Billy Donovan has coached teams to the peak of college basketball’s mountaintop.
Four Final Fours, two national championships, a perfect 18-0 conference regular season, six Southeastern Conference tournament titles and 16-straight 20-win seasons.
He’s made Florida basketball a millennial powerhouse on the national level and he did it all at a football school.
Now, he sits on the doorstep of yet another achievement after coaching his 499th victory Wednesday night against Vanderbilt.
AlligatorSports spoke to some of the people that were integral in his first win as he nears the end of the chase for his 500th.
For much of the last 30 years, William John Donovan Jr. has been referred to affectionately as Billy the Kid.
The high widow’s peak and jet-black hair matched with the numbers on his birth certificate meant the nickname was automatic and fitting.
But on his way to victory No. 1 — the win that started his ascent to Hall of Fame status — the man whose approval had to be given in order for him to be hired as the head coach of the Marshall Thundering Herd actually thought Billy Donovan was in fact a kid.
"So I take him by the (university) president’s house because he’s got to bless it, and Billy walks in and I introduced him and the president wasn’t quite on the same page and we walk in and he says ‘well let’s go in the other room’ and the president says ‘now what sport does this kid play?’" former Marshall athletics director Lee Moon said. "Billy looked like he was 15. Billy hadn’t started shaving I don’t think."
Moon had made it a habit of hiring assistants to fill his vacant head coaching positions across all sports.
He had been passed over as a younger man for a head coaching position at his alma mater he felt he was more than qualified for as an assistant and from there, his belief in hiring assistants grew.
He zeroed in on two men in early 1994: current Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey — then an assistant at Duke — and Donovan, who was an assistant on Rick Pitino’s Kentucky coaching staff at the time. Brey passed on the offer, and Moon got on a plane to Lexington, Kentucky, to see if he had found his man in the 28-year-old Donovan.
Given complete access by Pitino, Moon went to practice, he watched game tape with Donovan until two in the morning to get a feel for how the young coach viewed the game and then went through a complete gameday with the Kentucky program. He spoke to the Wildcat players who told him Donovan was a player’s coach they could easily communicate with.
For four decades as an administrator, Moon has been fascinated by watching huddles — he does that because he wants to see how much the assistants he’s going after actually coach. Moon watched Donovan command the bench, as if he were a head lieutenant under Pitino. He watched Donovan communicate with players more than any other assistant. Then, he formally interviewed Donovan and knew he had his man.
"For me it was really, really good when I interviewed him, I knew he was the right guy," Moon said. "I have a buzzword I’ve used for the last 40 years called urgency. I have a line of questions that I ask and I’ve been using the same questions for 40 years since I’ve been an AD, 27 years I guess it is, and I’ve used the same format. I know the answers I want but I find out if the assistant is really prepared."
Days later, on the night Donovan was confused for someone not old enough to obtain a driver’s license by Marshall president James Wade Gilley, Moon was asked a simple question by his boss "‘you really think he’s ready?’" Gilley inquired.
Moon responded bluntly, "absolutely."
In March of 1994, Donovan was announced as the 12th head coach of the Thundering Herd since 1935, and it was then that he was introduced to the school and his future team — he was the youngest Division I head coach at the time.
"The first time we saw him was actually the press conference him being announced on campus," said Doug Schieppe, one of seven seniors on Donovan’s first team and now a high school basketball coach and teacher. "Anticipation was high. We were pretty excited and I mean just the fact that when he came up here, even at a young age, his professionalism (and) just his demeanor, we were all nervous, obviously, getting a new coach. We don’t know who he is. We’re seniors — pretty much all of us were seniors and we just went through a pretty rough season."
The year before, a "poorly coached" team lacking in intensity, according to Moon, finished 9-18 — seventh in the Southern Conference. In Donovan’s first year, they flipped that record and won the conference’s North Division. Donovan carried himself immediately with an intensity and a confidence that was noticed by all, including Tom Weber.
Weber was a graduate assistant in the Marshall communications department in his mid-20s in 1994. He was, in his own words, "the low man on the totem pole." There was a bit of a worry that Donovan, who was a New Yorker and enjoyed notoriety piloting Providence to the Final Four as a player and came most recently from the cradle of college basketball history at Kentucky, would bring with him an air of condescension.
Weber’s first impressions upon meeting the man however, were the exact opposite.
"From the lowliest grad assistant to the athletics director he treated everybody the same and treated everybody well and was genuinely interested in getting to know you as a person," Weber said.
