Pitino and Donovan together again
PHOENIX -- On Wednesday, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino were already fielding the questions.
Can you discuss your relationship? Talk a little bit about Billy's playing days under you at Providence. How often do you speak? How much of your coaching style do you derive from your mentor?
There was just one minor problem with all this discussion: To meet in the Elite Eight, Pitino and Donovan both still had to win.
To the media, the intrigue of this capital-S Story was too much to resist. It didn't matter that Pitino and Donovan still had very difficult games ahead; it was enough that the two had merely played themselves into the same NCAA tournament region, enough that there was a chance -- small at the time, considering both coaches' teams were Sweet 16 underdogs -- that the mentor/pupil duo could maybe, just maybe, meet with a Final Four bid on the line.
Two days later, less than 24 hours after Pitino's Cardinals stifled No. 1-seeded Michigan State into an historically low scoring performance, and Donovan's Gators used their newfound defensive identity to tackle No. 3-seeded Marquette, both coaches were back at the podium, again running down the particulars.
This time, the questions were warranted.
Simply put, there is no duo in modern college hoops quite like this. Their dual rises to the pinnacle of their sport -- Pitino, the Hall of Famer; Donovan, the two-time national champion -- are inextricably tied through their beginnings at Providence, through the legend of the player Pitino coined, and still calls, "Billy the Kid."
And it all started with an overweight, little-used sophomore who was convinced he wanted to transfer, and the first-year coach who couldn't find him a home.
"The first meeting, a young man waddled into my room ... and he had put on a lot of weight," Pitino said. "And he said he wanted to transfer."
Donovan told Pitino he wanted to leave for either Northeastern or Fairfield. Pitino told his player he would call both schools' coaches (coincidentally, one of whom was Jim Calhoun, who was still coaching at Northeastern). Donovan left Pitino's office, and the coach said a "Hail Mary and thanked God" he was gone.
But the plan hit a minor bump when Pitino discovered Calhoun and others were equally as uninterested.
"I told [Calhoun] I have a Big East guard that wants to transfer," Pitino said. "I told him who it was. [Calhoun] said, 'Rick, he can't play for me, he's too slow and doesn't shoot it well enough.'
"Billy came back and said, 'Coach, which school wanted me more?'" Pitino said. "I said, 'Let's forget that, Billy -- they're both very interested in you. Tell me -- why are you so out of shape?"
Donovan had been languishing in former Providence coach Joe Mullaney's system, where the top 10 players on the roster were the only participants in practice, Pitino said. So the coach and player devised a plan: Lose 30 pounds, spend all summer working on drills, and come back ready to contribute.
"He was the third guard on the team that year," Pitino said. "And the next year he got so good -- because I've never seen anyone work as hard as him, in 35 years."
Donovan corroborated Pitino's version of the events, one both men have told many times by now. But he did contest one portion.
"I'm not sure I was as overweight as they all say I was," Donovan said. "I don't know. Maybe I was."
In 1987, two years after that near-transfer, the legend of "Billy the Kid" was born. Under Pitino, in a new, uptempo system borne of the birth of the 3-point shot, Donovan averaged 15.1 points as a junior and 20.6 as a senior, when he led the Friars to Pitino's first Final Four. The "Billy the Kid" nickname was a natural fit, but Pitino -- and this would become a theme for Donovan -- had plenty to do with that, too.
"We put him in a little cowboy hat, spurs and boots, and he wouldn't put it on," Pitino said. "I made him put it on, and they put him on the cover of the program. That was the first caption of 'Billy the Kid, the fastest gun in the Big East.' That was the start of his college legend."
"I did not want to do that," Donovan said. "I think it was a way for him ... to probably boost my self-esteem, my confidence. But I was not happy about doing that. And that media guide, I hope that's no longer able to be found."
A few years later, after Donovan's brief pro career had petered out (which included a one-year stint for the Knicks, where Pitino was head coach for two seasons before going to Kentucky), he took a job on Wall Street -- "cold-calling as a stockbroker," as he described it. "Trying to get some guy to buy some stock I knew nothing about," Donovan said. "It was just not for me at all."
That's when Donovan made a decision: He wanted to go into coaching. Naturally, he called his former coach to see what he thought. At first, Pitino was hesitant -- "I said, Billy, you're going to make a lot of money on Wall Street; stay put, coaching is not for you" -- but after Donovan thought it over some more, and came back more enthusiastic than ever, Pitino told him to get a car and drive to Kentucky, where Donovan became a graduate assistant.
Donovan rose in four seasons under Pitino, learning from his mentor and eventually securing his first job at Marshall in 1994. His first full recruiting class included future Sacramento Kings point guard Jason Williams (a.k.a "White Chocolate") and after just two years, Donovan took the job at Florida.
The rest, essentially, is history: Donovan went to the national title game in 2000, won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, and has built Florida -- once a mere sideshow to a football-obsessed fan base -- into a perennial national power.
In the meantime, Pitino has gone from Kentucky to the NBA back to the college ranks at Louisville, and the duo has remained close. Pitino's son, Richard Pitino, coached for two years under Donovan at Florida before returning to the bench alongside his father last year.
Donovan leaned on Pitino for advice when he considered jumping to the Orlando Magic, and Pitino's experience became part of the reason he eventually decided to remain a college coach. During Pitino's personal difficulties amid the Karen Sypher extortion case a few years ago, Donovan reached out, supported his former coach, always kept him in his thoughts.
Despite the parallel successes, the duo has never faced off in the NCAA tournament -- until now. Likewise, Donovan has never toppled his old mentor; a win Saturday would put make him 1-6 against his former coach.
After a week of talking about the special relationship these two share, about tattered photos of little Richard sitting on Billy's lap at Pitino's house in Rhode Island so many years ago, after 25 years and an impending reunion since these two first broke on the college hoops scene ... what's it like for both coaches to play with a Final Four berth in the offing? Awkward? Just part of the business? Some combination of the two?
"Not at all," Pitino said. "It's the opposite for me. If we were playing school X tomorrow and we lost, I'd be devastated [about] not going to a Final Four. [If Louisville loses Saturday], I'd be professionally very down about not going to a Final Four -- but personally I'll be very happy for Billy Donovan."
"I know that both teams are going to go out there and play their hearts out for 40 minutes," Donovan said. "And I think it's exciting -- I think if you would have asked Coach Pitino there's only one way that you can play in the Elite Eight, and you've got to play against Billy, you take it. Because you never know."
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com.