He would watch the men on the platform, lined up, waiting for a
train. None of them smiled. Their breath billowed into the
chilly Long Island morning, and to him it looked deadly, as if a
bit of life was leaking out of them each day. He'd be walking
across the parking lot to the door of his high school. Soon his
father would be on that platform.
That was as good as it got for most of them in the New York City
suburbs: a life spent waiting for a train, commuting an hour
each way, a long day in a Manhattan office, home and bed. And
Billy Donovan knew it wasn't going to get that good for him.
When Billy would bring home his report card, his father would
shake his head and wonder how Billy would like being a truck
driver. Billy knew what he lacked and knew what he didn't want.
His father told him the first and showed him the second.
He was short, slow, inclined to chunkiness. He was a junior and
still hadn't cracked the starting lineup of the varsity at St.
Agnes High in Rockville Centre. But Billy decided basketball was
going to be his one way out. He chanted to himself, Do more. Do
His father, Bill, had played ball at Boston College in the early
1960s before going into sales, and he told Billy that his game
was dime a dozen, that he had to distinguish himself the only
way he could: Take more shots than everyone else, run more
suicides, play more pickup games. Do more. "A lot of what I did
was out of fear," says Billy. "Fear of someday looking back on
my career and seeing I hadn't done the best I could. Fear of
knowing I wasn't overly talented. It came from my dad. He made
me realize who I was."
It took him only a month to wear out a ball. He broke into gyms,
drove himself to the edge of exhaustion, refused a social life.
He didn't drink, he didn't go to parties, he didn't date. Nights
would find him on the backyard court, shooting hundreds of
jumpers. Neighbors would yell out the window, "Billy, it's 11
o'clock, stop bouncing the ball!"
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
His mother, Joan, would shut off the floodlight, leaving the
court in darkness.
"Billy, you can't do this anymore," she would say.
"Just two more."
Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.
His friends would laugh and tell Billy that he'd end up marrying
This is a love story.
He orders a fruit plate and a bagel, no butter. Maybe that's his
secret. No greasy bacon and eggs for the Florida basketball
coach, just some light fuel to keep him primed for the next
recruiting call, next handshake, next face-to-face with his
players. The first smeary light of morning has done little to
dissolve the dimness of the cafe's interior, but it doesn't
matter. Billy Donovan's hair is slicked back. His eyes flash,
his Long Island accent cuts the air like a whip.
"The biggest thing that we had to fight, that we had to educate
players on, is that this isn't a 'basketball school,'" Donovan
says. "My question to them is, What does that mean? Do we bus to
all our games and the football team flies? No. Does the football
team have a training table while we eat in the cafeteria? No. Do
they get more exposure? Yes. So, why are they on national TV?
Because they're winning and competing for national
championships. Well, then, it's pretty simple, isn't it?"
Simple? With sneaker companies, the NBA and sports agents
clouding the picture, college basketball has never been more
confounding for even the most experienced hand, much less for a
33-year-old upstart trying to build a program at Florida, where
Steve Spurrier's rich and cocky football team dominates the
landscape. Yet, a decade after he carved out his unlikely place
in NCAA lore as a player, few seem more adept at negotiating
this strange world than Donovan. Players are lining up to play
for him. No coach is hotter. He won only 13 and 14 games in his
first two seasons as the Gators' coach, but last year he beat
Kentucky on the road. Most important, in three recruiting
seasons Billy the Kid has gone toe-to-toe with powers like Duke,
Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina over blue-chip recruits and
come away with more than his share. All of which has stirred
whispers that a legend--or an outlaw--is in the making.
"It's unprecedented," says Bob Gibbons, who has published a
recruiting newsletter for 22 years. "I can't think of a coach who
has assembled this much talent this quickly. Even with his
mystique and record, Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino, wasn't able
to do at Kentucky what Donovan has done [in recruiting] at
Florida. Everyone's looking at it and saying, 'Can you believe
Before Donovan's arrival in March 1996, the Gators had landed
just three McDonald's All-Americas in their history. This year's
freshman class boasts two: sharpshooting Teddy Dupay, a 5'10"
guard from Cape Coral, Fla., and Mike (Skinny) Miller, a 6'8"
swingman from Mitchell, S.Dak. Dupay, the top scorer in Florida
schoolboy history, sent out the first tremor two years ago by
committing to Florida in the summer before his junior year of
high school. Similarly, Miller's decision to forgo Lexington
and, especially, Lawrence, for sunny Gainesville sent such a
shock wave through college basketball that an enraged Kansas
coach Roy Williams sicced the NCAA on Florida--and didn't care
who knew it. "I don't care who Skinny signs with," said
Williams, after his final visit to Miller's hometown last fall,
"I'm turning Florida in."
