“Anything for Coach White”.
The sentiment popped up on my Facebook messenger within mere seconds of having sent my inquiry.
“Thanks, Speedy,” I replied.
Another new message – from a new author – soon followed.
“I would be happy to give you some insight on Coach White,” it read.
“Thanks, Raheem,” I typed.
And then a third, this time from a name I knew would be familiar to the Gator Nation.
“It would be an honor,” the message read.
“Thanks, David. I am really interested in hearing your perspective,” I responded.
I was interested in hearing the perspectives of each — Kenneth “Speedy” Smith, Raheem Appleby and David Huertas.
Yes, Gator fans- that David Huertas- the one who transferred from Florida to Ole Miss, and in doing so, became an unlikely connection between Florida’s most legendary coach and the one who would enthusiastically and unflinchingly follow the legend.
“When I played at Ole Miss, Coach White was an assistant,” he explained.
The formerly frustrated Gator turned Rebel would prove much than just a connection or mere footnote. Instead, Huertas would become one of many success stories for a coach who has made habit of developing and transforming guards. It’s a “habit” that helped pave Mike White’s path to Gainesville— where he is doing it again!
“The guard whisperer” — it’s a moniker recently attached to White, but those guard transformations preceded his young tenure at Florida and originated even earlier than his record-setting run at Louisiana Tech.
Just ask Poonie Richardson or Walker Russell, both of whom developed into All-League players under White’s tutelage at Jacksonville State – his first coaching stint.
And it’s a track record that hardly whispers.
“I think I’ve been coaching about 15 years or so – and I would say just about every year we’ve had an all-league point guard,” White revealed at his introductory press conference two years ago.
Of course White made his proclamation in a typically humble tone – almost as if blessed to fall into such talent. But those all-league players are quick to flip that script, and eager to credit a beloved coach.
“Coach White just puts you in position to get better and be better, and when you shine – the light never goes away,” said Kenneth Smith. “He makes you see it, and believe all things are possible”.
The Bulldogs point guard was the face White’s uber-aggressive defense and high octane offense at Louisiana Tech—so much so that White went out of his way to mention his former star-player during that initial press conference in Gainesville.
“The last 4 years I had a very special point guard in Speedy Smith,” White relayed. “I owe him a lot of thanks.”
He was special – or would become special under White’s guidance. Smith became arguably the most prolific athlete in school history, setting records for assists and steals, while gathering hardware such as c-USA Player of the Year and All-American Honorable Mention.
But the beginning didn’t forecast the end.
“My development had a rough start, with me starting 0-20 from 3-point,” he recalled. “But he loved my energy, how hard I worked and how tough I was”.
And Smith would in return love his game’s development, and the coach aiding it.
“I always felt comfortable under his wing,” Smith said. “Coach White is the type of coach you feel is a mentor and a brother. He is a players’ coach for sure — his energy and toughness as a coach. And you just always feel better about things when he is around”.
Smith became more than comfortable. He became confident. And that development became drastically “better with coach around”. Smith credits White for instilling the confidence and improving his game, both of which sent Smith soaring – soaring under his coach’s wing.
“His best attribute is making you feel like you are the greatest. Whatever it is, he builds you up,” Smith recalled. “If you are good at something—he makes you feel great about it. But you’ve gotta play defense”.
The latter part would seem like a non sequitur, but only to those not familiar with White or his philosophy. And while aggressive defense is certainly a cornerstone of White’s approach, it is another attribute Smith points to as key to his own success and that of other guards who have blossomed under ‘The Guard Whisper’.
“I think one of his best philosophies is the freedom you have,” Smith said. “If you can get 30 points- get it. If you want to gamble on a steal – get it. Just do it all with confidence and energy”.
It is a philosophy White has openly acknowledged, but it doesn’t lack accountability – especially for his guards.
“I am a little harder on point guards than the other four spots…. a little more demanding,” White admitted. “I also know how crucial it is to have good point guard play, and I have been around really good ones”.
He has been around really good guards – and will be. This year, explosive, 1st team All-Conference guard Kevaughn Allen will again pair with rapidly ascending Chris Chiozza. The former’s 35-point outburst set stage for the latter’s magical moment – a jaw-dropping buzzer-beater than propelled Florida past Wisconsin and into the Elite 8.
And if you like foreshadowing, you will love Chiozza’s comments a mere week before the shot heard ‘round Gator Nation.
“Coach is always giving me confidence— telling me to shoot the ball more, just giving me freedom to do what I want to do,” he said. “You can’t really ask for much more in a coach than to give you the freedom to do what you do and play your game. My confidence is through the roof right now”.
Allen, Chiozza and fellow point-guard Kasey Hill all enjoyed career years last season – another trend familiar to White’s guards.
The list goes on, and will assuredly continue to do so – as White’s reputation has attracted attention of top national prospects. And though his rapid ascension may be surprising to those initially unfamiliar with Mike White, it is not unexpected to those who know him best. Not to his guards!
“I’m not surprised at all by his early success,” Smith said of White’s rapid reinvigoration of the Florida program. “You can definitely see his imprint on his guys”.
And White’s imprint, as past and present players will attest, is both on and off the court.
White demands ‘his guys’ be men.
“Off the court he is big on taking care of your business, whether that be getting your study hall hours or being to class on time,” said former Louisiana Tech guard, Raheem Appleby. “His number one rule was ‘Be a man’”.
It is a rule White has not been shy about.
“Off the floor we are going to do the things we are supposed to do. We are going to act like men,” he proclaimed at his Gator media debut.
As for Appleby, he was certainly a man on the court- amassing 1,770 career points, gathering countless accolades (yes, including All-Conference Honors) and contributing to program record win totals.
But White was ‘the man’ to Appleby … a family man who served as family, while being a friend to his own.
“I’m not sure what the best part of his coaching is, but my favorite part was the relationship he had with us,” Appleby fondly recalled. “He gets to know you and your family – and vice-versa. That meant a lot to me in my four years”.
David Huertas also found comfort in White’s family approach, and like others, credited his coach with changing his game and mentality.
“He helped me a lot,” said Huertas, a guard who couldn’t find footing at Florida, but excelled as an eventual All-Conference player (noticing a trend?) at Ole Miss. “My ball handling, my shooting… but especially mentally on and off the court”.
His experiences— whether the values of his upbringing or the lessons of a four-year guard in the SEC—White employs them all.
“He always teaches- do the right thing- because somebody is always watching,” interjected Appleby. “And on the court I think having been a point guard himself . . . helped him help us with on-court development”.
Huertas seconded those thoughts.
“He was a guard at Ole Miss for 4 years, and so he knows how to push his players to their maximum potential…. Because of his experiences as a player,” he echoed.
And such experience extends beyond White and into his coaching staff. Assistants Jordan Mincy and Darris Nichols enjoyed stellar careers as point guards at Kent State and West Virginia, respectively.
So perhaps “guard whisperers” is more appropriate. Smith thinks so.
“His assistants are the best,” he said. “Coach May, Coach Mincy and Coach Nichols are guys who will make you better”.
And like Huertas, he too is referring to both on and off the court.
“I look up to those guys,” he revealed. “They are role models to me”.
And not-so-coincidentally, Huertas too found a role model in his assistant coach – Coach White.
“He helped me stay disciplined off the court, with my family and was a good example of how to be a family man,” he said. “It is something I’m sure all of his players learned from him”.
Huertas is right.
White’s players have learned, are learning and will learn — from the guard whisperer.