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Monday November 28, 2011Gators Face Stetson in Orlando as Donovan Goes for Career Win No. 400

By Chris Harry Contributing Writer 


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When milestones inch closer (take 400 career college basketball victories, for example), these types of questions invariably come up. 


What do you remember about your very first victory? 


Billy Donovan shrugs. 


“I can’t even tell you who we played,” he said. “I’m serious. I have no idea.” 


Donovan swears he knows only that his first win as a head coach came at Marshall, where he stayed two seasons. We'll get back to that. 

He does, however, recall vividly his first recruiting trip as coach of the Thundering Herd. He and assistant John Pelphrey were cruising down Interstate-64 from Huntington, W.Va., into Kentucky on a scouting run. They were talking basketball, big men and big plans when three deer flashed in the headlights. 

“One went through the radiator,” Donovan said. “So we’re stranded on I-64. It’s ‘Deliverance’ all over again.” 


A trucker stopped to let Pelphrey use his CB radio to call police. 


Welcome to big-time college basketball. 


That was more than 17 years and lots of interstates ago, with the latest one being I-4. That's the one Donovan and the 10th-ranked Gators (4-1) will take to Amway Center in Orlando, where they’ll face Stetson (3-2) in the Florida Citrus Shootout tonight. A victory and Donovan, 46, will become the youngest active Division-I NCAA coach to reach 400 career wins, passing Kansas’s Bill Self, who got there two years at age 48. 


“This kind of stuff just makes me feel old,” Donovan said. 


But it also makes him feel nostalgic. 


Of his previous 399 wins, 364 of them came as a coach of the Gators. When asked to reflect on the mounting victories, Donovan thinks of the Noahs, Horfords and Brewers, of course, but his run at Florida started in 1996 with a very different -- that’s putting it politely -- breed of player than the ones who wear the orange and blue nowadays.


Does the name Damen Maddox ring a bell? 


How ‘bout Greg Williams or Joel Reinhart? 


Didn’t think so. That’s the point. 


When Lon Kruger bolted for Illinois two years after taking the Gators to their first Final Four, he didn’t leave much behind. Donovan, though, knew what he was getting into and never slammed the recruiting efforts of his predecessor. Instead, he combined what he learned at Marshall with what he gleaned as Rick Pitino’s assistants for some great Kentucky teams and immersed himself in the daunting challenge of turning Florida into a basketball power. 


It couldn’t be done, Donovan was told by virtually everyone, but he never believed it. Even after inheriting a roster Pitino publicly said was “bankrupt of talent.” 


“Maybe they weren’t overly talented, but they had been really, really well coached,” Donovan recalled of his inaugural team that overachieved in going 13-17, with just five wins in Southeastern Conference play. “There was a foundation of a work ethic, of doing the right things, of going to school, of representing Florida the way it needed to be represented. There were some great things that Lon had set in place that were part of the foundation that were really important.”


Eddie Shannon, a Palm Beach point guard, was a Kruger signee and part of that team. 


The Gators were coming off a disappointing 12-16 season and their coach had left. Enter a 30-year-old -- just eight seasons removed from his own college playing career -- with a couple decent seasons at a mid-major to his credit. 


“He was really, really tough at first, but I also think he had to be,” recalled Shannon, now 34 and preparing for his 12th season playing professionally overseas. “He got in our faces and gave us constructive criticism. The ones who didn’t want to get with the program eventually were weeded out, but as far as openly resisting what [the coaches] were trying to do, I don’t think any of us were in position to do that. We weren’t very good, as far as the team was concerned.” 


They weren’t very good Donovan’s first year, either; only NIT good the second. 


The arrival of Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay and Udonis Haslem -- key members of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class -- changed that in ’97-98 when the Gators reached the NCAA Tournament, only to fall in the Sweet 16 with a heartbreaking 74-73 loss to Gonzaga in the West Region semifinal. 


Shannon’s missed 3-pointer at the buzzer that night was the last shot of his college career. 