Never mind that a 10-month NCAA investigation, completed in
August, cleared Donovan's staff of the five allegations made by
Kansas. In the murky, rumor-fueled world of recruiting, the mere
fact that Williams, a squeaky-clean figure whose public acts and
words are usually about as dry as grain dust, openly went after
the Gators was tantamount to releasing the Starr report. Even as
Donovan rolled through this recruiting season, gathering another
far-flung, top five class--with signed letters of intent from
St. Albans, W.Va., guard Brett Nelson; Concord, N.H., forward
Matt Bonner; Sarasota, Fla., guard Justin Hamilton; and Hargrave
Military Academy forward Sylbrin Robinson, who is from
Miami--coaches, recruiting gurus and hoop-heads speculated about
the secret to his success.
Some say Donovan offered Miller's 23-year-old brother, Ryan, a
job at Florida. Some say he manipulated his summer basketball
and sneaker-company connections like a wizard so that he could
woo Miller during a so-called noncontact period. Kansas fleshed
out the rumors in an Oct. 13, 1997, letter that raised questions
about: Florida assistant John Pelphrey and his alleged contact
with Mike Miller in a hot tub in July '97; Florida's hiring of
administrative assistant Tom Ostrom, who previously worked the
summer basketball scene for Adidas; Florida's contacts with Ryan
Miller and with Mike's AAU coach Paul Seville; and Florida's
production of a videotape shown at the Millers' home during a
recruiting visit. The NCAA investigators checked out those
accusations and cleared Donovan's staff of all but one very
minor violation: Pelphrey had been in a hot tub with Ryan
Miller, who in his role as an AAU assistant coach was an
exception to the rule barring contact with a recruit's family
members. "They say we took the exception too far," says Florida
compliance director Jamie McCloskey,
Donovan, however, continues to face criticism. At the SEC Media
Day gathering in Birmingham on Nov. 4 South Carolina coach Eddie
Fogler, once a colleague of Williams's at North Carolina, coyly
questioned Donovan's integrity by raising the subject of an
unnamed SEC coach's ties to Atlanta-based financial adviser Bret
Bearup, who in August had bankrolled a trip to France for a team
of high school stars that included Mike Miller, Nelson and
Bonner. "It's all legal, but is it ethical?" Fogler said. The
thinly veiled attack--Fogler never mentioned Florida or Donovan
by name--so angered Donovan that he retaliated by impugning
Fogler's courage and ethics. "I'm outraged," Donovan said of
Fogler at a press conference later that day. "He talks about
ethics. Well, we've recruited against him. I challenge his
ethics on some of the kids we've recruited against [him]."
Such open nastiness is hardly typical in the coaching
fraternity, but it reveals some of the animosity toward Donovan
that had been brewing ever since Miller committed to Florida a
year ago. "Did I sense something unethical going on? I've heard
the questions being raised, but I never saw any of it," says
Scott Howard, an assistant coach at Miami who recruited Miller
while an assistant at Nebraska. "But the wind blows hardest at
the top of the mountain. Billy Donovan has had two top five
recruiting classes, so people start saying, 'He's got to be
This isn't the first time Donovan has taken college basketball
by storm. Today's talk is merely a cynical variation on the
wonderment he provoked in 1987 when, having been inspired,
prodded and bullied by Pitino, Donovan culminated his
transformation from a bench warmer into the running, gunning
heart of an overachieving Providence team that clawed its way to
the Final Four. Much of his appeal stemmed from his utter
ordinariness: Donovan carried himself like the bag boy at the
local A&P. "He's never looked the part," says Eric Reid, who was
the radio voice of the Friars. "Billy was a short, white,
little-bit-overweight kid. When he walked into a room he just
It's easy to underestimate Donovan on first meeting him. Unlike
most coaches--or just about anyone else with a five-year
contract worth $1.75 million--he makes no effort to project
authority or superiority; if anything, he's constantly asking
questions, edging closer and minimizing distance. Maybe that's
Donovan has heard every rumor. He has an answer for every charge.
