ARLINGTON, Texas — Billy Donovan has one for every occasion.
The Florida coach did not coin the expressions that now form his team’s vernacular, though Donovan might as well have as far as his players are concerned.
Up one point with 14 seconds remaining in the SEC Tournament final against Kentucky?
Time for the Gators to “stay in the moment.”
Giving up easy baskets, getting out-hustled, settling for too many three-pointers against Auburn?
Time for the Gators to “play to their identity.”
Tired, sore, stressed out by class work and dreading practice four months into the season?
Understandable, but don’t “give into human nature” if you truly are committed to “chasing greatness.”
After all, it is all part of the “the process.”
To the uninitiated, these phrases amount to little more than coach-speak, but they are gospel to Donovan’s players.
“He’s got expressions for everything,” Gators center Patric Young said. “He’s helps us just visualize what we can do, how much he believes in us, his passion. The fact that he would go out of his way to find these things to help refocus us and get us back to the process just shows how good of a coach he is and how much he cares about us and how much he wants us to be great.”
Donovan clearly has found the right buttons to push during the Gators’ 30-game winning streak that has carried them to a Final Four matchup with Connecticut at 6:09 p.m. EDT on Saturday on TBS.
Donovan, who will be coaching in his fourth Final Four, always is looking for ways to combat the inevitable lulls and setbacks of a long season. These Billy-isms have served a vital role with his current players, to the point they parrot their coach without even realizing it.
“We try to have the same mindset as him, so we end up saying the same things as him,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
Sounding eerily familiar, sophomore shooting Michael Frazier II explained why the Gators’ have heeded head coach’s words so well.
“We have to continue to listen to that and do our job, stay in the moment, stay in the process,” Frazier said. “That’s the only we can get better.”
Donovan’s methods to engage and inspire his players have evolved through the years.
Books, including John Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success,” and conversations with his peers, including Jeff Van Gundy and Bill Belichick, helped shape Donovan’s approach.
“As he’s grown, he has gotten more into that stuff,” said Bill Donovan, the coach’s father. “He’s always trying to learn.”
Sometimes, these motivational instructions has been lost in translation, the eyes of Billy Donovan’s players glazing over as he delivered a sermon.
“Probably early on in their careers, I was talking over their heads and they didn’t understand it,” Donovan said. “And that’s probably my fault. But you try to give them some things and through their experiences, they have a better understanding sometimes of what you’re talking about.”
It helps to have four seniors who have won three SEC titles and reached four Elite Eights listening to their coach.
“It’s a lot easier to get bought into what anybody’s doing when you win,” Donovan said.
But Donovan’s message is about more than making deep runs during the postseason.
“He wants these kids to more worry about life than these three or four years of college,” Donovan’s father said. “That motivates him. He wants these kids getting ready to life.”
Donovan’s latest motivational tactic is a little more involved than pithy phrases such as “chasing greatness” or “staying in the moment” — the personal favorite of Wilbekin, who has been one of the stars of the NCAA Tournament.
As the postseason wore on, Donovan spoke to his team about the challenge of summiting Mount Everest. Many climbers reach the final base camp, Donovan said, but only 20 percent have the fortitude to ultimately reach the peak of the world’s highest mountain.
“So we said, ‘Let’s not be fat and happy, going halfway, going 18-0 in the SEC, going to the SEC Tournament, winning it, going to the Sweet 16,’” Young said. “Let’s continue to be that 20 percent that keeps fighting and fights human nature to reach the top.”
The mountaintop of college basketball is now in sight for the Gators.
To get here, Donovan has had to do more than motivate his players each day. Sometimes, the 48-year-old future Hall of Fame coach has had to dig deep within himself, too.
“He’s always on edge himself,” Young said. “I’m sure he even gets tired of the process sometimes and he fights human nature.”
Donovan himself could not have said it any better.