Three days ago, Billy Donovan eclipsed the 500 win milestone in Men’s College Basketball. He joins hall of famer Bob Knight as the only other coach to accomplish this feat shy of the age of 50. Donovan is 49. His Gators, who have languished all season long, blew the doors off Tennessee in a rare showing of excellent team defense and a rarer showing of shooting prowess. Despite Florida’s excellent play, they are not in any danger of being invited to either dance later this month. Billy’s 500th win is a big deal, but the most important thing isn’t that he won those games, it’s how he did it that gives this writer pause.
Before I discuss Billy Donovan further, I have to lay some ground work.
Consider the currently embattled, rhetoric-spewing NCAA—the same NCAA that clings to its draconian bylaws and it’s perfunctory effort to protect amateurism. There’s a reason that Mark Emmert and Co. have given birth to the hashtag #shamateurism. You cannot simultaneously drive an operation that has reached untold heights in profitability, and proclaim that the NCAA is a not-for-profit custodian concerned with the lives of its student-athletes. The NCAA puts constraints on student-athletes so restrictive that maintaining eligibility should be a degree discipline incorporated into the curriculum. These athletes are not even afforded the same intellectual property and likeness rights that would otherwise be afforded regular students. If a regular student uses her talents to found a start-up while still enrolled, she can use her likeness to profit in most ways imaginable. Should an athlete want to profit from his own talents by signing merchandise, the NCAA is there to regulate this behavior as improper and sanction it.
For those keeping score: autographs, which are demand-driven in value, are illicit under the NCAA bylaws. Just ask Todd Gurley.
Meanwhile, the NCAA puts next to no restrictions on the coaches of these multi-million dollar programs. With Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen recently inking a lucrative extension, every coach in the SEC West now makes over $4 million dollars annually. Why? Because they win games in what is currently the toughest division of the toughest conference. These coaches are being paid for performance off the revenue they generate for the program. But, where is the sanctimonious NCAA and their feigned outrage? Nowhere to be found it seems. This is due to the laughable notion that these coaches are being paid in a similar capacity to educators; that they foster and develop these young men into model citizens.
That is the party line from the NCAA whenever the topic of regulating the administration rears its head. It’s laughable because most of these coaches only care about their players getting in trouble so far as it impacts the program. Most are motivated solely by the athlete’s importance to the team—and keeping that athlete eligible amidst allegations and investigations is priority 1. For many coaches, athletes are only suspended if the school a) can’t keep the investigation quiet or b) the athlete’s value to the team is worth less than the hassle required to keep the athlete in question out of trouble.
Billy Donovan is not that kind of coach. His history with the Florida Gators paints a picture of a equitable disciplinarian who summarily suspends, benches, or dismisses players who cannot abide by his rules. Now, most of the time, the reasons given for the suspension are “violation of team rules” and “conduct detrimental to the team” so we do not know an extensive amount about the reasons for these punishments. But, based on Florida basketball’s history of incidents, or lack thereof, it’s safe to assume that Billy is doing something right in Gainesville.
Donovan is committed—to his team, his community, his craft. He is a Pitino disciple from his days at Providence as a player. Offensive ingenuity—a hallmark of Pitino’s—has a prominent position in Donovan’s offenses. Additionally, Donovan runs an incredibly tough defensive scheme that begins with sound assignments and evolves into a full court press after made baskets. Donovan’s uncompromising gameplan mandates that Florida basketball players be at the peak of physical condition. Players must be mentally tough as well, as Donovan constantly modifies schemes, plays, and personnel in order to put the best possible product on the court.
College basketball has an embarrassment of great coaches when considering simply X’s and O’s. What makes Donovan exceptional is his dedication to his players and his effort to leave every one of them better for having played for him. Like many coaches, Donovan has team rules and expectations. Unlike these coaches, however, Donovan does not simply enforce them to maintain order and avoid scrutiny, nor does he use them to exact a pound of flesh out of his players. His rules promote discipline and responsibility. Players who break them face Billy’s own brand of justice. Often, violators are suspended indefinitely and banned from team activities. These young men are given a list of tasks that must be completed before the player can rejoin the team. Donovan does not hold these kids hostage until he “breaks” them; instead, he is willing to give these players their release to go play elsewhere. Some transfer, but most earn their way back into the locker room. The equity in this system is undeniable, and it teaches the players to not only respect the team, but also themselves in the process. Many of them will not go on to play professional basketball, but the lessons in respect and discipline taught by Donovan will be worth its weight in gold down the road. Players, fans, and rivals have grown to respect Donovan for how he treats the young men in his care. Winning makes him a good coach, the way he cares for his team is what makes him great.
The way Donovan is respected—not just by Gator fans, but by college basketball fans in general—is the reason that this milestone is so important. He is the embodiment of the NCAA rhetoric about coaches, and that is a rare quality. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but with coaches like Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewksi—coaches who have been painted with a similar brush—recently dealing with scandals, it’s hard to say using absolutes that Donovan is running a tight, clean ship at Florida. However, despite the scrutiny of today’s social media age, Donovan continues to rise above the fray and serve as an example of what it looks like to embody principles as both a coach, and an educator. He continues to win the battle versus the NCAA’s volcano of hypocrisy.
May he continue to do so for the rest of his career.