There was a 10 day period in February when Florida and Louisville lost 6 of 8 games, now they will face each other for a chance to go to the Final Four. Rick Pitino will have to guide his 4-seed Louisville Cardinals past his protege, Billy Donovan, and the overachieving 7-seed Florida Gators. Like Darth Vader dueling Obi-Wan Kenobi on the first Death Star, it will be a face-off between mentor and protégé.
Donovan was a starting guard and favored son of Pitino, when the latter coached at Providence College in the 1980s. It was just 25 years ago that Donovan helped lead Pitino’s Friars to the 1987 Final Four, a milestone that propelled the elder coach onto a career trajectory that has made him one of college basketball’s most recognizable names.
After college, Donovan briefly played for Pitino again with the NBA’s New York Knicks. When Pitino returned to the college game with Kentucky, he brought Donovan with him as an assistant coach. The two remained together at Kentucky for four years until Donovan was hired to lead the Thundering Herd at Marshall in 1994.
Pitino recalled how Donovan ended up on his staff — it started with a phone call.
“He called me up one day and said, Coach, I’m really unhappy, so I’d like to go into coaching,” Pitino said. “And Billy never said anything as a player. He did what he was told and never said a word. Yes, coach, no, coach, that was it. The last person I ever thought would go into coaching would be Billy the Kid.”
“I said, Billy, you’re going to make a lot of money on Wall Street,” where Donovan had briefly started working after his playing career. “Stay put. Coaching is not for you. And I said, I’ll tell you what, that was a Tuesday, I said, Call me back on Friday, think about it for three days, speak to your mom and dad. If you’re still unhappy, call me again.
“He called me back and said, Coach, I really want to get into coaching. I said, Okay, get in your car, come to Kentucky.”
The two coaches have been understandably linked throughout their careers.
“Outside of my parents, he’s been the most influential person in my life,” Donovan said of Pitino. “I’m very thankful for the opportunities he’s provided me, as a player, as a coach. The relationship that we’ve shared for more than 25 years.
“I think when you’re in this profession for me, now close to 25 years, you have situations where, whether it’s former assistants like John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant who were in the SEC, Coach Pitino several years ago having to go out to Arizona State and play against Herb Sendek, those are hard games, because of such close relationship.”
Both teams were expected to be contenders prior to this season, but some stumbling during the season put doubts in the minds of many, dropping them in the polls and leading to lower seeding in the NCAA tournament. Thanks to two coaches from the same tree, however, the Gators and Cardinals are playing their best basketball in March, but only one of them can survive until next weekend.
Florida had to become a defensive team this season, but Louisville always was. They both play a high-motor, fast-paced style that pressures opponents constantly. Florida’s guards, including Bradley Beal who scored 21 points against Marquette, are talented enough to break the Louisville press. Then again, so are Louisville’s guards, lead by Peyton Siva.
“We had to make adjustments to put some guys in different roles,” Donovan said after knocking off Marquette in the Sweet 16. “I don’t want to say that we played differently, but when Patric or Erik come off the floor we feel like we’re more equipped to press, where we were probably able to press more with Will and Pat in the game.”
Pitino and Donovan are two peas in a pod and they promise to produce one of the most compelling games of the weekend.
Knowing another coaches’ system isn’t uncommon in any sport. In an age where nearly every game is on video tape somewhere, the skills, tendencies and strategies of any team can be studied, picked apart and learned in a film study room. What is a little more difficult is learning a person.
Can a film room really teach a coach everything he should expect? What a coach will say? What he will key in on and obsess over? Some of that is a function of personality and deep-seated beliefs about the game.
Basketball is a religion, and these two coaches are the same denomination.
“[T]here are core beliefs that are built into your program that I would sit there and say if Coach Pitino was talking about his core believes, how he wanted his team to play, I think you’d say Billy Donovan mirrors a lot of that,” Donovan said. “I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Donovan spent almost a decade playing for and learning under Pitino. That is an extraordinary amount of time that leaves him in a better position than anyone in the country to anticipate his mentor’s next move. To know how to get under his skin or into his head.
Pitino, like a father-figure to Donovan, holds much of the same knowledge and influence over his protégé.
The subtext that their relationship brings to the game will be a topic of discussion in the studios and on the sidelines this weekend, and it won’t be overblown. That connection between the two coaches will have a real impact on the game.