Never mind that a 10-month NCAA investigation, completed in August, cleared Donovan's staff of the five allegations made by Kansas. In the murky, rumor-fueled world of recruiting, the mere fact that Williams, a squeaky-clean figure whose public acts and words are usually about as dry as grain dust, openly went after the Gators was tantamount to releasing the Starr report. Even as Donovan rolled through this recruiting season, gathering another far-flung, top five class—with signed letters of intent from St. Albans, W.Va., guard Brett Nelson; Concord, N.H., forward Matt Bonner; Sarasota, Fla., guard Justin Hamilton; and Hargrave Military Academy forward Sylbrin Robinson, who is from Miami—coaches, recruiting gurus and hoop-heads speculated about the secret to his success.
Some say Donovan offered Miller's 23-year-old brother, Ryan, a job at Florida. Some say he manipulated his summer basketball and sneaker-company connections like a wizard so that he could woo Miller during a so-called noncontact period. Kansas fleshed out the rumors in an Oct. 13, 1997, letter that raised questions about: Florida assistant John Pelphrey and his alleged contact with Mike Miller in a hot tub in July '97; Florida's hiring of administrative assistant Tom Ostrom, who previously worked the summer basketball scene for Adidas; Florida's contacts with Ryan Miller and with Mike's AAU coach Paul Seville; and Florida's production of a videotape shown at the Millers' home during a recruiting visit. The NCAA investigators checked out those accusations and cleared Donovan's staff of all but one very minor violation: Pelphrey had been in a hot tub with Ryan Miller, who in his role as an AAU assistant coach was an exception to the rule barring contact with a recruit's family members. "They say we took the exception too far," says Florida compliance director Jamie McCloskey,
Donovan, however, continues to face criticism. At the SEC Media Day gathering in Birmingham on Nov. 4 South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler, once a colleague of Williams's at North Carolina, coyly questioned Donovan's integrity by raising the subject of an unnamed SEC coach's ties to Atlanta-based financial adviser Bret Bearup, who in August had bankrolled a trip to France for a team of high school stars that included Mike Miller, Nelson and Bonner. "It's all legal, but is it ethical?" Fogler said. The thinly veiled attack—Fogler never mentioned Florida or Donovan by name—so angered Donovan that he retaliated by impugning Fogler's courage and ethics. "I'm outraged," Donovan said of Fogler at a press conference later that day. "He talks about ethics. Well, we've recruited against him. I challenge his ethics on some of the kids we've recruited against [him]."
Such open nastiness is hardly typical in the coaching fraternity, but it reveals some of the animosity toward Donovan that had been brewing ever since Miller committed to Florida a year ago. "Did I sense something unethical going on? I've heard the questions being raised, but I never saw any of it," says Scott Howard, an assistant coach at Miami who recruited Miller while an assistant at Nebraska. "But the wind blows hardest at the top of the mountain. Billy Donovan has had two top five recruiting classes, so people start saying, 'He's got to be doing something.' "
This isn't the first time Donovan has taken college basketball by storm. Today's talk is merely a cynical variation on the wonderment he provoked in 1987 when, having been inspired, prodded and bullied by Pitino, Donovan culminated his transformation from a bench warmer into the running, gunning heart of an over-achieving Providence team that clawed its way to the Final Four. Much of his appeal stemmed from his utter ordinariness: Donovan carried himself like the bag boy at the local A&P. "He's never looked the part," says Eric Reid, who was the radio voice of the Friars. "Billy was a short, white, little-bit-overweight kid. When he walked into a room he just blended in."
It's easy to underestimate Donovan on first meeting him. Unlike most coaches—or just about anyone else with a five-year contract worth $1.75 million—he makes no effort to project authority or superiority; if anything, he's constantly asking questions, edging closer and minimizing distance. Maybe that's his secret.
Donovan has heard every rumor. He has an answer for every charge. Yes, he says, "we take the rules to the extreme, but we're doing things the right way. I realize more and more in this recruiting game that there's a perceived hierarchy: Certain programs are supposed to get certain players, then the next tier schools fall in and then the next. We've ruffled feathers going after guys that maybe we weren't supposed to be in on, much less get. But we've been nothing but aboveboard. Don't attack my integrity and my character. I know what is right and wrong."
He and Williams have spoken twice since Williams made his allegations, and Donovan says the conversations were civil. As for Fogler, Donovan said after the media day skirmish, "I'll deal with him behind the scenes." But the attacks clearly make him uneasy. As a player at St. Agnes High and at Providence, Donovan built his game and reputation upon a rock of athletic integrity. He worked harder than everyone else because he had no choice. He wasn't good enough to cut corners. "He always did extra work after practice," says former Providence teammate Ryan Ford. "One Friday afternoon we were going to drive to New York for the weekend. He had to make 10 consecutive running jumpers from the top of the key. It took him over an hour. We were ready to go. Most normal human beings would've rationalized some reason to leave, but he was not going to give in."
Once during an off-season in college, Donovan tried to take a day off. He felt guilty all day. When he went to bed that night, he couldn't sleep. At 1 a.m. he drove to the gym at St. Agnes, snapped off the padlock on a window with cutters—he replaced the lock with his own when he left—and slipped inside. He drilled until 3:30 a.m., dodging puddles of his own sweat.
"We're the ones getting in trouble, and I know the schools that offered [Miller's] brother a job," Donovan says. "It's not important that you know who they are. I know who they are. It bothers me, but as long as I can look myself in the mirror, I'm fine. We're not paying anybody, we don't have illegal contact with anybody, we're not making excessive phone calls."