"Guide hand on the ball, guide hand on the ball.... Use your legs, Skinny!" It's Wednesday afternoon, first week of October; the practice court at Florida's O'Connell Center is full and bustling. Donovan is barking at Mike Miller while watching him shoot three-pointers. Skinny isn't so skinny anymore: He has gained 16 pounds in his first two months on campus. Miller runs the court gracefully for a guy 6'8", can dunk with either hand, and will miss just eight of the 32 shots he's taking in this drill. "Stay strong, Skinny. Drive the legs!"
No player embodies the promise of Florida basketball more than Miller, the focus of Donovan's most furious recruiting battle and one of the players who must pan out if Florida is to complete its mission to become the nation's premier athletic program. Since 1990 some $45 million has been spent upgrading and building new sports facilities on campus, and the Gators all-sports record has consistently ranked in the nation's top five. But even with its surprise trip to the 1994 Final Four, Florida's basketball team has only been to the NCAA tournament five times in 58 years. It's a program still waiting to happen.
That's only the most glaring reason experts were stunned by Miller's choice. Coaches from UCLA to Wake Forest and all points in between trooped to South Dakota to see Miller in the fall of 1997. It was the usual ugly recruiting rush, everybody watching everyone else, and the web of connections that Florida wove around Miller will keep hoop conspiracy theorists busy for years. But the fact is, Donovan and his staff—freed by four early commitments to pursue Miller almost exclusively—targeted Miller late in his junior year and then showed up at all his AAU games in the July evaluation period and blanketed his uncles, parents, friends and coaches with a barrage of youthful energy and attention. And it worked: When Donovan and Pelphrey made their home visit to the Miller's house, Mike, who'd been sober and businesslike with the other eight big-time coaches who had sat in his living room, jumped to his feet and greeted them with a round of high-fives.
"Coach Donovan is younger than most head coaches, he's got a lot of enthusiasm," Miller says. "That's what sells him to a lot of recruits. He relates to us better than the older coaches, he knows how we feel and what we want out of basketball. The coaches here are almost my best friends."
But Florida didn't win over Miller with affection alone. The Gators' staff also understood before anyone else who would influence Miller most. "They identified the decision maker and, in all honesty, the rest of us didn't," says Miami's Howard. "Everybody thought the parents were most important. But the older brother ended up being more of a factor."
And no one wooed Ryan Miller, a former standout guard for Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.Dak., more assiduously than Florida. By the time the other schools woke up, Ryan had already worked at one of Donovan's summer camps. Besides visiting Mike at home, Donovan and Pelphrey also made a point of being the first to fly to Aberdeen to court Ryan, and Mike's other brother, 21-year-old Jared. And although they did not offer Ryan a job, they did say they would put in a good word for him if he was interested in coaching at another school. The Miller boys' father, Tom, says other schools dangled firm offers of a job for Ryan. But it was no shock to Gary Munsen, Mike's high school coach, that Donovan ended up winning the recruiting battle in the end. "He's good at it," Munsen says, "and he works harder."
With Miller, Florida also pulled some unusual stunts, like taking full advantage of the 24-hour window for home visits by having Pelphrey show up at Miller's house at 12:01 a.m. to tuck him in, greet Miller at school the next morning and then engage in the typical chat with the parents at 7 p.m. Donovan says he has no choice. "We don't have the tradition of Kentucky or Kansas," he says. "We have to be innovative. We have to call at midnight. We've got to have a different type of relationship with the kids. We've got to watch them play every day during the July period. Hopefully, all that stuff means something in the end."
To critics like Williams, though, there was other "stuff" that made a difference in Miller's recruitment. There was the role of Ostrom, 28, who joined Donovan's staff as an administrative assistant just before Miller committed. Ostrom, who had been a freelance recruiter for then Adidas basketball czar Sonny Vaccaro, had been in contact with Miller since February 1996, trying to get him to play at Adidas's ABCD summer basketball camp. Ostrom helped get Adidas to sponsor Miller's AAU team, the Dakota Schoolers, and saw to it that Brett Nelson, the West Virginia schoolboy star who's been a Donovan admirer since attending his camp at Marshall in the eighth grade, played on the Schoolers with Miller in the summer of 1997. That summer, Ostrom also began campaigning for a job at Florida.
Miller became close friends with Nelson, and thus began a Florida pattern. This past summer Miller played on Bonner's team at the Boston Shoot-Out, and presumably Miller, soon to enroll at Gainesville, talked up the program to Bonner, one of Donovan's top targets for next year's freshman class. Bonner later roomed at the ABCD camp with Nelson, who had already verbally committed to Florida. Then the three players traveled to Europe on the trip financed by Bearup, a financial adviser to pro players and college coaches whom Donovan has known since his days at Kentucky. Soon after, Bonner committed to Florida.
That's what Fogler was alluding to in his media day comments, though Donovan insists he has no ties to Bearup. "It's amazing to me how people cast stones and say we're tied up with Bret Bearup, and I sit down during the July recruiting period and see every college—either assistant or head coach—making the rounds over to Bret. Bret Bearup has never done one thing for the University of Florida or Billy Donovan. I owe him nothing, he owes me nothing."