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Florida assistants John Pelphrey, Mark Daigneault, Rashon Burno and Matt McCall (L to R) talk at a recent practice.

Saturday April 5, 2014Gators' Chemistry Stretches from Court to Bench

Florida assistants John Pelphrey, Mark Daigneault, Rashon Burno and Matt McCall (L to R) talk at a recent practice.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Billy Donovan started to reconstruct the Florida basketball program once he took over 18 years ago, one of the most important ingredients he provided immediately was stability.

Donovan, only 30 when he was introduced as Florida's head coach on March 27, 1996, brought a trio of young assistants with him from Marshall, where he spent two seasons before UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley handed Billy the Kid the keys to the program.

For the next six seasons, while Donovan turned the Gators from an also-ran into a perennial NCAA Tournament team, he and those three assistants -- John Pelphrey, Anthony Grant and Donnie Jones -- served as the Mount Rushmore of the up-and-coming Florida program.

Matt McCall

Florida's quick success under Donovan helped Pelphrey land his first head-coaching job at South Alabama after the 2001-02 season. Tommy Ostrom replaced Pelphrey but served as a UF assistant for only two seasons and later joined Pelphrey at South Alabama.

Veteran coach Larry Shyatt joined Donovan's staff prior to the 2004-05 season and teamed with Grant and Jones as assistants for two seasons before Grant left to become head coach at VCU after Florida won the first of back-to-back national titles in 2006. Lewis Preston replaced Grant, but the following year Jones left to return to Marshall as head coach.

Donovan's once-stable staff suddenly began to turn over more frequently as success offered his assistants opportunities elsewhere.

Preston stayed two seasons before leaving. He was replaced by Shaka Smart, who was around for just one season (2008-09) prior to replacing Grant as head coach at VCU.

Donovan's staff turnover peaked following the 2010-11 season when he had to replace all three of his assistants after the season: Shyatt left to become head coach at Wyoming, Rob Lanier returned to Texas as an assistant after four seasons at UF, and Richard Pitino left after two seasons to join his father at Louisville.

The steady change added an extra degree of difficulty as Donovan tried to lead Florida back to the Final Four.

"Continuity is important because Billy always creates an environment where people are expected to get along, expected to work together,'' said Mark Daigneault, UF's assistant to the head coach who joined the program four years ago while in grad school. "But you don't get the same intuitive nature of it unless you are together for a period of time.

"Among the most important things that assistant coaches do is understanding your head coach. Understanding what he wants, understanding best how to serve him, understanding what to bring to him and what to do on your own."

The seeds of the UF staff's current stability were planted three years ago when Pelphrey returned after four seasons as head coach at Arkansas, and Donovan hired young assistant Matt McCall. Former St. John's head coach Norm Roberts was also on the 2011-12 staff before leaving to become an assistant at Kansas for Bill Self.

With yet another spot open, Donovan tabbed Rashon Burno as an assistant prior to last season. For only the second time since the Gators won those back-to-back national titles, Donovan's staff has remained intact for two consecutive seasons.

Their chemistry has played a major role in the No. 1-ranked Gators' success entering tonight's Final Four showdown here against UConn at AT&T Stadium.

"Any time you can keep the information consistent, the people consistent, the routine consistent, I think that helps you on the court,'' Burno said Friday. "I think it's been big for the players and been big for Coach Donovan, with some consistency in his staff and the people around him."

*****

Pelphrey certainly senses the connectivity.

Twenty years ago, not long after retiring as a player, Pelphrey joined Donovan at Marshall. Other than for a nine-month stint at Oklahoma State, Pelphrey had no coaching experience.

"I'll never forget sitting in my office with a phone, a legal pad and a desk,'' Pelphrey said. "And I had no idea what to do -- zero. I went in to his office and worked off the corner of his desk for basically the next three months, and looking back on that, 'wow, the patience, the kindness, the generosity he showed.' I must have driven him nuts in what I didn't know. There's no way I would do that for somebody else. I'm just very fortunate to have him do that for me."

That bond still exists between Donovan and Pelphrey. They are great friends away from the gym. Their wives and kids are close friends. They have vacationed together and are neighbors.

John Pelphrey

That type of close relationship is the primary reason McCall couldn't wait to return to Florida after three seasons as an assistant at Florida Atlantic.

McCall spent five seasons as part of the UF program from 2003-08, starting as a student manager and working his way up to director of basketball operations.

When Pitino left, McCall accepted Donovan's offer to return.

"I owe my entire career to him,'' McCall said. "I couldn't ask for a better mentor. Even when I spent three years at Florida Atlantic, he was a guy I could reach out to for advice, for help. He always took my call. He has given me terrific career advice over the years. Next to my father, he has been the most influential person in my life."

Donovan relies on his assistants much the same way Rick Pitino, his college coach at Providence and later his boss at Kentucky during five seasons as a Pitino assistant, did when Donovan was first starting out as a coach.

"I was exposed to a lot," Donovan said. "We were forced to coach, we were forced to teach. I hear some assistant coaches say they never even have a voice in practice. It just wasn't like that for me. I didn't feel like when I became a head coach that there was any aspect of coaching that wasn't forced or thrust upon me that I had to deal with."

Donovan deals with his assistants in the same manner.

"In practice he tries to create an environment where they are acting as if they are head coaches,'' said Daigneault, who specializes in analytics and other behind-the-scenes tasks. "It's not just one voice in practice. He wants multiple voices delivering one message."

Added McCall: "Billy prepares us to be a head coach. He let's every one of us be involved in every single aspect of the game. Sometimes when you get on staffs they label guys 'just recruiters,' or 'just scouters.' It's not like that at Florida."

During Florida's preparation this week, Pelphrey has been primarily responsible for scouting UConn, a team he scouted during their regular-season matchup. McCall has focused on Wisconsin while Burno has picked up Kentucky.

Should the Gators win tonight, they will return to the hotel soon afterward and instantly turn their attention to the winner of the Kentucky-Wisconsin game and provide Donovan with an initial game plan for review.

"From a personal standpoint, it's fun, because you are being given responsibility from a Hall of Fame coach,'' Burno said. "It makes you want to do your craft a lot better and a lot harder."

*****

While each of Donovan's three assistants has specific duties related to scouting and game preparation, they also provide different elements to the big picture.

Pelphrey is the senior assistant with nine years of head-coaching experience. He can run practice if needed and deals with players on a wide array of topics. McCall and Burno are heavily involved in recruiting and player development.

Ultimately they each bring something important.

Rashon Burno

"Their roles are really defined having been together,'' Daigneault said. "It's pretty convenient and something we haven't had in a long time."

The ultimate goal for the staff is two more wins. If they can accomplish that, Donovan will have his third national title.

Pelphrey wasn't around for the first two, but he helped build the foundation that paved the way. When he returned three years ago, he had a simple goal in mind.

"If I had to go back and be an assistant coach, I would be a whole lot better one,'' he said. "Hopefully I have been. There was a value to me the first time, and hopefully there is value to me this time. This is just a wonderful place and what I've been able to experience with this basketball team in particular."

Of course, nothing breeds opportunity like success. Another national title could mean Donovan will need to find another new assistant or two next season.

That's the price you pay. One this Gators coaching staff has enjoyed paying win after win, all the way to the Final Four.

"I think the one thing that Billy implements in his staffs is we're here to serve,'' McCall said. "You can check your ego at the door. We're all in this thing together for one common goal, and that's to win and win at a big clip."

 

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