Division I scholarship offer. But I kept working and got better, and someone took a chance on me and gave me an opportunity. I think being around people like Rick Pitino, Jeff Van Gundy, Herb Sendek, Bill Donlon – who recruited me – and Gordie Chiesa, are just some of the coaches who believed in me. At an early age I learned that through hard work and perseverance – and if you have a passion and enthusiasm for something – you can be the best you can become and you can achieve a lot of different things. That is something I have carried over to this day.
COACH: Define what has been called, “Billy Ball” – the Gators’ run, press, and shoot style? What kind of offense and defense do you employ and how were the systems derived?
DONOVAN: That is something that started when I was at Marshall and then it carried over to here. Billy Ball is not Billy Donovan. It should be called Rick Pitino Ball or Frank Morris Ball because that is where I learned it. The one thing I always remember that Coach Pitino told me is to take a system and make it better. Tweak it and make it better. There are certain things that we do that have my own footprints but the core of what we’re trying to do is really a combination of Frank Morris and Rick Pitino in terms how we played when I was with them.
There’s not one way you have to play in order to win. There are a lot of different styles. Bobby Knight has been successful for so many years playing a motion offense and great half-court defense. Dean Smith won with his passing game. Nolan Richardson won by pressing full-court. Pete Carril played a very, very unique offensive system. The Billy Ball part of it is just taking what I have learned and making it a little better.
COACH: What are your team rules and what is your take on disciplinary action, when need be?
DONOVAN: I think you have to be a disciplinarian. When people hear the word discipline, they think it’s a negative thing. But all discipline is a show of concern and care for a human being. I’m not a guy who has ten thousand rules and has to follow them to the letter. I try to talk to my guys in terms of being people and how they carry themselves and conduct their lives. I’m much more concerned with kids who are late. I’m more upset with a kid who is disrespectful in the classroom. I’m upset with a guy who is not giving his best every single day. It’s pretty clear what I am asking for in order to be a part of our program. There is a level of accountability. You have to be accountable for what you’re doing.
COACH: In your opinion, what is the most important aspect in a player-coach relationship?
DONOVAN: It all comes down to trust. Every player that comes here has a level of expectations of how he should be used or how he should be playing. Every kid wants to be the leading scorer or the leading minute guy. The player has to believe that what you’re telling him or what you’re asking him to do, is not only good for him, it’s good for the team. That does not happen if there is not a level of trust. So it all starts with trust and it all begins with the recruiting process where you ascertain if there exists a level of trust between yourself and the player and will you be able to coach him. It’s like your own kids. As a parent, you’re giving your kids advice, guidance, and direction. They have to trust that that is the best thing for them. But they may not like what you’re telling them. It’s no different in the coach-player relationship.
COACH: Being a former outstanding shooter, how can you, as a coach, diagnose and correct a player’s shooting woes?
DONOVAN: I don’t think I can. The one thing I’ve always tried to do is build confidence in guys. Shooting requires a lot of work and repetitions. The more work you put into your shooting, the more you practice, the more confident you become. The one thing I try to do with my guys is give them freedom. Freedom to understand shots they can make and freedom to make those shots. And then work with them to give them the confidence to be good shooters. But the last thing I want is a player looking over his shoulder and wondering if he is coming out of a game because he’s not making his shots. I’ve told plenty of guys who have had poor shooting nights to keep shooting. Just let it go. I have confidence in them to keep shooting the ball. I think sometimes that helps shooters regain their touch. So much of shooting is mental. You need to have an internal confidence. That confidence can come from having a coach who believes you can make those shots.
COACH: How do you motivate your players externally?
DONOVAN: I’ve thought a lot about that. I don’t think it’s necessarily about motivating because to me, motivation is a temporary thing. You might be able to get a player fired up during practice but there also has to be internal passion in each player. These kids have to be self-motivated because when they get out into the real world, if they are not self-motivated, it’s going to be very hard for them to be successful. I think it’s my job to inspire them. If they are inspired, that can last a long time. I’m trying to recruit guys that have a work ethic, that have a passion, that have a love, like I did, for the game. I’ve really struggled with guys who have a lot of talent but don’t have a great level of passion. I think there’s a difference between passion and motivation. I think if you’re passionate about something, you’re going to be motivated.
I always ask myself, ‘How am I motivating this player? Am I motivating him because it’s going to help us win and that helps all of us? Or am I inspiring the young man to try to show him the level of talent he has and what he has to do with it in conjunction with me teaching him and coaching him the right way? Hopefully, I will instill in them the confidence they need and the passion they are looking for.
COACH: What are the keys to getting your players to become smart defenders off the ball?
DONOVAN: I think positioning. One of the biggest problems you have off the ball are guys who are in wrong positions, they’re not in good positions for back help. We spend a lot of time talking about positioning and where the ball is at certain points on the floor. Where they have to be in terms of help-side and what kinds of rotations they need to make. I think so much of help-side defense is being in the right position.
COACH: How do you and your staff approach player development? What can you do to help players think and talk about game concepts?
DONOVAN: That’s where I place most of my emphasis. That came from Coach Pitino because he spent a lot of time with me individually, away from practice, to help me get better. A lot of what we do here is based on individual player development. I spend a lot of time with these guys working one-on-one with them trying to make them better. I like to work on things that are going to carry over into games and be able to make them successful. When you’re working with a player one-on-one, it’s a great time to bond. The most important part of coaching, to me, is developing guys.
COACH: Describe the experience and exhilaration when you climbed the ladder at the RCA Dome to cut down a piece of the net following Florida’s victory over UCLA? Did you have a sense of, mission accomplished or is there still more work to do?
DONOVAN: The people who have influenced my life in a positive way have been coaches. Every year you’re not going to get the prize of a national championship. If it happens once in your lifetime, you’re a very lucky man. My hope is that one day my players talk about me the way I talk about a Rick Pitino or the way people talk about Dean Smith or John Wooden. To me, that’s truly the ultimate in coaching. The thing about a coaching legacy is, ‘How do the players you coached, touched, and impacted, speak about you after their experience of playing for you?’
When I was climbing the ladder, the thing I thought most about was the people who have touched me in my basketball life. I thought about Rick Pitino, Frank Morris, and my former players and former coaches on my staff. When I cut down the net as a player at Providence, when we made the Final Four, I looked at that experience individually. Of how excited I was personally. As a player you’re always focused on yourself. As a coach, you’re focused on others.
About the Author
Kevin Newell is the former editor of Coach and Athletic Director magazine.