But Illinois coach tries to treat it as just another game.
By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 2000
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- They strode to the interview room 20 minutes apart, the men who represent Florida's basketball past and future. Lon Kruger and Billy Donovan, united by a job title.
And nothing else.
They don't know each other well, aren't really friends. Why would they be? They don't have much in common, the even-keeled Midwesterner and the fast-talking New Yorker. They both coach basketball, but not the same game. Not the same way.
"Night and day," UF guard Teddy Dupay said.
But Kruger left Florida after six seasons to go to Illinois, which means today's game between the fourth-seeded Illini and fifth-seeded Gators in the second round of the NCAA's East Region has a tantalizing story line.
"It's understandable," Kruger said.
Though both Kruger and Florida seem better off apart, his desire to leave after reaching the 1994 Final Four, coupled with Donovan's quick transformation of the program, has fueled a mighty debate about why Kruger and the Gators were a bad fit.
Was Florida's lack of basketball tradition to blame for Kruger's inability to sign in-state recruits, or was Kruger not aggressive enough in his pursuit of the state's top players?
Pick a theory. Kruger fielded questions for 20 minutes Saturday, but offered few answers.
"A lot of things have been written that aren't necessarily accurate, but there wasn't any one particular reason," said Kruger, 104-80 at Florida, including 12-16 his final season. "My family and I loved Florida, but we felt like we needed to get back to the Midwest. It's worked out well both ways. We're happy where we are, and Billy's done a great job at Florida."
Kruger is the Midwest personified. He was born in Kansas, played at Kansas State. He coached Texas-Pan American and his alma mater for four seasons each before going to Florida in 1990 as the replacement for Norm Sloan.
Kruger speaks with little inflection and works the sideline with little emotion.
"He's very laid-back," Illini forward Damir Krupalija said.
Donovan is all New York. He has slicked-back hair, wears designer suits and his staccato words can't fly out of his mouth fast enough.
His basketball team operates at the same tempo, pressing, running and shooting the three at a furious pace.
"Kruger is so passive and laid-back and he gets mad sometimes," said Dupay, a Sarasota native who tracked the Gators during Kruger's tenure. "Coach Donovan is mad and aggressive and sometimes he gets calm. Total opposites. But they both win. They know what works for them. Their styles of play definitely suit their personalities."
Donovan, it seems, suits UF.
His aggressiveness on the court and on the recruiting trail enticed players the caliber of which UF had never before seen: four McDonald's All-Americans in the past two seasons. The O'Connell Center, painfully half-empty the season after the Gators' Final Four trip, has become one of the nation's toughest venues.
"Coach Donovan is a great recruiter," said senior Kenyan Weaks, the only player recruited by Kruger still in the UF program. "He and his coaching staff do a great job of getting players who want to play this style of play."
Suddenly, nothing is the same.
"One of the reasons we hired Billy was to do something a little different," UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "The O'Connell Center was not full, and (football coach) Steve Spurrier is over there going up and down the field, throwing all over the place. There's no question part of the attractiveness of Billy Donovan was the style of play."
Kruger's brand of basketball -- rooted in defense and rebounding -- is working at Illinois, where his roster is largely composed of in-state players. The Illini are in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in his four seasons, looking to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since they went to the Final Four in 1989.
"We had six terrific years at Florida," Kruger said. "We have a lot of good friends there still and I've got a daughter in school there. But all of my feelings about my time at Florida won't make a single bit of difference in the game. If we win we advance, if we lose we won't."
But the drama is irresistible.