DALLAS — He built a basketball powerhouse, a multiple national champion, in a place where it never was supposed to happen.
He played Big East ball for a Hall of Fame coach, became known for an inexorable work ethic, and later served as an assistant for that college legend.
As Billy Donovan sat there on the dais Thursday at AT&T Stadium, two victories away from becoming only the sixth coach to win three NCAA championships, it was impossible to miss that he is at once Jim Calhoun and Kevin Ollie.
Donovan, an old 48, is an architect. Donovan, a young 48, is an heir.
"How do I answer that?" Donovan said earlier this week about reaching such an elite stratum. He tried. He talked about being blessed to coach at one place for 18 years. He talked about being blessed to coach great players. He also talked about how he has long admired how former players viewed Dean Smith, Wooden, Coach K from the viewpoint of when they played for those men.
"[Pitino] was not a Hall of Fame coach when he coached me, he was 32," Donovan said. "He was a young coach coming up. Regardless of whether or not he would have ever been in the Hall of Fame, the impact he made on my life changed me in a lot of ways.
"I always think about that when I coach. Can I make the same kind of impact with my players that he made with me? That is the essence, because I know how it changed my life in such a positive way."
Donovan is sharper, more angular than when we first saw him with the Friars three decades ago. He was overmatched in the Big East his first two years and it was Pitino who convinced him to lose 20 pounds and drove him to quickness, to greatness, to the Final Four in New Orleans. A two-points-a-game scorer became a three-point outlaw. He became Billy The Kid, a kid Pitino has said drove himself to improve like no other he has coached.
Yet it also was Pitino who advised Donovan against leaving his job as a stock broker to enter coaching. Donovan, waived from the Knicks after one year, hated the cold-call sales. Donovan was not a much of a communicator when he played.
"He didn't know how desperate I was to get out of Wall Street, because I wasn't very good at it, and two, I really didn't know what I was doing," Donovan said. "I think more than anything else I think he wanted to see how committed I was to really wanting to coach. So I think when he said, 'No, you don't want to do that, you don't have the personality …'
Donovan stopped in mid-sentence when he was interrupted by the questioner.
"Oh, the Florida job?" Donovan said.
After he left the Knicks, Pitino gave a job to Donovan at Kentucky. He rose from graduate assistant to assistant to associate before becoming the youngest Division I coach in America at Marshall. He was 28. Two years later, Florida came calling. Pitino had misgivings.
"There was a very, very heralded recruiting class coming in," Donovan said. "[Florida] had signed six guys. Coach Pitino didn't think it was a very good class being in the league. He thought the team was a long way off."
Donovan, however, was certain of former AD Jeremy Foley's long-term commitment.
"And that's what [Pitino] ultimately said, 'This probably is a good move for you if you feel that strongly about it.' But in the beginning he was not that way," Donovan said.
The experts said Calhoun could never build a champion in Storrs. The place was too small, too remote. Who'd want to spend long winters in the middle of nowhere? Three national championships later, we had an answer. A lot of great players.
Donovan had a different obstacle. How do you get Floridians to turn their heads from the football field to the basketball court? He can laugh about it now, can say the football season doesn't have any impact on him. The fact is the Gators won one SEC title and advanced to five NCAAs in eight decades before Donovan. Since Donovan, Florida has won six SEC titles and 14 NCAA appearances. Florida has won all four NCAA Tournament games by double digits.
With Ollie sitting next to him on the dais, Donovan said he was ready for Florida at age 30. Ready for a job that ultimately led him to four Final Fours, ready for a job that led him to back-to-back national tiles (only Duke has done it since the UCLA dynasty that ended four decades ago).
"With Coach Pitino, we were exposed to a lot," said Donovan, whose average salary will be $3.7 million over the next six years. "We were forced to coach, forced to teach, forced to break down film, individual instruction. We were forced to make decisions, preparation. I didn't feel like when I became a head coach that there was any aspect of coaching that already wasn't thrust upon me. I hear some assistant coaches say they never even have a voice in practice. It just wasn't like that for me, and I'm very, very fortunate that I was under that kind of mentoring and tutelage at a young age."
There is an unmistakable undercurrent to this Final Four. Yes, talk of player unionizing swirls. Donovan and Ollie agree athletes deserve more. Yet the term — or the myth of — what student-athleticism means manifests itself in other ways. Kentucky starts five freshmen. The Wildcats might well win it all and, poof, they could all be gone to the NBA. John Calipari has his rebuttal to what he sees as unnecessarily negative one-and-done connotation — I'd call it a pox — and it starts that his team GPA has been 3.0 the past four years and the APR is spiffy. No matter how you see it, this much is sure: Kentucky is playing a different game. Florida starts four seniors. Wisconsin's Ben Brust is a senior, and of course, so is Shabazz Napier.
If Florida or UConn win it all, it could be the first time since the NBA draft began in 1947 that the NCAA champion does not have a player in the first round. None of the Gators are currently first rounders in mock drafts. Napier is iffy.
"I saw an [ESPN] article, was really sad, it was about kids that had stayed in college for four years and had unbelievable careers, deep runs in the tournament, Final Fours, but they were not in the NBA," Donovan said. "They were overseas. They viewed themselves as failures. That's maybe a societal issue where we start to deem what success is for a lot of these kids. And if they don't make it to the NBA, their college career means nothing. Seriously, it bothers me when I hear stories like that."
When Florida won national titles in 2006-2007, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah all were drafted in the top 10 after sticking around for a junior year. Bradley Beal did leave after one year in 2012.
"My recruiting philosophy has not changed," Donovan said. "We're going to try to get guys that fit our philosophy, our style of play. I really am not bothered with it one way or the other. In recruiting, we lose a lot more than we sign ... I haven't changed in terms of, well, I'm not going to recruit this guy because he may only be in college for a year or two. If it's a fit for us, I look at it as a blessing you've had him for a year. If it's a guy like Patric Young who has elected to stay four years, it's a great thing for us."
It is seniors Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather who have led the No. 1 Gators to 30 wins in a row since Napier beat Florida on Dec. 2. And it's Napier who stands in the way of the architect, the heir of joining coaching immortality.