LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The last thing Rick Pitino wanted Billy Donovan to become was a coach like him.
Pitino may especially regret his former player and assistant’s career choice on Saturday, when Donovan’s top-ranked Florida Gators (5-1) play Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals (3-1) at Freedom Hall.
“I have so many unbelievable memories of what he accomplished,” Pitino said of Donovan on Friday. “But I know he’s got a great team and he’s going to look down at me and want to kick the hell out of me.”
Pitino coached Donovan at Providence from 1985-87 and the Friars made an unlikely Final Four run in their final season. Pitino went on to coach the New York Knicks and Donovan played for him briefly.
But Donovan’s NBA career stalled, and he landed a job on Wall Street. Donovan called Pitino a short time later, telling him he wanted to become a coach.
“I never felt comfortable calling some guy from Texas and asking him for $50,000 to invest in some stock because some guy next door in the analysts’ department tells me it’s a great stock,” Donovan said. “What do I tell the guy if I lose this guy’s money?”
Pitino told Donovan to stick with the job on Wall Street, but Donovan knew what he wanted to do — and Pitino didn’t stop him. He hired him to join his staff at Kentucky, which also included future head coaches Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith and Ralph Willard.
“He got right into it and became a fool like the rest of us,” Pitino said.
Neither has doubted the decision since. Donovan has gone 189-94 in nine-plus seasons, including a 154-74 at Florida, where he’s been since 1996.
The two remain close friends, but Pitino said his fondest memories of “Billy the Kid” will always be of him as a player.
The Friars were the doormats of the Big East when Pitino arrived. Pitino said Donovan was the first player to ask him for a transfer.
“We called Fairfield and Northeastern — two schools I thought would be at his level,” Pitino said. “And their response was, ‘We have much better’ and they didn’t want him. When he came back in, he said, ‘What did those other schools think?’ I said, ‘They want you badly, but why don’t you stay here and concentrate on academics?”’
Pitino also told Donovan to get into shape, improve his shooting and work on his ballhandling. For a while, Pitino dominated Donovan in 1-on-1 games.
“My biggest problem was — and it’s very true today — kids don’t understand how to work out, how to make themselves better,” Donovan said. “He really taught me as a player how to get things done and how to work. For me, it was like a godsend because I loved playing.”
Soon, Donovan became a dominant, unguardable player, Pitino said.
The unheralded Friars lost three of their last four regular-season games, but then stormed to the Final Four, scoring at least 88 points in their first four NCAA tournament games.
“A lot of people characterize that team as overachievers, and they certainly were, but not him,” Pitino said. “He was a dominating point guard who couldn’t be guarded. It’s quite a story. It’s my favorite story in 30 years of coaching.”
The Friars won the regional title at Freedom Hall, a weekend that catapulted Pitino to the national spotlight.
“There is always a game, always a moment, that changes your career. The run at Providence to the Final Four changed my career forever,” he said.
Saturday’s game will cap another eventful week for Pitino.
In the last six days, he’s defeated Willard, now the Holy Cross coach, and a former player, Seton Hall coach Louis Orr.
Between the games, he learned that the brother of Louisville’s leading scorer, Francisco Garcia, had been shot and killed in the Bronx.
On Thursday, Pitino flew to New York City with Garcia, who attended his brother’s funeral. Pitino also caught a glimpse of incoming Louisville recruit Sebastian Telfair in a nationally televised high school game before returning to Louisville with Garcia.
Pitino said Garcia would play Saturday in the so-called Billy Minardi Classic, in honor of Pitino’s brother-in-law, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Pitino will host about 60 of Minardi’s friends, in addition to his widow, siblings and children.
And if he wins, Pitino will earn win No. 400 faster than all but eight college coaches.
“That’s about the only thing I haven’t thought of this weekend, is 400,” Pitino said. “If it does happen, it would be awesome for it to happen tomorrow.”
Louisville is 1-4 against No. 1 teams since 1953, and the Cardinals last played a top-ranked team in 2000, losing to Cincinnati 75-65.
The Gators probably won’t be No. 1 much longer. They’re coming off a 69-68 home loss to Maryland — something Pitino wishes hadn’t happened right before his team faces them.
“They’re a No. 1 wounded tiger,” Pitino said.
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