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Donovan's question raises more questions

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002


CHICAGO -- The toughest guy in the room wears loafers. He's a head shorter than most everyone else and favors hair gel as a fashion statement.

The toughest guy in the room stares down a dozen or more younger, stronger men. And he calls them, essentially, a collection of wimps.

This is the way Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan chose to begin preparations for the NCAA Tournament.

Forget about the fight between teammates in practice that sent Brett Nelson to the hospital with a fractured cheekbone.

Donovan picked the week's first fight after deciding his players lacked heart and character in a Southeastern Conference tournament loss.

He took a swing at their pride. He kicked them in the ego. And then he swung open the doors of the locker room so the world could see.

"I told them the team is supposed to be a reflection of me," Donovan said. "And if I look in the mirror, I must be looking at a very, very, soft basketball coach. I said, "That disappoints me, because I look at myself as trying to be a pretty hard-nosed guy, tough and hard working.' But they weren't reflecting my personality. And ultimately it stops with me."

As bullies go, he is better dressed than most. He has impeccable manners and, by all accounts, is a loving husband and doting father.

Yet Donovan, 36, is the scourge of malingerers everywhere. He has risen to the top of his profession through passion and determination and, thus, expects his players to follow along with an equal sense of commitment.

So when the Gators were beaten up by Mississippi State, Donovan refused to pick them up. Instead, he kicked them some more.

Most coaches have the bus backed up to the locker-room door with the engine running after an embarrassing loss. Donovan went the opposite direction.

He had the Gators stick around Atlanta after being eliminated from the SEC tournament. Donovan made them watch the semifinals from the stands.

And, upon returning to Gainesville, he purposefully told reporters he felt the players had shown no heart against Mississippi State.

"All coaches challenge their teams," said Creighton coach Dana Altman, who faces Donovan and the Gators this afternoon. "Usually it's in the locker room, or in a huddle behind closed doors, or on the practice floor.

"When you do it publicly like that, then you really are challenging them."

The move was not without risk. Donovan essentially reduced his team to rubble on Sunday and allowed himself four days in which to rebuild.

And so he has spent much of the past two days pointing out how the team has shown character and grit throughout much of the season.

Others would say the Gators have been lacking a certain fire for months. Critics would point to a 0-4 record in games decided by three points or fewer and say it does not speak well for a team with enough talent to win 22 games.

No one has replaced the passion Teddy Dupay was expected to bring to the floor this season. Dupay would have been a senior guard but left the team after a gambling investigation and is playing professionally in Venezuela.

That left Udonis Haslem as the team's only senior. Haslem is a splendid player, but not a vocal leader.

So the Gators seem to be stuck somewhere in between. They are more talented than most teams, which would explain their 14-game winning streak early in the season. But they lack the passion that makes a difference in tough games.

"If we don't have the entire team playing really well, we're just a good team, that's it," Donovan said. "When everybody is playing really well, we can be very, very devastating. That's the challenge for me.

"Sometimes you may not play well, but you can play hard, you can play with passion, play with intensity. You have to try to battle when things don't go your way. You miss a few shots, you turn the ball over. That's when you have to keep fighting."

Which might explain why Donovan chose this week to pick his battle. Since mid January, the Gators have lost as many games as they have won.

The season is no longer going their way and Donovan chose to fight rather than sit still.

Is it the ultimate insult for a coach to accuse his players of not having enough heart?

"I would think so," Donovan said. "If my coach told me, in any one game, that I didn't play with any character or any heart, that would go right through me. That would really, really bother me.

"These guys have enough character and heart. You don't win 22 games in our league without character and heart."

Will the Gators prove Donovan right?

It's not a tough question.

Just a question of toughness.

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