For Weber, "getting to know you" meant an invitation to the 6 a.m. staff basketball game. Donovan hired assistant coaches John Pelphrey, Anthony Grant and retained Donnie Jones from the previous staff. Jones played college basketball at Pikeville, Grant at Dayton and Pelphrey at Kentucky.
All three were younger than Donovan and still spry enough to scrimmage against the actual Marshall team when numbers necessitated it in preseason practice. But it also meant pickup games were athletic and competitive, so much so that Pelphrey and Grant had to be on separate teams. But whichever team had Donovan was typically the winner.
Weber remembers Donovan still having "it" during the games, but that didn’t mean he didn’t exhibit gamesmanship to get an edge.
"I remember playing a game and getting so excited about getting a rebound and then dribbling up the court, he would do this thing where he would say ‘Tom, Tom, throw me the ball,’" Weber said. "And he’d say it in such a way and you’d throw it to him immediately — problem was he was on the other team and he’d take it the other way for a layup.
"He got me on that at least once or twice, but he’d get everyone on that because when he said something in that tone of voice you just did whatever he said, he was the head coach."
When Donovan was hired, Chris Gray was a high school senior in Bethesda, Maryland. He would soon become the first signee in Donovan’s head coaching career.
Before Donovan was showing up at McDonald’s All-American Mike Miller’s doorstep just after midnight to beat the crowd for his services, there was Gray.
"You don’t just pick a program for the academics," Gray said. "You’re not just picking it for the success or the failures of a basketball program. The coach has a lot to do with that. It’s an extension of your upbringing and what you’re accustomed to. And my parents and myself felt at ease knowing that Billy and the guys would kinda take players like me under their wing. It’s one thing to be a player and another to raise or produce quality individuals and those guys collectively instilled that in each and every last one of us."
Gray was attracted to Donovan as a student of the game. He didn’t know what exactly Donovan would be like as a head coach — no one did — but he was familiar with him as a player and respected him because of it.
As Gray looks back at Donovan’s successes over the years, he said it’s a testament to how Donovan matches physicality and mental toughness with his team.
"Anyone can teach somebody how to put a ball in a basket or run a play, but what are they doing after that?" Gray said. "And I think that’s the true testament to your staff and who you have in place."
As the season opener against Bluefield College approached, one thing was clear: Donovan’s basketball team was going to run, and they were going to run a lot.
"When we first started preseason workouts and conditioning and so forth, I’m sitting there looking around after we get done running, and I’m like ‘guys we’re running more than the track team’ honest to God truth," Gray said.
But it wasn’t just the newcomer Gray, still trying to get adjusted to college, who wasn’t ready for the pace of Donovan’s offense.
"The first day, the first couple weeks of practice people were throwing up, not used to the running, not used to being pushed to the point of where you weren’t tired," said Shawn Moore, the leading scorer for the Thundering Herd the previous season, and the player who would again lead the team in scoring in 1994-1995.
"You just thought you were tired and he brought that — hey you can push past when you think you’re tired and get more out of yourself than what you think."
As Donovan got the team ready to play, Moore was happy about its new direction and a tempo that he said only Nolan Richardson’s 40-minutes-of-hell system at Arkansas was running at the time.
"I was excited because that’s the style of play I wanted to play," Moore said, "and hearing him talk it made me want to work harder to say ‘hey, if this is the style of play and I already know I can score I think I can get a lot more easier baskets in his offense.’"
Moore took 150 three pointers in the first year under Donovan, 72 more than the season before, and Marshall averaged 84.4 points per game, almost 11 more than the previous year.
As former Marshall play-by-play man Stan Cotten referred to it, the style of play was "baseline to baseline press the whole time, just kind of crazy," with "quick shots and longshots."
This was Billy Ball.
There was an idea of what it would be, what the Pitino student would bring to Marshall, but once fans saw it for themselves in person, the impact was immediate.
"It was just a different type of a basketball that he brought, and he really raised eyebrows," Cotten said. "It was fun to watch. Never a dull moment all those types of things. It just brought people into the Henderson Center to watch, and it didn’t take long. He really started changing that program around overnight."
Donovan’s head coaching career got off to probably the worst possible start anyone could imagine in game one. On the first offensive possession, Donovan’s much-talked-about high-tempo offense promptly turned the ball over against Division III Bluefield College. It also missed its first 10 three-point shots. But the Thundering Herd soon got it together, blowing out the lesser opponent 112-67 on Nov. 26, 1994.
