Donovan earns awards, player admiration while building team

UF coach Billy Donovan congratulates his seniors late in the game against Kentucky on March 8 at the O'Connell Center. Florida defeated the Wildcats, 84-65, to finish 18-0 in the SEC.

Matt Stamey / Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 12:12 p.m.

Florida senior forward Will Yeguete recalled when the Gators prepared for a home game against Auburn a few weeks ago.

The Gators had come off back-to-back road wins over Tennessee and Kentucky and were heavily favored in their rematch with the Tigers. After practice, Florida coach Billy Donovan pointed to a duffel bag on the ground and asked Yeguete to pick it up.

Unbeknown to Yeguete, Donovan had stuffed the bag with weights.

“I picked it up with one hand and it wasn't easy,” Yeguete said. “I was like, 'No, this is heavy.' He was like, 'Well, because you thought it was going to be easy but it wasn't.' "

By pushing different buttons during the course of the season, Donovan guided the Gators to the first 18-0 regular season in Southeastern Conference history. As a result, the 18-year UF coach was named SEC coach of the year for third time in the last four seasons.

Donovan deflected the credit to his team.

“I don't think those awards would happen if I had a bunch of bad players,” Donovan said.

But in becoming the first coach since Tennessee's Don DeVoe (1980, 81) to win back-to-back SEC coach of the year honors (2013, 2014), Donovan deserves his due to for keeping a mixed team of veteran starters and underclassmen off the bench grounded.

“We always expect something from him, and I think he does a really, really good job keeping us on edge and making sure we know what we can work on and how we can improve,” Yeguete said.

More often than not, Florida players parrot Donovan's coachisms. If a player is caught looking too far ahead, he's not “living in the moment” or falling prey to “human elements.” Donovan often asks his players to “embrace the process” and break down games by possession instead of worrying about longer stretches.

When asked about players repeating his jargon, Donovan responded: “I only like it if they believe it.”

Winning helps. The No. 1 Gators (29-2 overall) have won a school-record 23 straight by embracing their coach's philosophy of breaking the game down to its smallest elements with keen attention to detail.

“It's just a reflection of what he's done with all of us this year and keeping us all focused on our goals,” Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.

Donovan even will use visual props from time to time in an effort to reach his players. Back in 2007, Donovan dressed as a cop in the locker room to get his team motivated at Auburn. Donovan compared winning on the road to a cop breaking up a campus party (former Gator forward Corey Brewer joked Donovan looked more like a security guard).

“I think if you can show players things, either through film or other visual means, you have a better chance of getting through to them,” Donovan said.

Donovan has led the Gators to six SEC titles (four outright) in 18 seasons. He is going for his fourth SEC tournament title this weekend in Atlanta. And Donovan's 31 NCAA tournament wins are the most by a coach in SEC history, passing legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp (30). At 444-168, Donovan is four wins shy of passing LSU's Dale Brown for second-most coaching wins in SEC history (behind Rupp's 875).

“He's always on edge himself and I'm sure he even gets tired of the process sometimes and he fights human nature,” Florida senior center Patric Young said. “He just keeps us motivated so that when it comes down to it these little things, it needs to be like we don't even think about it. We need to get it done and make plays.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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