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Saturday March 24, 2012Center Stage: The Donovan-Pitino Relationship Adds New Chapter to an Already Colorful Past

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

PHOENIX – Billy Creamer was in Louisville that special day 25 years ago and he will be here at US Airways Arena on Saturday afternoon in his seat a few rows up from Florida’s bench.

Ryan Ford would be here if he could, but the former Providence College teammate of Gators coach Billy Donovan is unable to attend because he is coaching his son’s team in a state tournament in Massachusetts.

Ford, a regular at Florida’s NCAA Tournament games the past decade, plans to watch on TV as Donovan matches wits against their former coach at Providence, Rick Pitino. The Gators face Pitino’s Louisville team Saturday in a made-for-TV special – and for a berth in the Final Four.

Creamer, one of Donovan’s best friends and a team manager for the 1987 Providence squad that made “Billy the Kid” a national sensation and launched the coaching career of Pitino to new heights when the Friars made it all the way to the Final Four in New Orleans, said Ford won’t be alone back in New England.

“There are really three schools playing in this game,’’ Creamer said Friday. “The entire New England/Providence community is watching and rooting. Who are they going to root for is interesting. If you are a diehard Friar fan you are rooting for Billy. The alum at Providence love Coach Pitino, but he also left them.

“Billy never left them. He just performed for them.”

Yes he did, never more so than during his senior season that ended with Providence making an unlikely run to New Orleans, where 25 years after going there together, either Donovan or Pitino will return for another trip to the Final Four.

Donovan averaged 20.6 points that season and in an Elite Eight game against heavily favored Georgetown at Louisville’s Freedom Hall, Donovan and the Friars altered their approach in an 88-73 victory over the Hoyas. Donovan earned Mideast Regional MVP honors for his play in the tournament.

“Billy is the one who carried us,’’ said Ford, a little-used reserve for the ’87 Friars and the best man in Donovan’s wedding.

The win over Georgetown, which earned Providence its first trip to the Final Four since 1973, remains Ford’s defining memory of the Friars’ magical run into history.

“I didn’t play very much – only when we were up by a lot of down by a lot,’’ Ford said. “But I was actually on the court when we won that game. It’s hard to even explain looking back. I just remember as Coach Pitino got up off the bench to shake Georgetown’s hands, I embraced him as we started to celebrate on the court. It’s one of those moments you don’t forget.”

Several years later Creamer saw a story in Sports Illustrated about the game. The article included the odd-looking box score. He had the story framed and gave it to Donovan as a gift.

In a season loaded with shots of Billy the Kid burying 3-pointers for the Friars, Pitino altered the plan against the Hoyas in the fourth meeting between the schools that season. Instead of firing from long range, the Friars played mostly inside the 3-point line.

Donovan took only one 3-point shot and missed. He made just two field goals but still finished with 20 points thanks for a 16-for-18 performance at the foul line.

That is why Creamer wanted to frame the box score and give to Donovan as a gift.

“Billy D just put the team on his back and delivered,’’ Creamer said. “The ball was in his hands the whole game. We weren’t supposed to beat Georgetown.”

*****

In the quarter century since Providence’s memorable March Madness run, the Pitino-Donovan relationship has been explored and examined from nearly every imaginable angle.

Pitino left to coach the New York Knicks following Providence’s Final Four loss to Syracuse. Donovan graduated and played briefly in the NBA before embarking on a finance career on Wall Street. He missed basketball too much and Pitino, after flaming out with the Knicks, hired Donovan as an assistant coach at Kentucky.

After five seasons together in Lexington, Pitino pitched Donovan as a young up-and-coming head coach. Marshall hired him, and after two seasons there, Donovan arrived at Florida and has redefined basketball success in the Sunshine State in the 16 years since.

Donovan now has two national championships – one more than his mentor – and is attempting to lead the Gators to their fourth Final Four during his tenure.

He and Pitino have faced each other six times as opposing head coaches – the mentor is 6-0 against the pupil – but this time is unlike any of the previous meetings.

The stakes are at an all-time high. So is the mutual respect between the good friends and veteran coaches.

“He’s quite unique, quite special,’’ Pitino said of the pupil. “I think he’s one of the premiere coaches in our game. He’s an extremely humble guy. He’s not changed one iota except he talks more now than he did back then.”

The 46-year-old Donovan said no one has had a greater impact on his life than Pitino, now 59 and considered a giant in the coaching profession. When they first met, neither Pitino nor Donovan expected to get to know each very well.

In their first one-on-one meeting Donovan told Pitino he wanted to transfer. Pitino made some calls to other schools but no one was interested. Instead, he told the doughy Donovan to lose 30 pounds and stay at Providence.

Donovan is glad he did.

“It obviously changed my career, my life, in a lot of different aspects,’’ Donovan said. “I learned some incredible lessons through Coach and the investment he made with me.”

*****

The Donovan-Pitino storyline looms larger than any other element over Saturday’s NCAA West Region final. Both teams have surged in the postseason, setting up an interesting matchup on the court as well.

The Gators play a similar style as Donovan did for Pitino at Providence. So does Louisville.

 Adding to the drama is the presence of Richard Pitino, who spent the last two seasons on Donovan’s UF staff before joining his father with the Cardinals this season.

“The timing of this is just very interesting. It proves that basketball has a sense of humor,’’ Ford said. “What they have in common is an unrelenting will to win, and an incredible passion and love for the game of basketball. They are kindred basketball spirits. That’s what brought them together in 1987, and that’s what has sustained and created so much of this success over the last 25 years.”

One of the two is going to leave Phoenix disappointed on Saturday night. The know that.

But in terms of having their personal connection play out on such a public stage, neither is dreading the challenge of facing each other for the first time in the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m very excited they won because of my relationship with him and Richard,’’ Donovan said. “It’s a great challenge all the way around to play against a terrific team with a terrific coach.”

Pitino is looking forward to the latest chapter in their ongoing story as well, a tale that became national news 25 years ago and remains as colorful today.

“He’s something. I still call him ‘Billy the Kid’ today,’’ Pitino said. “I’ve always said that experience in my life, 1987, always allowed me to dream. Because of my Providence experience, I’ve always dreamed of being here, one day away from the Final Four.”

Once the madness ends and the spotlight moves off them, Pitino and Donovan have another upcoming date.

Pitino has invited every member of the ’87 Friars to a 25-year reunion in early May in Miami. He is paying for all their hotel rooms and for the weekend’s activities.

Donovan was unaware of Pitino’s plan until hearing of it this week in Phoenix. When the team met up in January for a reunion in Providence during Louisville’s trip to play the Friars, Pitino joined the group for dinner the night before the game.

Donovan called and talked to everyone there.

“It’s hard to believe that 25 years have gone by,’’ Donovan said Friday. “There’s a bond that gets created when you play with guys. That was a fun night.”

Saturday will be fun, too, for those from Providence to Louisville to Gainesville and many places in between.

“You’ll have all these ex-Friars glued to their TVs with their families talking about rekindling this 25-year anniversary,’’ said Creamer, who was also in Omaha with the Gators for the first and second rounds. “To me, that’s what is really special about it. It’s touching beyond just the Louisville diehards and the Gator fans.”

 

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