When Larry Shyatt appeared to be the only assistant heading out the door, Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan said he wanted to replace him with someone young. Learning over a 40-hour period that his entire staff would be leaving less than a month after reaching the Elite Eight in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, he decided to turn to a friendly face and a familiar colleague.
For Donovan, it was not a stretch to hire the two men he turned to right away. A six-year assistant under Donovan, former Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey brings stability and familiarity to the bench, while former St. Johns head coach Norm Roberts offers experience and vast amounts of knowledge. Both are excellent recruiters and respected coaches who will provide the team with a steadiness and sense of continuity even though the entire staff will be changing.
When you hear Donovan’s contemporaries rave about him, they not only discuss his ability to draw up plays, create game plans or scout opponents. They point to his character, management style and sterling reputation. That is why, before Shyatt was even out the door, Donovan had plenty of options on who he could hire to replace him.
Donovan is the type of coach who is not only concerned about winning basketball games but also making sure he develops his players on and off the court. He does the same thing for his assistants.
His track record helping assistants find head coaching jobs is unmistakable. The loyalty his former players and coaches show to him is unwavering. Donovan’s character and demeanor are why guys he has sent off to the NBA or others he has helped compete with him for honors like SEC Coach of the Year still refer back to him with high levels of gratitude and appreciation.
“My job, my responsibility is to help these kids grow, put them in a competitive situation to try to win something, teach them something through winning,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “And then also staff-wise, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of a lot of guys whose lives got changed in a lot of different ways.”
Those traits he possesses are why – if he calls – Arkansas assistant Brett Nelson or Florida Atlantic assistant Matt McCall would probably fight it out to fill the third position on his new staff. They are why it took promises of coach-in-waiting positions from Texas and Louisville, respectively, to get Rob Lanier and Richard Pitino to leave his side.
“That’s one thing about this profession. Sometimes you never know about timing and opportunities,” Donovan said Tuesday.
One former assistant faced with a great opportunity was Shaka Smart, who was offered the VCU head coaching job after 10 months under Donovan. He was going back-and-forth about accepting the position because of the respect he had for his boss.
“I don’t think Shaka or I ever anticipated him leaving as quickly as he did. Obviously VCU made a great hire. When you get really good people, there’s going to be opportunities,” Donovan said. “There’s a difference when guys are out seeking and hunting jobs. I’ve been very fortunate that the guys I’ve had here haven’t done that.
“To tell you what kind of guy Shaka Smart is, he almost didn’t take the VCU [job] because he felt so guilty only being here 10 months. I pushed him out the door because I told him it was a great job and he needed to go. If he didn’t do it, he wouldn’t have experienced what he did this year.”
Perhaps most importantly, those characteristics Donovan possesses are why he can lose his entire staff in a matter of days and fill his two main assistant positions with top-notch former head coaches without so much as batting an eye.