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Faith from adversity

UF's Billy Donovan focuses on what matters most to him as he navigates his most difficult season.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Billy Donovan has held UF together despite injuries, illness and naysayers. His strength after his fourth child was stillborn impressed his players.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- Billy Donovan was driving home from the hospital, tears stinging his eyes, sorrow piercing his heart, anger raging in his soul. That's when he saw it. There, in front of a church was posted a simple concept.

God is good, all the time.

A few days later, Donovan stood before a congregation of grieving friends and relatives at a funeral mass to help them make sense of a death. His words were soothing, his strength inspiring, his faith assuring.

God is good, he told them, all the time.

The funeral was for his daughter.

"It was powerful," said Tim Maloney, a longtime friend of Donovan's and a member of the Florida basketball staff. "He didn't say "part of the time.' He said "all of the time.' He's the one suffering, he and his wife, but he takes the opportunity to help anybody who is feeling bad for him to put it into perspective."

Jacqueline Patricia Donovan was stillborn Nov. 2, a week shy of the due date and four days before Florida's first exhibition game. It was a tragic beginning to the most challenging, exhausting and gratifying season of Donovan's life.

Through serious injuries to three starters, a 1-3 record in SEC play, a stubborn viral infection and a slew of naysayers, Donovan, the Gators' coach, has persevered, steadfastly clinging to bright sides few could have found.

"What kept me going was my faith," said Donovan, 35. "God is always working for the good."

Two months after many experts wrote off injury-riddled Florida as NIT fodder, the Gators (23-6) are the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament's South Region and play Western Kentucky in the first round Friday at the Superdome in New Orleans.

photo
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
When the Gators hit the skids as SEC play began this season, Donovan wouldn't let his team focus on the defeats.
"I knew we would come together," sophomore guard Brett Nelson said. "I knew in my heart we would be able to do it."

Because Donovan knew in his.

Donovan is what young people call "real." As in the opposite of phony. He says only what he believes; he believes everything he says. And his actions back it up.

"What he says, you believe," senior Brent Wright said.

So, when Donovan told the Gators that injuries to starters Wright, Teddy Dupay and Justin Hamilton -- all of whom had surgery in two weeks in January -- would give young players valuable experience and ultimately make them a better team, they believed him.

When Donovan told the Gators they were "right there" after disheartening back-to-back home losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt by a combined four points, they believed him.

When Donovan told the Gators the adversity they faced was an opportunity presented by God and what they did with it was up to them, they believed him.

"If anyone ever says they have no doubts, no fears, no insecurities, that's not true. Everybody does," Donovan said. "But I think the most important thing in life is your attitude. There are a lot of things I can't control, but I can control my attitude.

"So, I'm going to choose how I think, how I act, how I feel. I'm not saying it's always easy; I have to work at that. But that's the right thing to do."

Though Hamilton was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Wright returned 20 days after having a screw inserted to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. Dupay returned 20 days after a herniated disc in his lower back was repaired. By then, the winning streak had begun.

[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Billy Donovan says his relationship with his wife, Christine, withstood the death of their fourth child because of an emphasis on faith and family.

Florida won 11 of its final 12 regular-season games to claim a share of its second consecutive SEC championship. Despite losing Wright to season-ending foot surgery Monday, the Gators enter the NCAA Tournament as one of the nation's hottest teams, having won 12 of 14. "Sometimes adversity tears teams apart or tears marriages or people apart," Donovan said. "The adversities of this year and the way we chose to approach them have brought us all closer together. I think God handed us this adversity to help make us better."

Donovan never has been one to preach, not even during Florida's run last season to the NCAA championship game. But this season, as reporters kept asking how the Gators were thriving despite seemingly devastating setbacks, Donovan had one answer.

"My faith in God and reading the Bible, with my wife's support and my assistant coaches' support, have helped me," he said. "That's been our source of strength.

"When something is really important to you and you love something as much as I love coaching, you're always struggling and looking for answers. If you read God's word, there are a lot of things that relate to what I'm going through and what our team is going through."

Two years ago, players approached Donovan about praying before and after practices. Raised Catholic by his parents on Long Island, Donovan was pleased to help his players maintain the spiritual drive their families instilled in them.

"One of our favorite passages is when things are going great, there are two sets of footsteps, you and God walking along together," said Dupay, a junior guard. "When things are going bad, there's only one set of footsteps. Sometimes people think it's because they're walking alone and God has left them, but really it's because God is carrying them. ... If you can believe when things are going bad, things will be okay."

Never was Donovan's faith more evident than when his wife, Christine, noticed days before the birth of the couple's fourth child that the baby no longer was active in her womb. Doctors told the Donovans the child was dead before Christine went into labor.

On his way home from the hospital, as Donovan struggled for words to explain the baby's death to the couple's other children -- sons William, 9, and Bryan, 4, and daughter Hasbrouck, 7 -- Donovan was stopped at a red light when he spotted the church marquee.

"For whatever reason this happened, it's all going to work out for the good somehow," Donovan said. "It may not appear good now, but it's all going to work out for the best."

Basketball took its rightful place in Donovan's life. Even as the Gators' season-opening exhibition game approached, he stayed home. Realizing he could never understand the bond between his wife and the child she carried for nine months, Donovan comforted her with his presence.

"I think my priorities are straight as far as my faith, my family and then my job," Donovan said. "There wasn't any work I had to do that I couldn't do at home. And I needed some help, too. I don't know if I was in the right frame of mind to go to the office every day, either."

Clearly distracted, Donovan was on the sideline for a 118-95 victory against the London Leopards on Nov. 6. A moment of silence was observed before the game. Though he did not return to the office for another week, he returned to practice the next day. The impact on his team was profound.

"Even though he's a little guy, he packs a lot of strength," junior center Udonis Haslem said. "Seeing him bounce back, knowing he's hurting inside, to come back with a positive attitude and push us and help us, it took our respect for him to another level."

In January, when injuries depleted the roster to seven scholarship players, Donovan forsook sleep and exercise for a videocassette recorder and scouting reports. Run down, he got the flu and kept it. After a two-week bout, Donovan seemed to be getting better when he relapsed.

Not until checking into Shands at the University of Florida, Gainesville for a night -- after sweating profusely during an 81-74 overtime victory at LSU on Feb. 13 -- did Donovan finally turn the corner. Now, having lost more than 10 pounds, his suits don't fit.

But his eyes still shine.

"I'm thankful that I've had the opportunity to go through some of these things," Donovan said. "Obviously, I'm not thankful that my daughter passed, but I'm thankful that my faith is stronger and my relationship with my wife is stronger. I have three healthy children at home who I get to be with all the time. I wish we had four, but God had other plans.

"I look at us as being blessed."

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