On offense, Marshall scored 61 first half points, a season high en route to the victory and took a school record 33 threes.
Moore had 21 points of his own, with 17 of them coming in the first half while Schieppe had a career-high with 29, including seven three-pointers -- two short of the school record at the time. He missed his first shot then made six straight, after Donovan told him to get it in gear.
"I really thought Doug was scared and extremely nervous at the start of the game," Donovan told reporters after his first career win. "I pulled him aside and said: ‘Doug, you’re playing way too nervous. Now go back out there. If you’ve got the shot, shoot it.’"
On defense, the Thundering Herd forced 36 turnovers and recorded 20 steals — still second all-time in program history in records dating back to 1975.
The performance wasn’t without flaws on the defensive end either, as Marshall was outrebounded 49-44 by Bluefield, something the Charleston Gazette called "the most vexing" thing about the game for Donovan and the team. But the new head coach was pleased with how his team finished with its foot on the gas.
"There’s a tendency when you get a lead like that for the second half to be showtime — just making spectacular plays," Donovan told reporters that night. "But I thought, for the most part, we played unselfishly, made the extra pass and executed."
There is a reverence for Donovan from those that were there with him at the beginning. Garry Richter, a former Marshall sports information director, said in his 23 years in the business, he could not think of anyone he had more respect for than Donovan.
"He was just the top," Richter said.
For Schieppe, he years have passed, and the former player from Donovan’s first team at Marshall had fallen out of regular correspondence with his old coach. But in advance of a banquet for his boys basketball team, Schieppe called UF and received a handwritten note of encouragement from Donovan that he shared with his team. On a recent family vacation to Disney, the Schieppe family was introduced to Donovan.
Schieppe says it’s exciting that his own son, now a freshman in high school, knows who Donovan is.
"If he’s a disciple of Pitino, I guess I’m a disciple of Donovan in my small, little way in my small, little town in southern Illinois," Schieppe said. "…He’s a genuine guy. He’s a family guy. He takes care of assistants with Pelphrey and coach Grant and coach Jones. Those are the guys that were there when I was at Marshall, just a really good group of guys. I’m grateful that I have the stories and the memories that I have."
Stan Cotten is now a play-by-play man with Wake Forest and caught up with Donovan for a few minutes in December when the Gators beat the Demon Deacons in South Florida.
He said upon Donovan’s exit from Marshall that he knew he’d follow Donovan’s career wherever it went.
And it’s been to the highest heights of college basketball, taking a football school and making it basketball-mad, attracting top recruits and achieving feats like back-to-back national championships, things that only the Dukes, the Kentuckys and the UCLAs of the world are supposed to do.
"I remember visiting Billy in his office in Huntington (West Virginia) after he had taken the Florida job," Cotten said. "I think he had been into a meeting with the President or somebody at the university, and they weren’t all that happy with Billy for leaving. And he’s like ‘you gotta be kidding me. This is Florida. This is the SEC. This is a great opportunity,’ and I just knew he was ready, just knew that he was gonna do great and what a great get he was for Jeremy Foley and the University.
"And wow did he deliver."
When you listen to Donovan speak now, he seems to talk more about off-the-court things than he does the X’s and O’s.
He talks about the adversity the game throws at players and the lessons learned prepares players for life.
He does it at Florida the same way he did 21 years ago at Marshall. The same way another Donovan disciple, Shawn Moore, said he does with his team at the Oakwood School in Greensboro, North Carolina, because Donovan first did it with him in Huntington.
Billy the Kid is now Billy the Man, and he has been for quite some time.
He’ll turn 50 later this year and according to those who were with him at the beginning, his longevity can be traced to remaining true to the values that got him where he is today. They say he hasn’t changed — except for how he deals with officials.
Soon Billy Donovan will coach a team to his 500th win. If he can do it by the end of this season, he will be the second-youngest coach in Division I college basketball history to do so, according to UF.
Twenty years later, it’s clear Lee Moon was on to something when he said Donovan was ready. Moon’s been proven right 499 times — and counting.
Details and quotes from a game story published in the Charleston Gazette were used in this story.
Follow Richard Johnson on Twitter @RagjUF
UF men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan points out to the crowd after winning the 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in Atlanta. Donovan has won 499 games as a collegiate men’s basketball head coach, with his first win coming on Nov. 26, 1994, during Marshall’s 112-67 win against Bluefield College.