MEMPHIS, Tenn. — One of the toughest lessons Billy Donovan had to learn as a coach was how to let go once the clock ran out.
Losing wore on Donovan as a young coach. Eventually, he would realize obsessively analyzing every detail of what went wrong was a zero-sum game.
“In the early years, he would stay up and go back and look at film in his office until 4 a.m.” said Bill Donovan, the Florida coach’s father. “Now I say to him, ‘Billy, it’s another day, get your rest and tomorrow attack it again.’”
But losses in the NCAA Tournament make tomorrows harder to face.
“There’s no easy exit out of the NCAA Tournament,” Billy Donovan said on Wednesday as his No. 1 seed Gators prepare for Thursday night’s matchup with No. 4 UCLA in the South Regional.
Few college basketball coaches lately have enjoyed a ride like Donovan — bumps included.
The Gators are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 during each of the past four seasons, but they were bounced from the Elite Eight in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
“Billy will tell you and I will tell you, the further you go in the NCAA Tournament the losses become harder and harder to accept,” Donovan’s father said. “People think you’re out, but you got to the Elite Eight ... no, no. I think if you lose in the first round it’s bad. But if you go three, four, five games, it’s harder.”
Donovan has reached the point once again where survive and advance no longer applies. Now, it is survive or else.
If the Gators’ record-setting run ends anything short of Donovan’s third national championship, the finality of a season-ending loss will require time to process.
“It’s really hard on those guys because they wake up the next day and now what?” UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “Their lives all the sudden change immediately. When you’re in a bowl game, you know for a month that’s your last game. When you’re in the NCAA Tournament, every day could be your last day.
“When and if that comes it’s difficult. It’s like the amusement park is closed and you have to go home, because it’s a heck of a ride.”
Donovan has invested nearly six months of grueling days dating to the opening of practice in early October.
When the end comes, even an eternal optimist like Donovan — “He was always an upbeat kid,” his father says — needs time to turn the page.
“You definitely need time to detox,” said Billy Donovan Jr., the coach’s son and walk-on on the UF basketball team. “He’s usually to himself for a week or two, trying to get himself out of the season mode.”
Donovan has some outlets to escape his funk — his faith, family and an exercise regimen that has kept him as fit as he was during his days as “Billy The Kid” at Providence College.
Yet, much of his time will be spent searching for answers.
“The first thing he is going to do is look at himself and what he could have done different, and he’s going to beat himself up about it,” UF assistant coach Matt McCall said. “For all the wins, all the championships, everything that he’s done, he’s also the most humble human being.
“He never feels like he has things figured out. One of things I respect most about him and when I become a head coach I will take from him, he’s never content.”
But breaking down film and pounding out miles on the treadmill or recruiting trail does not help Donovan bounce back quite like the perspective he has gained over the years.
“We all want to win,” he said. “We all want to win national championships. But for me, there’s a lot I’ve learned as it relates to life and to the drama of the NCAA Tournament.”
Donovan, 48, recalled Wednesday how the Gators entered the school year faced with injuries, suspensions and drama.
“Our team was in complete shambles and disarray when we came back in August,” Donovan said. “To see what those kids have done in terms of trying to come together as a team, like that to me is really what it’s about more so than just the end result of winning.”
Winning still is preferable, especially when the losses can be so demoralizing.
The Gators held 11-point leads during the final 10 minutes Elite Eight losses to Butler in 2011 and Louisville in 2012. Foley hired Donovan in 1996, but has never found the right words for Donovan following losses like that 2012 defeat to his mentor, Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
“You’re not going to help him cope,” Foley said of Donovan. “You give him his space. Maybe after a couple of days you make sure he’s doing OK. It’s not going to make him feel better.
“Nothing is going to make a competitor feel better after losing a game like that.”
Donovan’s next loss could be even harder.
The Gators (34-2) are riding a school-record 28-game winning streak and appear poised to add to the school’s 2006 and 2007 national titles.
But it all could end Thursday night. For now, Donovan is grateful for one more game.
“I’m just excited that we’re still playing and have a chance to compete and play tomorrow,” he said Wednesday.