PHOENIX — Billy Donovan knew a bad idea when he heard one.
Put on this cowboy hat and these spurs and we’ll take a picture of you, his coach told him. Maybe we’ll even put it on the front of the team program.
“I was not happy about doing that,” Donovan said.
Rick Pitino rarely steered him wrong, though. A quarter-century since that fateful photo, “Billy The Kid” has become a championship coach with a legacy, and the guy who made him dress up that day isn’t doing so bad himself.
Today, they meet on opposite sides of the court – Pitino trying to make his sixth trip to the Final Four and second at Louisville and Donovan going for a fourth Final Four with the Florida Gators.
Pitino is 6-0 in the head-to-head matchups, almost all those results explained because he had the better talent when the two met. None, however, have come with the stakes this high or the emotions so mixed.
“Not only did we have success together, but we really, truly love each other,” Pitino said. “Billy is like a son to me.”
So much of the relationship between coach and pupil has been documented over the years – every time there’s an anniversary and, especially, as Donovan’s stature rose with his two national titles. After the first one, Donovan celebrated by waving Pitino down onto the court.
“I started crying,” Pitino said. “I felt better about him winning it than when I won it.”
Donovan is in his 16th year with the Gators (26-10) and is back on an upward swing after a few down years following the championships.
This has been a season of ups and downs for the Cardinals (29-9), who rose as high as fourth in The Associated Press poll in December but impressed nobody during a 10-8 Big East regular season.
“I never thought we were out of it,” Pitino said. I’ve never stopped dreaming because of what that team did.”