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Billy the Recruiter

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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2000

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- For a while there, the choice of the Florida Gators appeared to be twofold. They could be beaten up, or they could be beaten down.

It was late in the first half, and the University of Illinois seemed intent on taking the Gators to the Big Ten, with a stop at the local hospital along the way. There were Gators on the floor, Gators in the stands and Gators on the elbows of the Illinois players. Illini. If Marty McSorley played basketball, this is the sort he would play.

So Billy the Kid gathered his players, and he settled them down, and he helped them regain their composure. Billy Donovan told them not to worry about officiating the game, and not to worry about what he might be saying along the same lines. Then he sent his charges back onto the floor, and although the physical nature of the game didn't change much, it seemed to bother the Gators a lot less as they skipped along merrily toward the Sweet 16.

[AP photo]
Florida's Teddy Dupay jokes with coach Billy Donovan after the Gators' 93-76 win over Illinois.

Was that moment, critical in the Gators' victory, what you would call (gasp) coaching? And could the world possibly be prepared for Billy Donovan, Tactician?

You decide.

For Florida, Sunday's victory was important in many ways. It advanced the Gators in the NCAA Tournament, and it gained a measure of vengeance over a coach, Lon Kruger, who dared to leave the program four years ago. Most of all, however, this was a triumph of style. This was a warning that, hey, the Kid can coach a little, too.

To date, such acknowledgement has been slow in coming. Instead, Billy D has been cast as the guy who assembled the players, then turned on the lights and stood back. His team played with the fury of a cattle stampede and, hence, people tended to credit it with the same amount of organization.

The proper way to refer to Donovan has been as a recruiter, which is basketball jargon for a guy who can gather all the ingredients but has no earthly way to make a stew. By and large, there are recruiters (Nolan Richardson, Bob Huggins, Pat Kennedy) and there are coaches (John Chaney, Dick Bennett, Gene Hackman in the movie Hoosiers). Only a precious few, such as Mike Krzyzewski, leave the impression they can do both. The labels may not be accurate, of course, but they are easy, and so they linger.

Which is precisely what brought us to the Trial of Billyball on a Sunday afternoon, in which Donovan was on the opposite bench of Kruger, who attained the rank of Floor General some time ago. For all of the perceived slights Kruger inflicted upon Florida by his departure, no one doubts the guy can coach. And with Donovan's team 1-14 against ranked teams away from the O'Connell Center, coming in, there were those who were starting to wonder if the Gators really were playing Bullyball. Then, head-to-head, Donovan's team won 93-76. The Gators took charges. They hit free throws. They used the clock. They played defense. And when Donovan called a huddle and spoke to them, they managed to act as if he had something to say. So the question remains: If Donovan can't coach, how many would the Gators have scored Sunday if he could?

"I think people see our system and go, "Gee. Let's go play at Florida. They just roll it out there and let you play,' " Donovan said, flashing that lopsided grin of his.

For one thing, Donovan recruits too well. For another, he plays too fast. That's the rule of thumb for coaching's master planners; the slower they play, the better. If you want to be a coach, you move at the speed of chess. If your team plays like the silver ball in a pinball machine, it's harder to see the discipline.

"If you're playing slow, and you're in the 60s, and you're making 18 passes and this and that, people think you're really coaching those guys up," Donovan said. "To me, it's more difficult to coach this style, because I have to give up some of my control. I have to teach them in practice to make decisions, to play, to execute."

If nothing else, the victory argued this way is better. Donovan's team ran the Illini until their tongues were hanging out. And it closed the door on any lingering feelings about Kruger, who remains mysterious as to why he fled the state as it appeared the program was sinking beneath him. Does that matter to anyone anymore?

No, what matters is that Billy D. is here, and his team is on its way to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. From the looks of it, you can get used the sight of it. Athletic director Jeremy Foley, remember, once compared Kruger to that one-hit wonder The Blues McGoos. These days, he compares Donovan to the Rolling Stones. After all, he can recruit. And he can coach a little, too.

Billy Donovan, Strategist.

Nice ring, don't you think?

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