AUSTIN, Texas — To some people, he always will be Billy The Kid, especially when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
Before he coached national champions at Florida, Billy Donovan lived the dream of every college player, leading a Rick Pitino-coached Providence College to an improbable appearance in the 1987 Final Four.
The baby-faced “Kid” was the underdog Friars’ deadly 3-point gunner and fiery leader. More than 25 years later, Donovan the coach occasionally recalls those days with his UF players. The Gators will begin their quest for a place in NCAA Tournament lore Friday night against Northwestern State.
“I know how good he was,” said senior forward Erik Murphy, whose father, Jay, starred at Boston College. “He lets us know once in awhile, just kidding around, that he led the NCAA Tournament in scoring.
“He was a special player, no question.”
Donovan’s NCAA Tournament success as a player lends weight to his words, even if his current players never saw him play.
“It gives him a lot of credibility,” junior Patric Young said. “When you hear from a coach who’s been through all the situations, winning them and losing them, when he’s telling you something he’s telling you from experience.”
Donovan’s experiences at Providence allow him to deal with his players on their level.
The Gators have been to three Final Fours under Donovan, and lost in the Elite Eight the past two seasons. But Donovan’s college career encompassed much more than a few memorable weeks in March a generation ago.
When guard Mike Rosario first arrived in Gainesville as a transfer from Rutgers, Rosario said Donovan showed him film from his playing days.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’” Rosario said. “The speed of the game and pace that he played at was unbelievable. He wasn’t lightning quick or anything, but he can really score the ball and get a pass anywhere he wanted. I really like that about Coach Billy’s game. He was an aggressive offensive player.”
When Murphy wanted to transfer after his sophomore season, Donovan could relate.
Before Pitino arrived after his sophomore season, Donovan had played sparingly for one of the Big East’s bottom feeders and thought about leaving. But Pitino saw potential beneath the 6-foot guard’s doughy exterior and convinced Donovan to stick it out.
“He came home and he was at it,” Donovan’s father, William Sr., recalled this week.
Billy Donovan dropped 30 pounds, developed a quicker release on his jump shot and returned to average 15.1 points a junior playing Pitino’s up-tempo style. When the NCAA introduced the 3-point shot before the 1986-87 season, Donovan was at the right place with the right coach.
“He was the guy who embraced it,” Donovan Sr. said of Pitino. “A lot of coaches were still pounding it inside.”
Billy “The Kid,” fellow guard Deray Brooks and small forward Ernie “Pop” Lewis were given a permanent green light, while the Friars’ also got easy baskets off their nagging press.
Donovan averaged 20.6 points during the regular season, hit 97 3-pointers and the Friars returned to the top 20 for the first time since 1978. Still, no one imagined what was to come.
No. 6 seed Providence followed opening round win against No. 11 seed UAB and overtime win against No. 14 Austin Peay with a 103-82 rout of No. 2 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16 and an 88-73 win against No. 1 seed Georgetown to get to the Final Four.
Along the way, Donovan averaged 26.8 points and was named MVP of the Southeast Region.
“That four-game span was just unbelievable,” said William Donovan Sr., a star himself at Boston College who often sits at the end of the Gators’ bench. “They had a rough first two years. I don’t think anybody ever thought they were going to get to the tournament.”
The run would end at the hands of a familiar foe, Syracuse, but not before Billy Donovan and the Friars would touch an entire region, if not nation.
Donovan, a native of Long Island, will be 48 in May and is putting together a Hall of Fame coaching career. But back in New York, he is still remembered in some circles as a 6-foot shooting guard on a mission.
“People don’t forget that in Long Island,” William Donovan Sr. said. “And even up in New England, they remember all that.”