Two or three times a day during this year's NCAA tournament, Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan would drop everything, call room 605 at Miami's Palmetto General Hospital and discuss his most private professional thoughts with a man he had never met. This did not strike Donovan as highly unusual. After all, the subject of those phone calls was how to inspire his Gators, and the man in the hospital was Ray Pelletier, a corporate motivational speaker who has become one of the hottest coaching consultants in the country.
Pelletier makes no claim to being a sports expert. He happily admits he can't shoot a basketball, knows nothing about X's and O's and couldn't name 15 athletes from any pro sport. "My interest in sports is totally different," he says. "I'm into team dynamics, and I take what's done in corporate America and apply it to sports."
He happens to do his job well, which explains why his clients have included the football programs at Miami, Nebraska and Notre Dame; why Lou Holtz awarded him a game ball from the Irish's 1990 Orange Bowl victory; and why, after Florida upset Duke in the East Regional semifinal of the NCAA tournament, Donovan appeared on national television and thanked God and Ray Pelletier.
How Pelletier, 52, became the guru for the Gators' run to the national championship game from a Miami hospital bed is a fascinating tale. Two years ago, on the advice of Florida assistant coach Anthony Grant, Donovan read Pelletier's book Permission to Win, and after speaking with Pelletier on the phone earlier this year, Donovan hired him as a consultant for the tournament. Pelletier was supposed to join the Gators in person for their postseason games, but in early March he had a bizarre accident, injuring a testicle while conducting a motivational drill with the Missouri football team during spring practice. While he was being treated, his kidneys temporarily failed (doctors discovered a protein deficiency in his blood), and he spent 19 days in the hospital, hooked up to an IV.
During his conversations with Donovan, Pelletier passed along various motivational gimmicks that Donovan subsequently used, from having the players draw dots on their shoes (to provide points to focus on during tense tournament games) to having them write the name of a loved one on athletic tape they wore around their ankles (because playing for someone else would make a tired player give more of himself) to having them wear rubber bands on their wrists (as a demonstration of team unity). Sure, some of the tactics sounded more cornball than roundball, but every one of the Gators who was asked said he bought into them.
"We trust Coach Donovan with our lives, and whatever he tells us always works," said Florida guard Brett Nelson. "We'd run through a brick wall for him." Or, as Grant put it during the tournament, "If Coach told the guys right now to walk back to the hotel with their shorts on and no shirts, they'd all get in line and walk back."
Most coaches would rather give up their shoe contracts than credit somebody else with helping to motivate their team, but Donovan freely acknowledged Pelletier's influence. "My job is getting these kids ready to play," Donovan said in Indianapolis after the semifinal game. "There are a lot of people whose egos wouldn't allow them to listen to anybody else, but I'm not that way. I don't have a degree in psychology, so I don't know the ins and outs of it. But that stuff has always intrigued me, and since there's so much parity in college basketball, I wanted something to separate my guys mentally."
Not that the gimmicks were limited to Donovan's players. In March, during their first phone conversation, Pelletier asked Donovan the same question he asks all coaches: "Coach, are you coachable?" Donovan said yes, and indeed he was. For example, Pelletier suggested the day before the national semifinal that Donovan ditch his normal blue ties in favor of a red tie worn with a white shirt. "I need you to look powerful," Pelletier explained from his hospital bed, "and red is powerful." Donovan's wife, Christine, went to Jacobson's department store in Indianapolis and bought her husband a red tie, which he wore the next night as his team beat North Carolina. Even though Pelletier's suggestion that Donovan gather the team in a circle to put on their jerseys for the final against Michigan State didn't bring home a winner, the coach still views the advice as productive.
Pelletier prefers to work with players firsthand. Usually he'll start his routine with a game of Simon Says ("my way of warming up the audience," he says) and continue with magic tricks. "Magic makes me become fun for the players and shows that I can do something they can't do," says Pelletier, a former professional magician.
Pelletier did some of his best work with the North Carolina State football team in 1997, when he helped the Wolfpack, which had finished 3-8 the year before, to gain a 6-5 record. His crowning moment came when N.C. State, a 25-point underdog, was playing at No. 13-ranked Syracuse. In an effort to convince the Wolfpack that the Carrier Dome was its own turf, Pelletier gathered the players at midfield the day before the game and told them the S stood for State. He placed a rock in front of every locker on the day of the game to ram home his David and Goliath theme. N.C. State beat Syracuse in overtime in one of the biggest upsets of the year, and Pelletier earned himself another game ball.