By Matt Norlander
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Of all the stories that this year's Final Four is giving us, there's probably no potentially greater one than what Billy Donovan carries heading into Saturday's semifinals. There is no pressure for Donovan or Florida -- or at least it doesn't feel like it out here -- but at the same time, there's something pretty momentous hovering behind two more victories. Two more wins to three total titles.
Donovan has two national titles already, something for which I still feel he hasn't received enough acclaim. Getting to the top of the ladder twice is considered uncommon in college basketball. He's alongside Dean Smith, Roy Williams and Hank Iba, among a handful of others. (In a way -- a weird way -- those two titles from 2006 and 2007 have blended together. But those were two separate, impressive feats.
Yet there is a massive leap between two and three national championships in college hoops. If two's uncommon, three is rare and four is all-timer status.
Billy Donovan could be a three-time college basketball champion in the next four days. This is fairly nuts. I keep writing it because it took Jim Calhoun until he was 68 and Mike Krzyzewski until he was 54 to do this. Donovan's only 48. So if it comes to that, let's lay out what this means for Donovan. Here's the group he joins:
Those are the five men with three or more national titles to their name. You get triple championships, you join a very small table.
So, yeah, that's a very big deal.
Because of his age -- Donovan is slightly older than Knight was when he won his final title in 1987, but younger than Bo Ryan was when he was hired to coach Wisconsin in 2001 -- he's got anywhere from 15 to 25 years of coaching left ahead of him, if he wants.
It's wild to see how his life has changed. As college hoops diehards know, Donovan spent a short amount of time in a suit -- on Wall Street. He quickly got out of that career and back into basketball, after convincing his former coach Rick Pitino to take him on as an assistant. Think about the life he might have had otherwise.
On Thursday at his press availability, Donovan reflected on this transition and the decision that changed him forever.
"[Pitino] didn't know how desperate I was to get out of Wall Street, because, one, I wasn't very good at it, and, two, I really didn't know what I was doing," Donovan said. He says he's "always thankful" for the experience he gained in his five years as Pitino's assistant at Kentucky, from 1989 to 1994. "At a young age, in my early 20s, getting an opportunity to coach, I think I was exposed…not only being around a great Hall of Fame coach, but I was also exposed where I had to do a lot of different things."
And then the Marshall job opened up in 1994. He wanted it, but did he really? Donovan recalled how his biggest professional mentor challenged him. He's thankful for it now.
"I think more than anything else, I think [Pitino] wanted to see how committed I was to really wanting to coach," Donovan said.
The Florida job came along in 1996. Donovan has been consistent for so long, we kind of take for granted that he's turned a forever-football-first school into a top-10 basketball school. Does the focus on football take some of the pressure off of him? Certainly. But it's not why he's been able to win big for so long. Resources, and a weaker league over time, have allowed the Gators to practically match stride with Kentucky.
We've got a long way to go to tell the rest of Donovan's story, yet he's already established so much. He's already a clear-cut top-10 coach in college basketball; could we consider him anything but top-five if Florida extends its win streak from 30 to 32 games? Boiling down one or two victories into bigger legacies is a tricky business in sports, but winning at the biggest times reverberates in ways that are equal parts unfair and rational.
This could be the middle of the gamut for Donovan, and that's what I love. He's gotten this far, with this team, thanks to four seniors who've finally broken through after three straight years of Elite Eight runs. And there is no comfort or acceptance or contentment in getting here and not dying for more. Not for Donovan's talented team.
"I think as a coach," said Donovan on Thursday, "when you're putting all this time and energy in with your kids, I'm not so sure that…this late in the year losing is always an easy thing, because you know the investment that we have all made to get to this point."
Donovan's sent two dozen guys to the pros in his 18 years in Gainesville, but this team -- which probably lacks a first-round draft pick -- is dominating unlike any group he's had. That is an undersold element to this run, this team and Donovan's evolving coaching ability.
What if they win? Forget the legacy of three national titles. It could also open up interesting opportunities. In the same way Tom Izzo's been open about his standing with Michigan State, Donovan's been careful but honest about his future at Florida. The UF job is his for life, basically. But could he go pro? I'd imagine he'd have a few suitors. And if he got the title with this group of seniors, that might be one way to end a beautiful partnership. There's a nice finality to that image.
I don't know how likely that is. He could stay at Florida for five more years before opting for a new challenge. Maybe he'll never leave. Donovan's changed his professional approach over the years -- he's no longer killing himself by the day over the personal wins and losses -- and that adjustment's led to a happier and steadier time at Florida.
What Billy Donovan represents won't change -- it will only enhance and embolden if Florida does what it's favored to do come Monday night in Arlington.
Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.