Yes, he says, "we take the rules to the extreme, but we're doing
things the right way. I realize more and more in this recruiting
game that there's a perceived hierarchy: Certain programs are
supposed to get certain players, then the next tier schools fall
in and then the next. We've ruffled feathers going after guys
that maybe we weren't supposed to be in on, much less get. But
we've been nothing but aboveboard. Don't attack my integrity and
my character. I know what is right and wrong."
He and Williams have spoken twice since Williams made his
allegations, and Donovan says the conversations were civil. As
for Fogler, Donovan said after the media day skirmish, "I'll
deal with him behind the scenes." But the attacks clearly make
him uneasy. As a player at St. Agnes High and at Providence,
Donovan built his game and reputation upon a rock of athletic
integrity. He worked harder than everyone else because he had no
choice. He wasn't good enough to cut corners. "He always did
extra work after practice," says former Providence teammate Ryan
Ford. "One Friday afternoon we were going to drive to New York
for the weekend. He had to make 10 consecutive running jumpers
from the top of the key. It took him over an hour. We were ready
to go. Most normal human beings would've rationalized some
reason to leave, but he was not going to give in."
Once during an off-season in college, Donovan tried to take a
day off. He felt guilty all day. When he went to bed that night,
he couldn't sleep. At 1 a.m. he drove to the gym at St. Agnes,
snapped off the padlock on a window with cutters--he replaced
the lock with his own when he left--and slipped inside. He
drilled until 3:30 a.m., dodging puddles of his own sweat.
"We're the ones getting in trouble, and I know the schools that
offered [Miller's] brother a job," Donovan says. "It's not
important that you know who they are. I know who they are. It
bothers me, but as long as I can look myself in the mirror, I'm
fine. We're not paying anybody, we don't have illegal contact
with anybody, we're not making excessive phone calls."
Those closest to Donovan can't believe he would ever have to
make such a statement. To hear them talk, he is more altar boy
than coach. "He embodies all the qualities you would want in a
son," says North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek, who was an
assistant at Providence when Donovan played there.
"He's such a good person to be around," says Jason Williams,
despite the fact that he was kicked off the Florida team by
Donovan last year after he failed a drug test. (Even so, Williams
was the seventh player taken in the NBA draft in June.)
When the waitress in the cafe brings the check, the usual
wrestling match ensues, except that Donovan leaves no room for
negotiation. "I got it...I got it, I'll get upset! I'll be
upset!" he yelps. "I'll leave right now. You're not coming here
Maybe that's his secret: He won't take no for an answer.
A degree in liberal arts, an introduction for an interview, a
job offer and suddenly there Donovan stood, waiting on the Long
Island Railroad platform. Suit, tie, topcoat. Watching his
breath rise into the gray sky, his life leaking away. It was
early 1989. He'd ride into the city, sit behind a desk in an
office on Wall Street and start cold-calling people, asking
faceless voices to give him their money to invest. He kept
asking questions about the ins and outs of the job, but all his
colleagues wanted to talk about was the NCAAs or the New York
Knicks. He was lost in that world. "I was comfortable with
basketball," Donovan says. "That's all I knew. That's all I know."
He had no illusions. He'd done the childhood-dream-come-true
thing. After his sixth-grade teacher had read aloud his essay
about playing in the NBA, she had laughingly told the class that
Billy would have a better chance of getting hit by lightning.
But he showed them all. He played in the NBA. During the 1987-88
season, Pitino, then the coach of the Knicks, had brought him on
for a 44-game stint, and Donovan, who was not yet a year out of
Providence, had played some cleanup minutes. But he knew he was
in trouble the first time Detroit Pistons guard Joe Dumars
squared up on him and Detroit coach Chuck Daly screamed from the
bench, "Clear out! Get out of his way! Just take him, Joe!" And
Dumars, who had 55 pounds, four inches and an untold amount of
athletic ability on Donovan, posted him up and backed his way to
the hole as if Donovan wasn't there. "Like a wrecking ball
coming down," Donovan says.
