The news that Billy Donovan is ESPN's No. 1 coach in college basketball came as a surprise to me this morning, if only because I've grown so used to ESPN slighting Florida that a rare enthronement of a Gator simply doesn't compute.
I was expecting Donovan to end up in the top five — only Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, and Roy Williams have as many or more national championships among active coaches, and Williams ended up way back at No. 16 — and when that top five was narrowed to Donovan, Krzyzewski, Pitino, John Calipari, and Tom Izzo, I was expecting Donovan to take a seat behind the four name-brand guys at blue-blood schools.
He didn't, though, and ESPN actually used what he's done since 2007, when he became the only coach this millennium to guide a team to back-to-back titles, to justify it. There's a little of that in the Eamonn Brennan piece crowning Donovan, but there's actually more of it in this Insider piece ($) by Adam Finkelstein on how Donovan's adjusted his recruiting — by locking down the state of Florida, and augmenting his incoming classes with transfers — to lay the foundation for a cohesive program after star-studded 2007, 2008, and 2009 classes formed the backbone of underachieving Florida squads in 2007-08, 2008-09, and 2009-10.
Donovan's greatest triumph, if you ask me, is that he has learned how to self-evaluate, take what he learns from that self-evaluation, and apply it to his work, even when that means radically adjusting and changing his philosophy. Donovan's teams played a very different style of offense and defense during the Billyball days at the turn of the century than they do now, and played a different style of offense and defense during their title runs between those other two peaks. He went from chasing McDonald's All-Americans to building the Oh-Fours, then from looking for the best talent possible in each class to stitching together teams that make sense and get to Elite Eights every year.
And though what he thinks about basketball and how he does his job have changed over the years, he hasn't.
We love Billy D, so we feel strongly about him being patient with a fan base that always arrives late both to his team's seasons and its games, and stayed with the Gators when it would have made so much sense to leap to the NBA. And we can exalt him for making character a cornerstone of his program, so much so that Donovan made no secret of telling Scottie Wilbekin, his presumptive starting point guard, to transfer in the 2013 offseason — because Donovan could do that with Kasey Hill waiting in the wings, yes, but also because that was the sort of thing that Donovan probably knew would get Wilbekin to grow up.
Our partiality doesn't make those things any less good or worth celebrating. Donovan's the kind of archetypal parental figure most fans want their coach to be, and he's been the best possible figurehead of a program that was only going to turn into a monster if Dr. Frankenstein got the controls. Billy the Kid was the right mad scientist, but Billy the Man's figured out how to keep the monster from terrorizing the countryside, too.
Plus, though we know and love Donovan personally, we know and love his teams, too — because we watch them, contrary to popular opinion. Those of us who have followed Florida basketball for more than a few years know how well he has built was used to be practically nothing, and how he has gotten so much out of virtually every player and team; these things make us sure that there's no one else we would rather have as our coach.
No. 1 feels right to us because of who we are, and because it's long-overdue flattery for a guy who demurs as much as he can. But I also feel calling Donovan the best college basketball coach in America is right — not just because of who he is, but because of what he's done.
Alas, though, ESPN seems determined to #KeepSleeping on facts about Florida. In the Brennan piece, Will Yeguete's last name is misspelled...
...and in the Insider piece, it's Florida assistant Mark Daigneault — one of the best-kept secrets in college basketball — whose name is spelled wrong, with "Dagneault" getting used instead.
These are little things, to be sure. But I notice them because they seem to happen a lot.
It's always hilarious when people get genuinely aggrieved by rankings like these, and especially so when fans of the blue-blood programs in college basketball take up to defend their coaches.
There's this tumbleweedy thread on /r/CollegeBasketball, in which someone really wants Jim Boeheim to get his props. There's our friend @rockchalktalk protesting way, way too much. There's this thoroughly hilarious thread on the Kentucky Rivals site's board, in which the original poster goes with "Donovon," someone else asserts a conspiracy ("Pissing BBN off gets hits."), and a third person snarks that "ESPN picked the Germans to win WW2" in the first six comments.
And, to be fair, I think all of the top six guys mentioned — Donovan, Calipari, Krzyzewski, Izzo, and Bill Self — could be defended as "college basketball's best coach" by decent arguments. But ESPN — and every other outlet that angles for clicks with a list like this — knows that people will be upset and react to the list no matter how the list is put together. Florida fans would've been upset to see Cal at No. 1; Kentucky fans won't believe that Cal is anything less than No. 1; Duke fans have a bone to pick with their coach being behind two guys with fewer titles combined; Louisville fans can whine about Cal, about Donovan's winless record against Pitino, and about twice-crowned Slick Rick slotting in behind Izzo; certain Kansas fans would've been upset with pretty much anything.
It is easier and usually more right to assume that lists about sports on the Internet, even ones from ESPN, are honest products from honest writers than to dream up conspiracy theories. And it is (almost) always a better look to respond to things on the Internet that can aggrieve with silence than frustration.
Someone should probably tell Pat Dooley that "thot" no longer works quite as well as shorthand for "thought" as it once did.