AS CHRISTINE DONOVAN settled into her seat in section 124 of the Georgia Dome on April 2, minutes before her husband Billy's Florida Gators would take the court in an attempt to win their second straight national championship, she checked her cellphone and saw a two-word text message. BEST WISHES, it said, sent courtesy of her close friend Shelley Meyer, the wife of Gators football coach, Urban. The First Lady of Florida basketball and the First Lady of Florida football indeed share more than husbands who collect national titles. The Donovans and the Meyers, who live just two doors apart in the Fairview community on the west side of Gainesville, have been good friends ever since the Meyers left Utah to take up residence in Gator Nation.
"There is an unspoken bond between coaches, especially at a place like Florida, where the fans are so passionate and the stress gets to be incredible sometimes," Shelley says. "You have an instant bond with another coaching family like that because you have to have support. I really appreciate them, from the very beginning, knowing how to handle the stress of being a head coach at Florida. And we are good friends, besides. We love getting together with them, and we wish we could more. We really enjoy them."
While the two families may not be able to spend much time face to face, their lives certainly have a similar feel. The coaches are both in their early 40s and universally considered among the elite of their respective sports, men with an unflagging work ethic both on the field and in recruiting. Both had success in short stints at smaller schools then came to Florida and won a national title. And, as Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley says, "they're both good guys."
The Donovans have four children ranging in age from four to 14, while the Meyers have three children ages eight to 14.
"Certainly I didn't forecast they'd be as close as they are, but it is not surprising, because they are similar in so many ways," Foley says. "They can't stand to lose, their staffs are driven and focused, and that is probably why they are both national championship coaches."
In fact, the similarity between the two coaches and their families is what led Foley to get them together when he was trying to hire Meyer from Utah. After an undefeated season with the Utes in 2004, Meyer had his choice of coaching at Florida or Notre Dame. Foley knew that one of his best recruiting tools would be the Donovan family.
"It took a five-minute conversation with Christine the very first time we talked to realize that Gainesville is a great place to raise kids," Shelley says. "We had a natural connection right from the beginning because we would be in the same situation coming here."
Upon arrival in Gainesville after Urban was hired, the first stop for the Meyers was St. Patrick's, a Catholic school in which the Donovan children were enrolled. Billy and Christine set up a meeting with the principal and arranged a tour, and the four of them attended 14-year-old Billy Donovan's junior high basketball game. From there, Shelley says she got the lowdown on doctors, dentists and "where to get my hair done."
During the football off-season, on his way to the office, Meyer says he walks his two youngest children, Gigi, 12, and Nathan, 6, to the bus stop where the Donovan kids Hasbrouck, 12, and Bryan, 9, are waiting. The first one to spot the bus gets a dollar from the million-dollar coach, and Urban reports it is Bryan who usually scores the buck.
Once Meyer arrives on campus, the eldest Donovan is never far from his thoughts. The two text one another regularly and have called upon each other to speak to their respective teams. During the 2006 season Meyer showed his players a video of recent champion teams, including the Miami Heat and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The video culminated with the basketball Gators earning their title against UCLA in Indianapolis. In walked Donovan, who stressed to the football team that while their goals were an SEC championship and a national title, they needed to focus on each day along the journey or they would never get there.