Pitino cut him and in the off-season Donovan put on 17 pounds of
muscle, becoming quicker, more explosive. His shot was on. He
was as ready as he could be. He went to the Utah Jazz's camp and
was cut after five weeks. He went home and told his girlfriend,
Christine D'Auria, that he was done. He went to Providence to
check out some leads in the insurance business, and when he
returned to his folks' house, his father told him that the CBA
team in Rapid City, S.Dak., had called. He went, he played, he
stayed in a Day's Inn. Christine visited, and on Dec. 26 Donovan
asked her to take out the garbage. "I didn't expect her to get
back so quickly," he says. "I'm getting the ring out, and she
comes back and sits next to me, and now I've dropped the ring
down between my feet. I said, 'Oh, my god, there's a bug!' She
hates bugs, she started backing away, so I picked it up and I
proposed to her."
"Very romantic," Christine says.
A month later he was done with the CBA. His father had prepared
him well: Billy knew what he lacked and had done everything to
try and make up for it...and it wasn't enough. No shame in that.
"I wasn't good enough," he says. He thought he was ready for the
real world. He and Christine set a wedding date in August, she
landed a job teaching at an elementary school in Greenvale,
N.Y., and they found an apartment in Port Washington, just 15
miles from Rockville Centre. Billy was working on Wall Street
and Christine could see their new life opening up before her
eyes: dinner together, Sundays at her mom's, a world just like
the one her father, a lawyer, had created 25 years before.
Except for one thing. "I just really missed basketball," Donovan
He didn't tell her. What could he say? It wasn't the glory he
craved, or the warm feeling from being around people who knew of
that run in the NCAAs, when he killed team after team with
three-pointers and bullheaded drives and perfect passes: 35
points against Alabama-Birmingham, 25 against Austin Peay, 26
against Alabama, 16 free throws to beat Georgetown and reach the
Final Four. No, he missed all the little things that led up to
that magical run. He missed the midnight drives into ghettos in
his grandmother's junky car, the only white kid playing, guys
vacuuming up coke through a $10 bill, gunshots ringing out in a
high school gym. He missed cracking two ribs and playing through
the pain, as he had in college. He missed drilling alone at the
St. Agnes gym. He missed being pushed to play better. He missed
Once before Pitino had saved him from this misery. When Pitino
arrived at Providence in 1985, Donovan had been a little-used
sophomore in Joe Mullaney's half-court system, bored and
considering a transfer. Pitino didn't discourage him. "We had no
idea he'd be able to make the transformation he did," says
Sendek. "He was a pudgy, set-shooting point guard who didn't get
off the bench. We didn't think he was good enough to even play
in the Big East." But no other school wanted Donovan either.
Pitino told him to get in shape or get out. Pitino was going to
install a maniacal full-court game, running and pressing for 40
minutes, and only the strong would survive.
It was like setting a match to tinder. Donovan came back for his
junior year 25 pounds lighter and began hanging on Pitino's
every word. "If Coach Pitino told him to stand for three hours
on his head, Billy would do it," says Donovan's mother. He
worked himself to exhaustion, to the point of having headaches
so crippling that doctors did a CAT scan on him, to the point
that Pitino had to order him out of the gym for two days of
rest. Donovan had never been happier. "This whole thing doesn't
happen without Coach Pitino coming on the scene," Sendek says.
"It was a marriage made in heaven. The perfect place and the
perfect time for those two to unite."
Two years later Pitino saved him again. Miserable after just
three months on Wall Street, Donovan called him and asked about
getting into coaching. Pitino said he was going to be the new
coach at Kentucky and offered Donovan a job as a graduate
assistant: Grunt work, $370 a month, complete disruption of the
life Christine had envisioned. Billy's father saw him when he
hung up the phone. "His face lit up like a Christmas tree," says
Bill, who had always wanted to coach but hadn't because of the
low pay. "Billy, this is what you love," he told his son. "Go
The news hit Christine like a hammer. She knew no one in
Kentucky. She had no job there. They talked about putting off
the marriage. "I didn't think it was fair that I take her into a
life in which I'd be happy and she'd be miserable," says
Donovan. They married anyway, on Aug. 5, 1989, spent a tense 10
days in Hawaii ("It was terrible," she says), came home and the
next day said goodbye to their families and headed for
Lexington. "Very emotional," Christine says. "We packed our car,
got in, everyone's waving good-bye--and the car wouldn't start."
She took it as a sign.
"I probably fought his job for two years," she says. "It wasn't
the lifestyle I wanted. Until I got my teaching job and made new
friends and got busy in my own life, I had nobody. I didn't have
him either. All of a sudden it was just Coach Pitino and 20-hour
workdays. No joke."