“We didn’t win the game, but that team was the first,” Shannon said. “That team laid a foundation at Florida. There were lots of SEC championships and two national titles later, but it all started with that team -- my senior year. And I’m proud of that.” 


Those Gators won 22 games and started a run of 13 straight 20-win seasons, plus 11 NCAA berths over that time. Before that group, UF had just four 20-win seasons and five NCAA trips in school history. 


“Something from nothing ... and now look,” Shannon said. “I think it’s great that Billy is about to win 400. And he’s going to win a lot more there, too.” 


It’s not inconceivable, given the roots his family has planted in Gainesville. 


In the rat race that is big-time sports -- and its turnstile ways with coaching careers -- Donovan is thankful for all that’s happened in his 16-plus seasons with the Gators, but even more so that he’s been able to keep an element of stability for his wife and four children. 


He recalled a conversation he once had with an unnamed coach whose daughter was getting married. She called to ask her father where she should have the wedding because their family had moved so much she didn’t know where home was. 


No one can forget the last time Donovan tried to leave town (though it surely will be a talk-radio topic in Orlando today). 


“It’s difficult to find the consistency that we’ve found here,” Donovan said. “My family has been great. To be able to have grown up there, with a sense of home and a neighborhood they’ll always remember ... that’s been a big positive for me.”


Lots of positives. Lots of victories. 


Which brings us back to that very first one.


Donovan may not remember, but it all started Nov. 30, 1994 when Marshall beat Central Michigan 87-80. Donovan’s first Thundering Herd squad went 18-9 (armed with six seniors who went 7-18 the year before). His second Marshall team went 17-11. 


After those 35 victories, Jeremy Foley called. Ever since, the milestones have been calling, too. 


No. 100 was in ’99. No. 200 in in ’04. No. 300 in ’07. 


With a win tonight, Donovan will be only 500 or so behind Mike Krzyzewski. Sound crazy? Of course, it does. 


But who would have thought about No. 400 when a 28-year-old former hot shot Big East point guard -- hair slicked back and all -- accidentally went deer hunting 17 years ago in West Virginia. 


“You think about guys like [Krzyzewski] and Bobby Knight, guys who have done it so long,” Donovan said. “I’m sure they felt like, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this? And before you know it, one year has gone by. Then another. And another. All of a sudden, they’ve built these incredible programs.” 


Yep, that’s how it works. 


And Billy D should know. 





No. 10 Florida vs. Stetson 

Tip-off: 7 p.m. (Amway Center, Orlando) 

Records: Florida 4-1; Stetson 3-2 

TV: Fox Sports Florida (w/Larry Vettel and Bill Koss)

Radio: Gator Radio Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 220/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes; Stetson notes  

Need to know: The Gators and Hatters, meeting in the Florida Citrus Shootout, will play for the 66th time in a series that dates to the 1919-20 season. ... Florida leads the series 51-14, including a 16-game winning streak. UF’s last win against Stetson was by a 74-46 count two years ago and their last defeat a 77-73 setback on Nov. 26, 1983 at Gainesville. ... This will be the first time the teams have met on a neutral court. ... Junior F Erik Murphy, who started the first four games of the season, will miss his second straight game with a torn meniscus in his right knee and is out indefinitely. Murphy will be replaced by sophomore Will Yeguete, who had 8 points and 9 rebounds in 17 minutes during his first career start, a 107-62 win Friday over Jacksonville. The status of sophomore G/F Casey Prather (groin), who missed the second half vs. JU, will be a game-time decision, though Prather practiced on a limited basis over the weekend. ... The Gators have made at least 10 3-point shots in all five games this season and are hitting 43.6 percent of their shots from distance for the season. ... Junior G Kenny Boynton has topped 20 points in three straight games and is making a blistering 51.4 percent from the arc. PF Patric Young had a career-high 14 points vs. JU. ... Stetson, under first-year coach Casey Alexander, is averaging 69.4 points per game (compared to UF’s 89.8) and has wins over Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and Division II Saint Leo, and losses to Florida State and Charleston Southern. ... The Hatters have three starters scoring in double-figures, led by 6-9 C Adam Pegg’s 12.6 points. 


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