Billy Donovan, the most tenured coach in the SEC, has won two National Championships with his Florida basketball team and has seen dozens of coaches come and go as his program has remained near or at the top of the league.
From his spot to the east, he’s had plenty of experience with Mississippi State, and has actually lost more than he’s won lately, Saturday night the exception.
In victory, and even more so on the road, a coach will generally be complimentary of the losing side if given the chance. To that end, veteran coaches will nearly always say nice things about a new coach. At least publicly, anyway.
But on Saturday, Donovan took it a bit further than the usual verbal back-pat.
Asked, in fact, about how MSU’s usual sharp-shooter Jalen Steele didn’t score a point against the Gators, UF’s head coach changed topics mid-answer to offer some seemingly sincere compliments.
“I really think that Rick is doing a great job with this team because those three freshman that are playing the majority of the minutes, Sword, Thomas and Ware, those guys are gonna be really good players in this league,” Donovan said. “It’s very, very difficult in our league to come in and absorb as many minutes as they have to absorb.”
He went on to praise Steele, saying he was the player they were most concerned with and how he was particularly impressed with how smart Steele plays, never taking bad shots and finding ways to set up his teammates. Donovan, after watching film, had decided stopping MSU meant stopping Steele.
On Saturday, at least, he was right.
The kind words, worked in a bit randomly there, flowed like an essay when given the proper chance.
Asked if he had a message of encouragement for Ray after a game in which the Gators won by 35, Donovan took the next several minutes to offer his synopsis of MSU’s program, with both greater detail and greater insight than perhaps any member of the media has done since Ray took over at MSU in the spring.
It’s lengthy, but rather than parse his words, distort his message or leave something out, here’s the full text of Donovan’s thoughts on Mississippi State.
“Listen, a couple things. One is Rick Stansbury did a phenomenal job here for 14 years. He really did an incredible job. Back when he was here and it was divisional play, they were competing for a divisional championship every single year. They won SEC Championships. He had great runs in the SEC Tournament.
“With Rick leaving, Rick Ray comes in with, obviously, a lot to rebuild, so to speak. I think the greatest compliment that I could give another coach is when you watch his team play to see how hard his kids play. His kids play really, really hard. They lay it on the line. They’re undermanned, they don’t have a lot of depth, but they stay in games. They have stayed in games. I know there’s been some big margins of losses.
“I think Rick, when you’re going through what he’s going through, and I kind of went through it my first two years at Florida, two losing season in a row. He’s got a really good nucleus with those young kids. Those young kids are gonna be really, really good players. They’re taking, maybe, some lumps right now being young, but they’re gonna end up being the nucleus and the core in terms of re-building the program back. When you watch them play, they’re giving unbelievable effort.
“A lot of times, I think fans and people that are looking at their team have a tendency to just look at the result. Did you win or did you lose? There’s so much more than that that these kids are learning right now in this process that they’re going through. They’re all gonna be better for it. That’s easy for me to say sitting here, but the worst thing to do and the worst thing to experience as a coach is when you feel like your guys aren’t working, they’re not committed, they’re not giving great effort. When you have a person that’s, in my opinion, and I don’t know, Rick may feel different, I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but in my opinion, watching them play on film, they are doing and playing as hard as they can. And when you have a lot of young guys, there’s gonna be mistakes and things you get frustrated with, but overall, I think he’s done a great job and will do a great job here as he continues to build the program.”
Again, Donovan’s words go far beyond the usual niceties and coach-speak prudence.
Ray is certainly in an uphill battle in his first season, and though it affects little after a loss, MSU’s head coach was thankful to hear praise from a coach like Donovan.