It was Providence all over again, Pitino demanding and Donovan
delivering, Pitino piling up the responsibilities and Donovan
taking them on. Donovan spent five years at Kentucky, moving up
from grunt to righthand man, and then came the week that showed
he was hooked.
Kentucky's first game in the 1994 SEC tournament in Memphis was
on a Friday. On the Tuesday of that week he traveled to West
Virginia, where Marshall named him, at age 29, the youngest
coach in Division I. When he returned to Lexington, Pitino
advised him to stay there with Christine, who was nine months
pregnant with their second child. But Donovan flew to Memphis
with the team on Thursday anyway, and at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday,
he was told that Christine was in labor. He persuaded a Kentucky
booster to fly him home to Lexington on his private jet and got
to the hospital an hour before daughter Hasbrouck was born. An
hour later he was on his way back to Memphis and made it in time
for the 2 p.m. tip-off of the semifinal. Kentucky upset No. 1
Arkansas. Mother and child watched Daddy on TV.
His first season at Marshall, Donovan took a team that had gone
9-18 the year before, remade it in Pitino's up-tempo image and
reversed the record. Two days after the Thundering Herd lost to
Appalachian State in the first round of the Southern Conference
tournament, his wife took him to the emergency room because he
was exhausted. He had to be hospitalized for the next two days
because of a sinus infection.
Marshall went 17-11 in his second year, and he handled it all--the
media, the administration, the boosters--as if he'd been coaching
for decades. He was on the ride of his life. He still loved
playing, and every day there was a 6 a.m. game with the coaches.
He also showed his flair for recruiting, even when he didn't get
One that got away was Travar Johnson of Philadelphia. Johnson had
signed a letter-of-intent to Marshall in April 1996, but a month
later he began to waver. Donovan set up a 7 p.m. home visit and,
along with assistant coach Anthony Grant, drove the eight hours
from Huntington, W.Va., to Philly, tried to persuade the family
to stick with Marshall and then drove the eight hours back. The
two men got in at 5:30 a.m. and went straight to the gym. By six,
Donovan was on the court shooting jumpers. He was awake, wasn't
"Guide hand on the ball, guide hand on the ball.... Use your
legs, Skinny!" It's Wednesday afternoon, first week of October;
the practice court at Florida's O'Connell Center is full and
bustling. Donovan is barking at Mike Miller while watching him
shoot three-pointers. Skinny isn't so skinny anymore: He has
gained 16 pounds in his first two months on campus. Miller runs
the court gracefully for a guy 6'8", can dunk with either hand,
and will miss just eight of the 32 shots he's taking in this
drill. "Stay strong, Skinny. Drive the legs!"
No player embodies the promise of Florida basketball more than
Miller, the focus of Donovan's most furious recruiting battle
and one of the players who must pan out if Florida is to
complete its mission to become the nation's premier athletic
program. Since 1990 some $45 million has been spent upgrading
and building new sports facilities on campus, and the Gators'
all-sports record has consistently ranked in the nation's top
five. But even with its surprise trip to the 1994 Final Four,
Florida's basketball team has only been to the NCAA tournament
five times in 58 years. It's a program still waiting to happen.
That's only the most glaring reason experts were stunned by
Miller's choice. Coaches from UCLA to Wake Forest and all points
in between trooped to South Dakota to see Miller in the fall of
1997. It was the usual ugly recruiting rush, everybody watching
everyone else, and the web of connections that Florida wove
around Miller will keep hoop conspiracy theorists busy for
years. But the fact is, Donovan and his staff--freed by four
early commitments to pursue Miller almost exclusively--targeted
Miller late in his junior year and then showed up at all his AAU
games in the July evaluation period and blanketed his uncles,
parents, friends and coaches with a barrage of youthful energy
and attention. And it worked: When Donovan and Pelphrey made
their home visit to the Miller's house, Mike, who'd been sober
and businesslike with the other eight big-time coaches who had
sat in his living room, jumped to his feet and greeted them with
a round of high-fives.
"Coach Donovan is younger than most head coaches, he's got a lot
of enthusiasm," Miller says. "That's what sells him to a lot of
recruits. He relates to us better than the older coaches, he
knows how we feel and what we want out of basketball. The coaches
here are almost my best friends."
But Florida didn't win over Miller with affection alone. The
Gators' staff also understood before anyone else who would
influence Miller most. "They identified the decision maker and,
in all honesty, the rest of us didn't," says Miami's Howard.
