Before hiring Michael White as his new basketball coach last spring, Florida Director of Athletics Jeremy Foley gave Rob Evans a call. Evans had coached White at Ole Miss in the 1990s.
“I said, he’s exactly like Billy Donovan,” Evans said he told Foley.
On the surface, this made sense. Like the Donovan hired by Foley in 1996, White was young, a former overachieving point guard, a success as a mid-major head coach and the embodiment of confident can-do.
But given all that Donovan meant to Florida as a national championship coach and to the Southeastern Conference as a transformational figure, Foley shies from pinning such a label on White, who leads the Gators against Kentucky on Saturday.
“There’s only one Billy Donovan,” Foley said Thursday. “He was special. … So you’re not replicating that. That would be a tough chore and unfair to whoever you hired to say he’s the next Billy Donovan.”
Of course, Donovan showed the SEC that a school other than Kentucky could be Kentucky-like in basketball. He led the Gators to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, two other Final Fours and 17 victories against UK. Only LSU Coach Dale Brown has had more victories over the Cats. He had 18.
Nothing speaks better to the change Donovan made at Florida than White’s reaction to Foley’s interest.
“When Florida calls and Jeremy Foley calls, you’ve got to take that very, very seriously,” White said after being hired.
That was a 180-degree change from the reaction Foley got when he pursued Donovan in 1996.
“Rick Pitino told him not to take the job,” Foley said. “It wasn’t a good job. It was only a football school. Nobody cared about basketball. That’s what was written 19, 20 years ago.
“The fact that Michael would say that, I appreciate. That’s a direct reflection of what Billy built here.”
What Donovan built was also a tough act for the next coach to follow. Nobody knows that better than former UK Coach Joe B. Hall. He had the unenviable task of following Adolph Rupp.
This led to Hall’s most famous quip. After facetiously volunteering himself as the coach to replace John Wooden at UCLA in 1975, he said, “Why ruin two people’s lives?”
Forty years later, Hall still chuckles at the memory.
Rather than feel threatened by Donovan, White has embraced this legacy.
“Didn’t have any (trepidation) whatsoever,” he said.
During the job interview, Foley asked White about following Donovan.
“My first response was, why would that be a negative?” White said during an appearance on the Paul Finebaum show Thursday. “I look at it as nothing but a positive. I’d much rather replace Coach Donovan, who made this an upper-level program, than somebody else, and it’s not an upper-level program.”
Florida displays a large photograph of Donovan on a wall in its practice facility. The various accomplishments are recognized.
“Obviously, at some point in the coaching transition, you take that down,” Foley said. “Michael won’t let us take it down because that’s who we’re building on here.”
Foley considers White, like Donovan, a “zero-ego guy.”
White, who will be 39 on March 2, grew up in an athletic family. His mother and father were track athletes. His father, Kevin White, is Duke’s athletic director.
The elder White was A.D. at Tulane when Evans recruited his son. Because signing the son of the A.D. seemed awkward, the Tulane coach recommended White to Evans.
Evans sent two assistants to watch White, and asked the assistants to call him separately with their opinions.
“One called and said, ‘I think he’s a pretty good player, tough, hard-nosed,’” Evans said. “The other said, ‘I don’t know … .’
“So, I didn’t get a real good feel.”
Evans decided to take a look for himself. He liked what he saw in a practice even though White did not shoot well.
White signed with Ole Miss, and made an almost immediate impression as a freshman. After a pickup game his first week on campus, White reported to the head coach.
“I could see where he was really, really perturbed about something,” Evans said. “I said, ‘They don’t like you very well, do they, Mike?’
“He goes, ‘No, they don’t.’
“I said, ‘Well, they’ll love you before it’s all over with.”
The older Ole Miss players had to get used to White’s take-no-guff attitude.
“He’s going to speak his mind,” Evans said. “They didn’t expect a freshman to do that, to just challenge them on stuff. They finally got to a point where they really respected him because he wouldn’t give in to them.”
Florida brings a 15-7 record to Rupp Arena. The Gators have won five of their last six games, a testament to overcoming poor shooting from the perimeter and the foul line.
Evans called White a bulldog. This was evident in Florida’s victory over Arkansas on Wednesday when the SEC Network put a microphone on White. He exuded in-charge purpose.
Tellingly, perhaps, White had the self-confidence to bring starting center John Egbunu off the bench. Egbunu was not the second, but the third center for the Gators.
“I’m going to reward guys for working (hard), especially for a team that’s searching for that consistency.”
Egbunu, who had 14 points and four rebounds, accepted the role.
“The other guys had a better week of practice than I did,” he said afterward. “Credit to them.”
Florida at Kentucky
4 p.m. (CBS-27)