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West Regional

Donovan, Pitino meet again

Old friends lead Florida, Louisville

Florida coach Billy Donovan (above) will lead his Gators against mentor Rick Pitino and Louisville. Florida coach Billy Donovan (above) will lead his Gators against mentor Rick Pitino and Louisville. (Bill Haber/Associated Press)
By Eddie Pells
Associated Press | / March 24, 2012
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PHOENIX - Billy Donovan knew a bad idea when he heard one.

Put on this cowboy hat and these spurs and we’ll take a picture of you, his coach told him. Maybe we’ll even put it on the front of the team program.

“I was not happy about doing that,’’ Donovan said.

Rick Pitino rarely steered him wrong, though. A quarter-century since that fateful photo, “Billy The Kid’’ has become a championship coach with a legacy, and the guy who made him dress up that day isn’t doing so bad himself.

On Saturday, they meet on opposite sides of the court - Pitino trying to make his sixth trip to the Final Four and second at Louisville and Donovan going for a fourth Final Four with the Florida Gators.

Pitino is 6-0 in the head-to-head matchups, almost all of those because he had the better talent. None of those, however, have come with the stakes this high or the emotions so mixed.

“Not only did we have success together, but we really, truly love each other,’’ Pitino said. “Billy is like a son to me.’’

After Donovan’s first national title he celebrated by waving Pitino down onto the court.

“I started crying,’’ Pitino said. “I felt better about him winning it than when I won it.’’

Nearly two decades before that, Donovan was the overweight guard, a marginal Big East player, and Pitino was fresh on the scene at Providence - a school that had been last or next-to-last in the conference in every season since its inception in 1979.

Having trouble getting off the bench before Pitino arrived, Donovan told his new coach he was considering transferring. Pitino looked into it and couldn’t get a sniff but didn’t want to break that news to Donovan. But instead of giving up on the player, Pitino urged him to get in shape. As luck had it, the 3-point line was being introduced to college basketball, and while many coaches were fighting the new trend, Pitino was embracing it.

A few months later, the Friars were on their improbable run to the Final Four, and Donovan had learned his first lesson about how to build a program.

“I realized, because I experienced it, how important it was to raise a player’s self-esteem,’’ Donovan said. “My self-esteem was obviously very, very low when he came in there. I was sitting on the bench. And I think that belief and commitment by a coach in a player can really take a player to a different level.’’

Pitino urged Donovan to stay at the Wall Street job he took after an un-noteworthy season with the New York Knicks, but later saw how miserable he was and hired him on as a graduate assistant at Kentucky. The rest, they might say, is history, except both coaches are still making some.

If things break right, who knows, maybe one of the teams playing Saturday will someday celebrate the kind of 25-year reunion the 1987 Providence team is planning.

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