"Everybody thought the parents were most important. But the older
brother ended up being more of a factor."
And no one wooed Ryan Miller, a former standout guard for
Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.Dak., more assiduously
than Florida. By the time the other schools woke up, Ryan had
already worked at one of Donovan's summer camps. Besides
visiting Mike at home, Donovan and Pelphrey also made a point of
being the first to fly to Aberdeen to court Ryan, and Mike's
other brother, 21-year-old Jared. And although they did not
offer Ryan a job, they did say they would put in a good word for
him if he was interested in coaching at another school. The
Miller boys' father, Tom, says other schools dangled firm offers
of a job for Ryan. But it was no shock to Gary Munsen, Mike's
high school coach, that Donovan ended up winning the recruiting
battle in the end. "He's good at it," Munsen says, "and he works
With Miller, Florida also pulled some unusual stunts, like taking
full advantage of the 24-hour window for home visits by having
Pelphrey show up at Miller's house at 12:01 a.m. to tuck him in,
greet Miller at school the next morning and then engage in the
typical chat with the parents at 7 p.m. Donovan says he has no
choice. "We don't have the tradition of Kentucky or Kansas," he
says. "We have to be innovative. We have to call at midnight.
We've got to have a different type of relationship with the kids.
We've got to watch them play every day during the July period.
Hopefully, all that stuff means something in the end."
To critics like Williams, though, there was other "stuff" that
made a difference in Miller's recruitment. There was the role of
Ostrom, 28, who joined Donovan's staff as an administrative
assistant just before Miller committed. Ostrom, who had been a
freelance recruiter for then Adidas basketball czar Sonny
Vaccaro, had been in contact with Miller since February 1996,
trying to get him to play at Adidas's ABCD summer basketball
camp. Ostrom helped get Adidas to sponsor Miller's AAU team, the
Dakota Schoolers, and saw to it that Brett Nelson, the West
Virginia schoolboy star who's been a Donovan admirer since
attending his camp at Marshall in the eighth grade, played on the
Schoolers with Miller in the summer of 1997. That summer, Ostrom
also began campaigning for a job at Florida.
Miller became close friends with Nelson, and thus began a Florida
pattern. This past summer Miller played on Bonner's team at the
Boston Shoot-Out, and presumably Miller, soon to enroll at
Gainesville, talked up the program to Bonner, one of Donovan's
top targets for next year's freshman class. Bonner later roomed
at the ABCD camp with Nelson, who had already verbally committed
to Florida. Then the three players traveled to Europe on the trip
financed by Bearup, a financial adviser to pro players and
college coaches whom Donovan has known since his days at
Kentucky. Soon after, Bonner committed to Florida.
That's what Fogler was alluding to in his media day comments,
though Donovan insists he has no ties to Bearup. "It's amazing to
me how people cast stones and say we're tied up with Bret Bearup,
and I sit down during the July recruiting period and see every
college--either assistant or head coach--making the rounds over to
Bret. Bret Bearup has never done one thing for the University of
Florida or Billy Donovan. I owe him nothing, he owes me nothing."
Still, the whole daisy chain of summertime room assignments and
travels, while not illegal, comes off at best as wily and at
worst as a shrewd way to circumvent the NCAA's limits on contact
with recruits. While Donovan denies having a hand in arranging
any of it--aside from answering questions from Nelson's father
about AAU teams--he'll take any help he can get.
Says Donovan, "What do you do when a player makes a recruiting
visit to your school? You put him with your team. I can do the
best job recruiting, but if the kids don't like the guys in our
program, we're not getting that kid. Inevitably your players are
your best recruiters. I'm not going to tell Mike Miller or Ted
Dupay, 'Call this guy on the phone.' But if they do that on their
own? I'm not stopping it."
Hiring an assistant in order to land a prospect is hardly
unprecedented in college basketball. Larry Brown hired Ed Manning
as an assistant coach at Kansas the year before Ed's son, Danny,
signed with the Jayhawks. Steve Lappas hired Tim Thomas's uncle
(and high school coach) as an assistant at Villanova for the one
year Thomas was a Wildcat. But Ostrom was seemingly hired for no
other reason than his contacts in the recruiting netherworld. It
wasn't illegal, but it rubbed people the wrong way.
