Donovan vs. Pitino is not your ordinary matchup


Florida coach Billy Donovan, left, and Louisville coach Rick Pitino.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, March 23, 2012 at 11:07 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 24, 2012 at 12:46 a.m.

PHOENIX — Rick Pitino was sitting in the stands of the old RCA Dome wearing the orange and blue silk tie that he had flown to New York to purchase for this occasion when he saw the wave.

Billy Donovan had just won his first national title and wanted his former coach and former boss to come to the floor.

“He was waving for me to come down and I started crying,” Pitino said. “That's when I realized I felt better about him winning it than when I won it.”

This is no ordinary matchup with a Final Four berth on the line because it is more than teacher vs. pupil. The way these two coaches talk about each other is the way fathers talk about sons and vice versa. The bond is unbreakable, the love unconditional.

It has been 25 years since Billy the Kid led Providence to the Final Four in New Orleans under Pitino's guidance. In May, that team will get together at a house Pitino owns in Miami and celebrate the anniversary.

But only one of the two will get a return trip to the Big Easy.

“If we were playing Team X and we lost, I'd be devastated,” Pitino said. “If we lose this game, I'll professionally be very down about it, but, personally, I'll be very happy for Billy Donovan.”

It's more than just Rick and Billy. It's Billy and Richard Pitino, who served as an assistant to Donovan at Florida for two years before returning to Louisville for this season. Donovan used to babysit Richard when Billy was playing at Providence. Richard helped recruit Florida's freshmen and sophomores.

“When I hired Richard, he had a picture his mom sent,” Donovan said. “And I was playing at Providence and I was in his house and it was Richard, Michael and Christopher, his brothers, and Richard is sitting on my lap at like 3 or 4 years old. And it's just kind of ironic that I hired him.”

And it's Pitino and John Pelphrey, who also played for him at Kentucky.

“Billy and John Pelphrey are unique situations,” Pitino said. “You're close to all your assistants, but because they played for me, and we had a great time together, it's a little bit different.”

Maybe it's just coincidence that this has happened, that Florida and Louisville would line up to play in the Elite Eight. We talk all the time about the interesting plot lines that the NCAA sets up in its tournament and then acts like it's a total coincidence.

“Based on the seeding, I don't think they thought Louisville and us would ever be together,” Donovan said.

Florida was a seven, Louisville a four.

But it doesn't matter how this happened or why it happened, only that it happened.

This family reunion.

Donovan has talked in the past about how much he dislikes playing against good friends who he has coached with, but you get the sense that this is different.

It's different than coaching against Anthony Grant.

It's different than coaching against Pitino the previous six times, all losses for Donovan. Because those were just games.

This is a chance to go to New Orleans. Which is why these two men aren't cringing at the matchup.

At the end of the day, one of them will be going to the Final Four. That makes them happy.

“I'm very excited that they won,” Donovan said of Louisville's upset of top-seeded Michigan State on Thursday. “I think if you asked Coach Pitino there's only one way that you can play in the Elite 8, you've got to play against Billy, you take it because you don't know. We've all been knocked out of this tournament early.”

This game is more than about the similar styles. It's about the way Pitino molded Donovan from a lump of goo who told his coach he wanted to transfer the first time they met into Billy the Kid, the name he still uses when he sees the dean of SEC coaches. It's about Pitino hiring Donovan when Wall Street turned out to be a mistake for the young college graduate.

“I can't find anything wrong with Billy Donovan,” Pitino said.

“There's only one Coach Pitino,” Donovan said. “He's so unique and so special.”

Saturday, it will be about the players. They will decide which team moves on and which team's season ends.

But when it is over, the handshake will be dripping with emotion. And the winning coach will know this — nobody will be rooting for him harder than the coach who loses this one.

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