Donovan keeps Gators hungry


Associated Press

GAINESVILLE -- He's been way more than just a coach.

Billy Donovan has been a master motivator for top-seeded Florida, inspiring players with championship rings, famous dads and NBA futures to play hard, stay focused, follow his "live in the moment" catch-phrase and possibly become the first team in 15 years to successfully defend its title.

He's kept the Gators hungry and humble while dealing with off-the-chart expectations, outside influences and the constant pressure of trying to make history.

"Sometimes when you hear the word motivation, people think it's a rah-rah speech every day," Donovan said. "I think there's different ways to motivate people and to inspire people. I would say that I spend every single day trying to do that."

Florida (31-5), which plays fifth-seeded Butler (29-6) on Friday in the Midwest Regional in St. Louis, has won 14 consecutive postseason games and cut down five sets of nets in the past 11 months.

Aside from having five talented, unselfish and experienced starters, a big key has been Donovan's motivational tactics.

He's invited big-name sports celebrities to speak to the Gators - a list that includes NBA legend Jerry West, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.

He's shown clips from movies and sporting events in hopes of providing inspiration. He's told stories about all-time greats such as Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras and Tiger Woods.

He even brought in renowned sociology professor Harry Edwards, widely considered the leading expert on issues of race and sports.

"(Edwards) talked about pushing the ball back up the hill," forward Corey Brewer said. "You can't push it up the same way, and you've all got to go up together. It's time to get together and go back up the hill."

Belichick might have made the biggest impression.

He first spoke to the Gators after last year's SEC Tournament, telling them if they "play to that level in the NCAA Tournament, we're going to go home," forward Joakim Noah said.

"(He said) you have to elevate your game, elevate your team play, elevate your sacrifice," Noah continued. "Even though we won a championship and everybody was congratulating us, he was keeping it real with us. For somebody who's not part of the team to speak that real with us, I just think that's cool."

Belichick made an encore appearance two weeks ago after Florida won a third consecutive conference tournament. This time, he provided a video lesson.

"He showed us a horse race from 1973," Noah said. "This horse, at the beginning of the race, it's all close. Toward the end of the race, he wins by like a quarter of a mile. It was just like an unbelievable race, and (Belichick) was just saying, 'Never looking back.' And that's our motto - just never looking back, just looking forward and being the best that you can be."

The horse was Secretariat, a name Noah struggled to recall.

None of the players expect to forget Donovan's most surprising approach this season.

He showed up in the locker room wearing a police officer's uniform minutes before a January game at Auburn. Donovan swears he just wore a hat, but players remember a jacket, badge, baton and handcuffs.

Regardless, the message was clear: Donovan wanted the Gators to be like police breaking up a party. The team responded with 91-66 victory.

"I really try to, more with my words, draw on things rather than show up before the game with a gorilla suit on," said Donovan, who often takes a softer approach by calling players to his office for friendly, fatherlike chats. "I try to use my words to inspire them and try to draw comparisons."

Last week in New Orleans, he organized a tour through parts of the city that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

"You have a tendency to view everything in your life through your knothole and your own eyes," Donovan said. "Sometimes it's nice to view the world from a different viewpoint. When you can see what other people have to deal or how fortunate you are, sometimes that helps."

He took a similar approach in 2000, the first year the Gators advanced to the national championship game. He made them watch "Saving Private Ryan" during a three-hour bus trip to Normandy Beach as part of a preseason exhibition visit to Europe.

"I don't know if it was necessarily anything motivational, but I thought it was something they needed to understand about history," Donovan said.

Later that season, after Florida escaped an emotional first-round NCAA tournament game against Butler, Donovan asked his players to dedicate the rest of the tournament to someone dear to them and write his or her name on their socks. Some wrote names of parents or siblings. Udonis Haslem scribbled the name of his dead brother.

"They needed to play as if that person was watching them," Donovan said. "Sometimes in life you have a tendency to do a little bit more for others."

Donovan has done that, too.

Last August, four months after leading Florida to its first championship, Donovan delayed signing a lucrative contact extension because he didn't want to send the wrong message to his players - three of whom turned down NBA riches to defend their title.

Has all the motivational stuff worked?

"He's the kind of coach that makes you want to run through a wall, turn around and fix it, then run through it again," forward Chris Richard said. "Everything he says you take to heart, and everything he does, you try to do the same. He's got us very motivated right now."