- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- On Oct. 17, Billy Donovan arrived at his 18th SEC media day -- an event expressly designed for coaches and players to talk about their teams -- not knowing what to say.
After three straight Elite Eight appearances, and with a veteran team and a typically high-octane recruiting class at his disposal, Donovan found himself in front of the media day scrum unable to tell reporters exactly what he thought about his team, because he genuinely didn't know. He was almost apologetic.
"I'd tell you today, if we had [all our players available] and we could start Oct. 11 fully healthy, then I'd tell you we have a chance to be really good," Donovan said then. "Hopefully we can get there as the season goes on. But we're not there right now."
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin spent all offseason working his way back from an indefinite suspension, and would miss six games as final penance at the start of the season. Dorian Finney-Smith had a three-game suspension to serve. Michael Frazier II had mononucleosis. Damontre Harris was a maybe in October; he would eventually be dismissed. Freshman Chris Walker was struggling to get academically eligible.
Donovan was running practices with six or seven scholarship players. When freshman Kasey Hill suffered an early-season injury, Wilbekin still wasn't back; on Nov. 21, the Gators played Middle Tennessee without a point guard.
"Our team was in complete shambles and disarray when we came back to school in August," Donovan said.
It was the kind of mess that might panic a younger, less experienced, less secure coach -- one still concerned with proving himself as equal to his peers. What if we lose too many nonconference games? Do I need to end suspensions early? What will this season say about me?
After 34 wins (including a school-record 28 straight), an unbeaten SEC run, a No. 1 overall seed, a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and a contract extension raising his pay to $3.7 million over its final six years, it was clearer than ever that Donovan is no longer that guy. Five months later, on a much larger dais, the 48-year-old coach again sat in front of reporters, able to reflect on process without fretting much about outcome.
"When you're a young coach, you're always in a position where you're trying to prove yourself," Donovan said. "I don't think it's any different for anybody in any job. You get a job when you're young and you get a promotion and you're going to want to prove that you can do the job and do it well.
"But I think, as I've gotten older -- we all want to win. But for me, there's a lot I've learned as it relates to life and as it relates to the drama of the NCAA tournament. What are these guys going to take from this experience, and how equipped are these guys to take the next step in their life?"
The process vs. outcome dichotomy is not a new one. But it may be the defining argument in modern sports. In a micro sense, it's about the merit of running good stuff and getting a statistically efficient shot and living with the result versus, say, lionizing a difficult play for the sheer fact that it ended well. In the macro, it's about knowing your team improved each and every game, that your players came together, that you got the most out of each game over a 35-game sample.
But it's easier said than done -- especially when you're a young coach clawing your way up the ladder. Outcome is what gets you the promotion, and the respect, and the money, in whatever order Tony Montana prescribed.
On May 30, nearly two months after the NCAA tournament concludes, Billy Donovan will be 49 years old. The short-cropped sides of his widow's peak are run through with gray. He's seven years removed from the second of his two national titles (2006, 2007) and 14 years past his first national title run (2000). He's weathered the comedown years, and the brief NIT blips, and now practically has the Gators in a self-sustaining state. They play UCLA on Thursday at 9:45 ET.
They are always good, because of course they are.
Still, a younger, more assailable coach -- a younger, less gray Donovan, even -- might view a 34-2 season and a No. 1 overall seed as a must-win, can't-fail, life-changing opportunity. Instead, the Florida coach can look back on where his team was in October, and appreciate how far it has come. He is, after nearly two decades in Gainesville, Fla., among the select handful of his colleagues with the luxury of a wider perspective. No matter what happens next.
"To me, to see what those kids have done in terms of trying to come together as a team -- that stuff to me is really what it's about, more so than just the end result of winning," Donovan said.
"We all want to win, and I hope we go all the way through, I'd love that. But I have a lot more appreciation for that stuff now than I did when I was younger."