It’s a tall task, following in the steps of a legend. Thus is the mission Mike White has chosen to undertake.
Eventually there will be a day when we will no longer compare White to Billy Donovan. Some time off in the future we won’t immediately jump to “Oh that’s just like Billy” or “Donovan would have done that different.” And as White’s career in Gainesville progresses, fans will become familiar with his tendencies, coaching style and personality.
For now though, Mike is still the new guy on the block and Billy’s shadow still lingers over the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Without fail both players and White are constantly asked to compare the two.
So instead of fighting it, let’s embrace it for just a bit and break down three areas where White has been weighed and measured against Donovan.
In Game Coaching Style
At first glance, this is where Florida Gators basketball fans will see the most commonalities, if for no other reason than the sideline walk.
It’s almost eerie how alike they are in this regard. When the team is on the other end of the floor, Coach starts by standing way out of the box in front of the bench. Yell out a play, then a turn and walk to the other end looking down the whole time. Once at the other end of the bench, they squat down and watch quietly until they see something that needs to be changed, then it’s a hop up, a yell and a quick walk back to the other end, yelling along the way for the next person to sub in.
Granted, over time, Billy’s yell became more of a baffled “what are you doing?” which was the sign of being in the profession for a couple of decades now. For White, he’s still young and so his bursts of passion are more frequent, but both are effective. It’s the way they work the bench though, and the sideline that is really like looking at a picture of each other. There are only so many ways a coach can act in a confined space, but Billy’s was so recognizable (and passed on — it was always funny to watch Florida and Alabama and see Anthony Grant run his bench the exact same way as Billy) that it’s hard to miss it being so similar with White.
For players who have been under both now, what they’re coaching during that time is alike as well.
“It’s a lot of similarities, its not too many differences, actually,” says guard Chris Chiozza.
“I feel like Coach White wants to play faster than Coach Donovan and Coach White gives you a little bit more of a freedom to do what you want to do. A little bit more confidence there with Coach White.”
This is where White can start to separate himself from Billy though, especially with in-game coaching style. By giving the guys more freedom offensively and having them move faster, he’s setting up a style of play that can become his mark on the O-Dome.
For now guys are still adjusting, so the play swings back and forth like a confused pendulum between the style they played with Donovan and this up tempo pace that they’re still getting adjusted too. Once it’s learned though, we’ll start to see more of White’s style come through during games—but that walk will probably always be the same.
Scheme wise, Mike White saw an opportunity to develop his team at a slower click and took it. By doing so, he hasn’t pushed anything on them too fast and instead is letting them learn it in a way that it can be truly absorbed. This can be frustrating for fans that want to see a team ready for a run right now, but, alas, it will take a bit longer than four games.
In the meantime, White put aside his own playbook (well he kept a bit of it anyways) and instead tapped into Coach Donovan’s, so as to make the transition easier.
This is most evident in the way the Florida Gators are learning to press this year, something that White calls, “very much a work in progress.
We piggybacked Coach Donovan’s man-to-man run and jump, which he was really good at and I thought it was really good to last year’s team on a number of occasions.”
With 50 percent of this year’s team having played minutes under Coach Donovan (and six of those eight having played significant minutes) it makes sense to start with what they know. It’s a practice that Geoff Collins implemented across the street with the Florida Gators football defensive unit—just carrying over the terms they already knew instead of trying to force them to learn his.
“A lot easier for one guy to learn their terms then a bunch of guys to learn mine” is how he explained it. And anyone that’s turned on a Gators football game this season can see that it’s working.
With the hope for similar success, Coach White is employing the same tactic. Since it’s blatantly being labeled as Donovan’s press, we can’t really say that this is a parallel in their coaching styles, but as White slowly implements his own scheme through Donovan’s, we will see vestiges of both stick around in what will become a new scheme unique to the Florida Gators basketball team.
“We’re going to try to introduce some new things and again evaluate over time what, we hope one of them becomes the bread and butter for us,” explains White.
“We’re pretty optimistic at this point that we can be a pressing team but we’re trying to steal some of the concepts of Coach Donovan and his staff with this man to man run and jump but we certainly didn’t want to throw out the window some zone pressing stuff that we did that was our biggest strength at Louisiana Tech so we’ve just started to introduce that stuff.”
The area where these two men really start to differentiate is personality—makes sense; that’s what makes each person their own.
There are still some similar aspects. Both are brashly honest.
Billy’s honesty was curbed with a Northeastern brogue and the twisting lyrical way of someone who’s been around long enough that he knows how to control the message.
White’s honesty is just saying exactly what he’s thinking most of the time. Both are effective and nice in a world of coach speak and both are snapshots of each individual man.
“Coach White’s a different person than Coach Donovan. He’s got his own personality, his own way of doing things,” says senior forward Alex Murphy.
But there’s an underlying thread there that keeps them connected.
“To be honest their styles are probably more similar than different,” continues Murphy. “But Coach White has done a great job since he’s come in so far. He’s installed some of his way but he’s also kept the Florida culture and the Florida basketball program and he’s maintained a lot of things we’ve had in the past.”
That’s the biggest thing both Donovan and White share. One built the Florida Gators basketball culture and the other is tasked with carrying it on, but both men understand the importance of staying true to the Florida way. What way that may be can change slightly from one man to the other, but the overlying goal is the same—success for the Florida Gators.