Donovan vs. Chaney: No mismatch here
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001
NEW ORLEANS -- The young coach looks fresh, scrubbed. He walks as if he is in a hurry, and he bounces on the balls of his feet, as if he is ready to play.
The old coach looks weary, worn. He shuffles down the corridor, and his shoulders sag, and he looks as if every bad bounce of a basketball is etched in the splotches upon his face.
They are Billy the Kid and grumpy Uncle John, and they should approach this game from opposing corners. Florida's Billy Donovan and Temple's John Chaney are the late night and early morning of college basketball, as different flavors as the sport will allow.
If it is truly contrasts of style that bring out the finest in competition -- think Ali vs. Frazier, Russell vs. Chamberlain, mongoose vs. cobra -- then today's second-round NCAA men's game between Florida and Temple should be the most interesting game of the day. They are the neatest old coach in the game, and the best new one, and they are ordering from different menus.
One coach is white, the other is black. One is 35 years old, the other darned near 70. One coach runs and guns, the other spins and weaves. One coach has a fresh carload of All-Americans dumped at the gym every other week; the other wouldn't recognize one at a banquet. One grew up in a well-to-do suburb of Long Island. The other had frogs in his living room.
Today, what they have in common is each other, and the chance to reach the Sweet 16.
There are different routes to the same destination. You can play slow, or you can play fast, as long as you play well. But when the Gators and Owls play today, generations and philosophies will battle, too.
Take Donovan. When it comes to coaching, everything seems to come easy for the guy. At 35, he already has established his program as special. He recruits from the top shelf, collecting All-Americans and herding them into something to behold.
Chaney, on the other hand, admits he doesn't have much luck with All-Americans. They hear about his 5:30 a.m. practices and the way he swears and carries on and his long list of rules and suddenly, they remember previous appointments.
It always has been a struggle for Chaney. He was a great player in high school, but none of the majors offered him a scholarship, so he ended up at Bethune-Cookman. The NBA was mostly white in the early '50s, so Chaney starred for years in the Eastern League. He didn't become a coach at a major college until he was 50 years old.
Who knows? Another time, and Chaney could have been the coach at Florida. He grew up in Jacksonville, in a rickety house in a neighborhood called Blackbottom, and when it rained, the house would flood up to your shins, and frogs would take residence and "squabble" and he tried to sleep. But as near as the University of Florida was, it might as well have been on Mars for all it mattered to a young black man in 1950. Kids such as Chaney, even when they had moved to Philadelphia and become the best high school player in the city, ended up at places like Bethune-Cookman.
Chaney tells the story of how his coach used to wager the meal money on the games. And the one about the night the coach pulled the bus over in Atlanta, told the team to stay on the bus, then went inside the cafeteria to eat. A half-hour later, he came out rubbing his stomach. Or the one about the small towns in Georgia the team had to sneak through. "If there was a 35-mile speed limit," he said, "you could get a ticket for going 10 ... if you were pushing the car."
Chaney laughs as the anecdotes come, because age and success have a way of forging the hard times into good times. But those days also forged Chaney's own coaching philosophies.
He is tough. He makes his players wear ties, keep their beards cut close, and piercings are forbidden. He does not allow celebrating, or interaction with the crowd, or trash-talking. Baggy shorts drive him crazy. He doesn't allow jeans.
Once, Chaney told his team there would be no tattoos allowed. The players all looked at him as if he were crazy. They already had tattoos.
"All right," Chaney yelled. "No more tattoos."
Oh, he rages at his kids. He swears and spews and snarls. But they seem to love him. He has a softness for the kids from single-parent homes, the ones he calls his back-to-the-wall kids. When he finally quits, he said, it will be because one of his players will be a sinker. "I'll get a bushel of peanuts, a case of beer, and I'll sit underneath a shady tree and tell some lies," he said.
Until then, he's here. You see him before a game, and he looks as neat as can be, with his hand-made ties and his Armani pants. But then the whistle goes off, and the tie loosens, and the buttons open, and he looks like your Uncle Lou on the couch after Thanksgiving Dinner. "I have good clothes," he said. "I just look like a dog in them."
To Chaney, however, the rule of coaching is to make kids buy what you are selling. This is basketball the way Chaney believes it should be played, with that maddening matchup zone of his driving everyone crazy.
Donovan has a contrasting style. Of course he does. He likes to press his opponent all over the floor to cause fatigue.
Chaney shrugs. "I think part of pressure is the surprise of it. My momma told me that if you have pain all the time, you get used to it."
Give Chaney this. If he knows anything, he knows about point guards. And so you paid attention as he talked about that night, 18 years ago, when he laid eyes on the slow, chunky-legged guard he had heard about. He was new to Temple then, and he didn't have a scholarship to give. But when he saw the kid play, the way he saw the floor and ran the team and passed off the dribble, he wanted him.
So Chaney made a deal to the kid's father. Pay his way for a year, and a scholarship will wait for the next three. Chaney thought that was good enough. He told his assistant coach that he had a secret weapon.
Turns out, the kid was named Billy Donovan, who ended up at Providence learning to walk in Rick Pitino's footsteps.
"My father felt comfortable that if I chose to go to Temple," Donovan said Saturday, "I would be with a great man who as going to teach me about character, and humility and what it was to work hard."
Think about that for a minute. Think about success instead of style, about honor instead of age. And you come to this.
Maybe these two aren't that different, after all.
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