Still, the whole daisy chain of summertime room assignments and travels, while not illegal, comes off at best as wily and at worst as a shrewd way to circumvent the NCAA's limits on contact with recruits. While Donovan denies having a hand in arranging any of it—aside from answering questions from Nelson's father about AAU teams—he'll take any help he can get.
Says Donovan, "What do you do when a player makes a recruiting visit to your school? You put him with your team. I can do the best job recruiting, but if the kids don't like the guys in our program, we're not getting that kid. Inevitably your players are your best recruiters. I'm not going to tell Mike Miller or Ted Dupay, 'Call this guy on the phone.' But if they do that on their own? I'm not stopping it."
Hiring an assistant in order to land a prospect is hardly unprecedented in college basketball. Larry Brown hired Ed Manning as an assistant coach at Kansas the year before Ed's son, Danny, signed with the Jayhawks. Steve Lappas hired Tim Thomas's uncle (and high school coach) as an assistant at Villanova for the one year Thomas was a Wildcat. But Ostrom was seemingly hired for no other reason than his contacts in the recruiting netherworld. It wasn't illegal, but it rubbed people the wrong way.
Donovan also isn't the first coach to benefit from the players trying to work the system for themselves; since Michigan's Fab Five bonded together before signing with the Wolverines in the summer of 1990, it has come to be common practice. But the rising influence of Nike and Adidas over the last decade has created a new wedge in recruiting. "Billy Donovan has learned to work this system, this new factor, better than anybody," says Gibbons, the recruiting guru. "Right now he reads the situation better than any coach in the business."
Do more. Billy hears his father's voice in his head still, and it doesn't stop until the season stops and he is pale, listless, drained. "I've got to do a better job—not slowing down but just getting my rest and taking care of myself," Donovan says. "I don't sleep well. But that's my nature: Fear of failure is in me. I just want to do well so bad that I keep pushing. We've got to get better, so I've got to do more. It's doing more. Doing more. Doing more."
Donovan's office is a library of motivational sayings and books by Pitino, Don Shula and Tony Robbins, and at home he tries to apply the same go-get-'em philosophy. He's the first to criticize himself for being preoccupied—"here but not here," he says—when he's with Christine and their three kids, but she isn't expecting much at this point. That's the life. Billy can't help himself.
"I think that's an area that I need to get better at: including Christine in things," he says. "She hears of a Mike Miller or a Teddy Dupay, she hears names, I tell her about people or humorous things. But as recruiting goes along or filming goes along, I don't think I do a good job of sitting down and giving great detail. I think if there's one criticism more than any other, you'd like me to get into more detail about stuff. Would you agree with that, or no?"
"I guess," Christine says. "I don't know."
They sit in the living room of their custom-built new house on the outskirts of Gainesville, with its huge kitchen and high ceilings, the outside painted a brilliant yellow. It is 9 p.m. The kids are down. It would be a sweet moment, for here's the perfect, we-made-it-Ma! tableau of dream house and dream job in small-town America, except for the fact that Billy hardly cuts a domestic figure. He looks miserable sitting still, out of place, like an alien in his own home. "He's a basketball coach," Christine says. "He doesn't mow the lawn, he doesn't fix the pictures. If there's a leak, I call the plumber."
But you can't say he doesn't work at it. The night before, Billy came home at six and freed the babysitter, and suddenly it was just he and four-year-old Hasbrouck and six-year-old Billy and 20-month-old Bryan. Big Billy was sure he had it all under control: Everyone was bathed, little Billy was doing homework. Dad even got the dishwasher going. A savage thunderstorm pounded the roof. Then Billy noticed that Bryan was missing. He looked on the floor, around the counter. Nothing. He raced around the garage, the kitchen, past the dishwasher, now inexplicably spewing bubbles onto the floor. Nothing. Panic began crawling through his stomach. For 20 minutes he searched the place, upstairs and down, yelling Bryan's name. Then he looked outside.