One day, Florida’s Billy Donovan was jogging when he passed a woman sobbing on a curb.
He ran past. A couples of miles later, he hit his halfway mark and turned around. On the way back, she was still sitting there, weeping. He had practice to plan, a pile of paperwork on his desk and game tape to watch, but he just couldn’t run by her twice.
He sat down next to her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“We just lost a child,” she wailed. “And now my husband and I are having troubles. And I … we … just don’t know where to turn!”
In 2000, he lost a child himself, a baby named Jacqueline, killed by her own umbilical cord.
“You go into a hospital,” Donovan says, “and a doctor tells you the child inside your wife is dead and they’re prepping her for delivery. And then they take you into a room and three people are asking you to pick out a tombstone and a cemetery. And you walk back up to the maternity ward and there are balloons everywhere that say, ‘It’s a boy! It’s a girl!’ and people are full of joy and you’re just totally disconnected and devastated. So I knew what she was going through. I invited her to our house. We tried to help her.”
You can say Billy Donovan was a disaster as a Wall Street trader. You can point out he was one-and-done as a New York Knick. But you can’t say he wasn’t born to teach.
He seems particularly good at teaching college men the game of basketball. At only 47, Donovan already has 445 wins going into Saturday’s game with Kentucky, not to mention four Elite Eights and back-to-back national championships. At this rate, if he coached until 70, he would end up with 984 wins, which, as you read this, would be the most in college basketball history.
“Nine hundred?” laughs Donovan, whose Gators just clinched the SEC title. “Oh, my god, I’m already exhausted and you want me to get to 900?”
Besides, then what?
“I love what I’m doing,” he says, “but when my time is done, I don’t want to look back and see that I left a path of destruction with a bunch of trophies thrown in. I don’t want to be some old gray-haired coach sitting there with a ton of wins but no friends.”
Maybe that’s what makes Donovan different from so many of the Florsheim-stomping coaches today in college basketball. Maybe that’s why Donovan stays inside his kettle while so many others blow. Maybe that’s why he answers the rare Kenny Boynton air ball in practice with: “Hey, somebody shut the doors! It’s messing up Kenny’s shot!” Maybe that’s why he wants his dad, Bill, Sr., at as many practices as he an get, and why his son, Billy III, is a Gators walk-on. He knows those red-faced, jacket-throwing coaches too well. He was one of them.
“I used to come back from a tough road loss, 1 or 2 in the morning, and go straight to the office and pull an all-nighter trying to figure out what went wrong. Or I’d close the door of my office at home and watch tape. My highs were too high and my lows were too low.”
Now, like John Wooden, he stays as even as Alligator Alley.
“You talk about a guy who’s won two national championships,” says Buzz Williams of Marquette, “and yet he still looks you in the eye and says, ‘How are you doing?’ There are a lot of guys in our business that don’t do that. Sometimes they think they win because of who they are.”
Once Donovan realized that whether he won or lost wouldn’t tremble the cosmos, he started teaching it to others — such as his former neighbor across the street, a guy named Urban Meyer. Imagine that: One block, four national championship trophies. Meyer nearly cracked under the pressure of what he’d built, retiring and unretiring, his boot tangled in the stirrup of a beast he couldn’t get off.
“We talked a lot,” Donovan says of Meyer, now the head football coach at Ohio State. “You start to realize that the trophy brings you nothing of real value. Nothing, really. The joy in coaching is helping a group of kids accomplish something they couldn’t accomplish by themselves.”
This offseason, Erik Spoelstra, head coach of the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, enrolled at the University of Donovan. Spoelstra spent seven hours grilling Donovan on how to repeat.
Seven hours? Seriously?
“I told Erik, ‘You’ve got to enjoy the journey. You’re not in the NBA Finals. You’re at ground zero.
“After you win [a championship], all of a sudden it’s not about whether you won, it’s ‘Did you win by enough points?’ You’ve got to start all over, enjoy the process, the struggles, the joys, the pain.”
No wonder Donovan tends not to panic about making the past two Elite Eights but no Final Fours. After those losses, he didn’t go back to the tape room and pull his Eddie Munster haircut out. He has learned to accept both the cruelty and kindness of fate. If Casey Calvary doesn’t come out of nowhere to tip in a crazy bounce for Gonzaga in ’99, Florida makes the Elite Eight. If Georgetown doesn’t miss a wide-open jumper in the 2006 semifinal, Florida doesn’t go on to win the national title.
“You have to take both ends of it. You have to realize so much of it is just luck, the breaks of life.”
Like a child dying suddenly in the womb?
“Yes. In the end, I had to accept that it was just a freak accident. I had to believe something good would come out of it.”
Since Jacqueline died, he has been helping to raise funds for a new children’s hospital at the university. He has helped a group called the Little Bits of Honey Memorial Fund that covers the cost of infant funerals for couples who can’t afford them. And he’s been open to teaching from his own deep wounds, even curbside.
Turns out he was right. Something good did come out of it. Billy Donovan himself.