Donovan also isn't the first coach to benefit from the players
trying to work the system for themselves; since Michigan's Fab
Five bonded together before signing with the Wolverines in the
summer of 1990, it has come to be common practice. But the rising
influence of Nike and Adidas over the last decade has created a
new wedge in recruiting. "Billy Donovan has learned to work this
system, this new factor, better than anybody," says Gibbons, the
recruiting guru. "Right now he reads the situation better than
any coach in the business."
Do more. Billy hears his father's voice in his head still, and it
doesn't stop until the season stops and he is pale, listless,
drained. "I've got to do a better job--not slowing down but just
getting my rest and taking care of myself," Donovan says. "I
don't sleep well. But that's my nature: Fear of failure is in me.
I just want to do well so bad that I keep pushing. We've got to
get better, so I've got to do more. It's doing more. Doing more.
Donovan's office is a library of motivational sayings and books
by Pitino, Don Shula and Tony Robbins, and at home he tries to
apply the same go-get-'em philosophy. He's the first to
criticize himself for being preoccupied--"here but not here," he
says--when he's with Christine and their three kids, but she
isn't expecting much at this point. That's the life. Billy can't
"I think that's an area that I need to get better at: including
Christine in things," he says. "She hears of a Mike Miller or a
Teddy Dupay, she hears names, I tell her about people or
humorous things. But as recruiting goes along or filming goes
along, I don't think I do a good job of sitting down and giving
great detail. I think if there's one criticism more than any
other, you'd like me to get into more detail about stuff. Would
you agree with that, or no?"
"I guess," Christine says. "I don't know."
They sit in the living room of their custom-built new house on
the outskirts of Gainesville, with its huge kitchen and high
ceilings, the outside painted a brilliant yellow. It is 9 p.m.
The kids are down. It would be a sweet moment, for here's the
perfect, we-made-it-Ma! tableau of dream house and dream job in
small-town America, except for the fact that Billy hardly cuts a
domestic figure. He looks miserable sitting still, out of place,
like an alien in his own home. "He's a basketball coach,"
Christine says. "He doesn't mow the lawn, he doesn't fix the
pictures. If there's a leak, I call the plumber."
But you can't say he doesn't work at it. The night before, Billy
came home at six and freed the babysitter, and suddenly it was
just he and four-year-old Hasbrouck and six-year-old Billy and
20-month-old Bryan. Big Billy was sure he had it all under
control: Everyone was bathed, little Billy was doing homework.
Dad even got the dishwasher going. A savage thunderstorm pounded
the roof. Then Billy noticed that Bryan was missing. He looked
on the floor, around the counter. Nothing. He raced around the
garage, the kitchen, past the dishwasher, now inexplicably
spewing bubbles onto the floor. Nothing. Panic began crawling
through his stomach. For 20 minutes he searched the place,
upstairs and down, yelling Bryan's name. Then he looked outside.
He saw his son, out on the front walk, soaked to the skin. Bryan
was just standing there, motionless, another boy wonder tired of
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER P. CALLAHAN [Billy Donovan]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Prize catch Donovan pushed the rules so far in the recruiting of Miller (with ball) that Kansas asked the NCAA to investigate Florida. [Mike Miller and others in game]
COLOR PHOTO: RICH CLARKSON Divine Providence In 1987 the hustling Donovan led the surprising Friars to the Final Four. [Billy Donovan and opposing player in game]
COLOR PHOTO: CARL SKALAK The apt pupil With Pitino pointing the way, the hustling Donovan led the surprising Friars all the way to the Final Four in 1987. [Rick Pitino coaching Billy Donovan in game]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Coach on the floor At 33, Donovan is still youthful enough to give hands-on instruction to his players. [Billy Donovan guarding player in practice game]
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES At home Billy is often "here but not here" with Christine and the kids. [Bryan Donovan, Billy Donovan Jr., Billy Donovan, Hasbrouck Donovan, and Christine Donovan]
"Coach Donovan relates to us better than older coaches do," says
Miller. "That's what sells him to a lot of recruits."
Today's whispers about Donovan are a cynical variation on the
wonderment he provoked at Providence.
When Pitino told Donovan to get in shape or get out at
Providence, he was setting a match to tinder.
"Billy is a basketball coach," says his wife. "He doesn't mow the
lawn, he doesn't fix the pictures. If there's a leak, I call the
"I fought his job for two years," says Christine. "Until I made
friends, I had nobody. It was just coach Pitino and 20-hour
workdays. No joke."