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Billy the Kid
S.L. Price
November 23, 1998
After two banner recruiting classes in a row, Florida's hotshot young coach Billy Donovan has this to say to the skeptics: I'm no outlaw
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November 23, 1998

Billy The Kid

After two banner recruiting classes in a row, Florida's hotshot young coach Billy Donovan has this to say to the skeptics: I'm no outlaw

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Once before Pitino had saved him from this misery. When Pitino arrived at Providence in 1985, Donovan had been a little-used sophomore in Joe Mullaney's half-court system, bored and considering a transfer. Pitino didn't discourage him. "We had no idea he'd be able to make the transformation he did," says Sendek. "He was a pudgy, set-shooting point guard who didn't get off the bench. We didn't think he was good enough to even play in the Big East." But no other school wanted Donovan either. Pitino told him to get in shape or get out. Pitino was going to install a maniacal full-court game, running and pressing for 40 minutes, and only the strong would survive.

It was like setting a match to tinder. Donovan came back for his junior year 25 pounds lighter and began hanging on Pitino's every word. "If Coach Pitino told him to stand for three hours on his head, Billy would do it," says Donovan's mother. He worked himself to exhaustion, to the point of having headaches so crippling that doctors did a CAT scan on him, to the point that Pitino had to order him out of the gym for two days of rest. Donovan had never been happier. "This whole thing doesn't happen without Coach Pitino coining on the scene," Sendek says. "It was a marriage made in heaven. The perfect place and the perfect time for those two to unite."

Two years later Pitino saved him again. Miserable after just three months on Wall Street, Donovan called him and asked about getting into coaching. Pitino said he was going to be the new coach at Kentucky and offered Donovan a job as a graduate assistant: Grunt work, $370 a month, complete disruption of the life Christine had envisioned. Billy's father saw him when he hung up the phone. "His face lit up like a Christmas tree," says Bill, who had always wanted to coach but hadn't because of the low pay. "Billy, this is what you love," he told his son. "Go for it."

The news hit Christine like a hammer. She knew no one in Kentucky. She had no job there. They talked about putting off the marriage. "I didn't think it was fair that I take her into a life in which I'd be happy and she'd be miserable," says Donovan. They married anyway, on Aug. 5, 1989, spent a tense 10 days in Hawaii ("It was terrible," she says), came home and the next day said goodbye to their families and headed for Lexington. "Very emotional," Christine says. "We packed our car, got in, everyone's waving good-bye—and the car wouldn't start." She took it as a sign.

"I probably fought his job for two years," she says. "It wasn't the lifestyle I wanted. Until I got my teaching job and made new friends and got busy in my own life, I had nobody. I didn't have him either. All of a sudden it was just Coach Pitino and 20-hour workdays. No joke."

It was Providence all over again, Pitino demanding and Donovan delivering, Pitino piling up the responsibilities and Donovan taking them on. Donovan spent five years at Kentucky, moving up from grunt to righthand man, and then came the week that showed he was hooked.

Kentucky's first game in the 1994 SEC tournament in Memphis was on a Friday. On the Tuesday of that week he traveled to West Virginia, where Marshall named him, at age 29, the youngest coach in Division I. When he returned to Lexington, Pitino advised him to stay there with Christine, who was nine months pregnant with their second child. But Donovan flew to Memphis with the team on Thursday anyway, and at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, he was told that Christine was in labor. He persuaded a Kentucky booster to fly him home to Lexington on his private jet and got to the hospital an hour before daughter Hasbrouck was born. An hour later he was on his way back to Memphis and made it in time for the 2 p.m. tip-off of the semifinal. Kentucky upset No. 1 Arkansas. Mother and child watched Daddy on TV.

His first season at Marshall, Donovan took a team that had gone 9-18 the year before, remade it in Pitino's up-tempo image and reversed the record. Two days after the Thundering Herd lost to Appalachian State in the first round of the Southern Conference tournament, his wife took him to the emergency room because he was exhausted. He had to be hospitalized for the next two days because of a sinus infection.

Marshall went 17-11 in his second year, and he handled it all—the media, the administration, the boosters—as if he'd been coaching for decades. He was on the ride of his life. He still loved playing, and every day there was a 6 a.m. game with the coaches. He also showed his flair for recruiting, even when he didn't get his man.

One that got away was Travar Johnson of Philadelphia. Johnson had signed a letter-of-intent to Marshall in April 1996, but a month later he began to waver. Donovan set up a 7 p.m. home visit and, along with assistant coach Anthony Grant, drove the eight hours from Huntington, W.Va., to Philly, tried to persuade the family to stick with Marshall and then drove the eight hours back. The two men got in at 5:30 a.m. and went straight to the gym. By six, Donovan was on the court shooting jumpers. He was awake, wasn't he?

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