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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Third title would put Gators' Donovan among elite

Billy the Kid turns 49 next month, but it might as well be 1996, the year he arrived at a football place.

It's 18 seasons later, and he hasn't changed. He changed Florida basketball forever.

Billy Donovan is only 48, and he is one of the all-timers. He takes his top-ranked, 36-2 Gators into the Final Four this weekend.

He is two wins from a third national championship, which would put him in the clouds with names that speak to history and legend: Wooden, Rupp, Knight, Krzyzewski, Calhoun.

Billy would belong.

It's time to appreciate him.

Nobody ever talks about Donovan as one of the greats, but he's a sure Hall of Famer — and he's only 48. Nobody ever mentions Billy as one of the best in college basketball. It's always Mike Krzyzewski, or Tom Izzo, or Roy Williams, or Jim Boeheim, or Donovan's college coach, mentor and friend, Louisville's Rick Pitino.

Billy belongs.

Donovan has never been voted national coach of the year. When Florida won titles back-to-back, he didn't get enough credit. No, it was all that talent, Noah, Horford, Brewer and the rest. But here is Billy, with a team that isn't nearly as stocked as those national champions, still getting everything out of them, delivering another Final Four, his fourth as Florida coach.

Do you want the list of great coaches who've never made four Final Fours? Do you know how hard it is to win in the NCAA tournament, even a single game? Billy has won 35 of them.

Billy belongs.

Two national titles. Six SEC titles at Florida after there had been one in the 77 years before he arrived. This is Donovan's 16th straight 20-win season. He came to a football place all those years ago and made kids on campus ask when basketball starts. Now Florida football is all kinds of down. Billy has another juggernaut.

He also has a new contract extension at Florida, running through the 2018-19 season. And there's a groundswell of support for the university naming the floor at the O'Connell Center for Donovan.

“You know, it's always been not a dream of Billy's, but a dream of mine to see a court named Billy Donovan Court,” Pitino said a few weeks ago during the NCAA tournament's early rounds in Orlando. “I thought it would happen a while ago, to see his name on the court. I still very much want to see that someday because of what he's meant to Gator basketball.”

To Pitino, he'll always be Billy the Kid.

“He's still a kid because he still has the passion of someone just playing the game. … He's just the most special human being I've encountered in my lifetime. He never changed. Success never changed him. Adversity doesn't change him. There's nobody like Billy the Kid in the world that I've encountered in my lifetime.”

“He's a special, special person,” Florida senior forward Will Yeguete said. “He helped me become a better man. He's more than a coach, so much more.”

Athletic directors are forever looking for the next Billy. USF's Mark Harlan hopes he has the next Billy in Orlando Antigua. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley hired the first Billy in 1996, when Donovan was only 29.

“Pitino told me not to hire him,” Foley said. “Or he told Billy not to take the job. He thought the expectations were too high. We'd gone to a Final Four (in 1994). So I called Rick. I said if I support him and stay behind him, what am I going to have in five years? He told me I'd have one of the best coaches in the country.”

Foley signed Donovan to a six-year contract.

Billy made the NCAA title game in his fourth season.

And he never changed.

“He has a saying, 'Just be normal,'” Foley said. “He's as normal a person as you'll meet. He's funny; people like being around him. He's kind of a pied piper. He brings people together. He's brought nothing but integrity and character to this program and this university.”

A few weeks ago in Orlando, Donovan was asked if he was “a lifer” at Florida. The setting was appropriate: the Amway Center, the building Donovan might have called home if he hadn't pulled out after taking the Magic job and the NBA life in 2007.

“For me, it seems like a long time ago,” Donovan said. “But when you say 'a lifer,' that means to me I'm never ever going to go anywhere and be there. Who knows? They might get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements. I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”

Whatever happens at this Final Four, and wherever Donovan eventually goes, be it the NBA, or a TV job, or just the beach, his legacy will be forever young.

Name it Billy the Kid Court.

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