MEMPHIS, Tenn.– “Win one for the Gipper,” the Gettysburg scene in “Remember the Titans” or Al Pacino’s speech in “Any Given Sunday.” All three are motivational tactics used both in real life and on the cinematic screen. Florida head coach Billy Donovan doesn’t have a player on their deathbed or a team based in a city torn apart by race relations. He’s also not up against a new intimidating female owner trying to prove her worth.
Donovan just has a really good basketball team, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament and the nation’s best winning streak that will now put on the line every time he sends his team out on the floor. You’d think it would be easy to stay motivated, to keep this team righted in the pursuit of the ultimate goal, but Donovan’s dealing with volatile 18-22 year old human beings –as unpredictable as they come.
Before Florida’s five-point home victory against Auburn. The motivational tactic involved some trickery using a duffel bag. The Gators had already beaten the Tigers earlier in the season and Auburn isn’t exactly a basketball powerhouse but Donovan didn’t want his players sleepwalking into the game against War Eagle, so he gave forward Will Yeguete a simple task: pickup what seemed to be a harmless duffel bag.
Except it wasn’t, it was full of weights, and the task was a lot more difficult than Yeguete expected it to be and the game was too. Florida trailed for much of it and only until the Tigers threw an inbounds pass out of bounds and guard Scottie Wilbekin nailed two free throws in the waning seconds was victory certain. Donovan quipped that he may have to choose different motivational means in the future.
“…My point to them was this game is going to be a lot harder than you think,” Donovan said. “And it ended up being that way. So maybe that illustration wasn’t a great job because we were down by two with 30 seconds to go, so I probably need to come up with something else because that didn’t work too well.”
He has other things in his bag of motivational tricks: like giving the team a brick for every SEC victory during the regular season, he’s also not opposed to challenging his players like asking WIlbekin to either change or transfer in the offseason after the senior guard had a disciplinary issue. The Gainesville native took it as a challenge, and ran with it all the way to SEC player of the year honors.
Within the team there is a self policing that goes on with getting each other ready to play, and sensing who is and who isn’t. That comes with the territory of having good senior leadership.
“When you have four seniors, especially, and we have a whole team that trusts each other,” Yeguete said. We know that when somebody’s just not in the right place mentally. And we know how to reach out to them, and we allow them to reach out to us. And I think it’s just that connection, and that relationship that we have, in knowing that we want what’s best for you and we don’t take anything personal.”
Yeguete also said clearly the Gators weren’t motivated enough in their second round matchup against Albany, they –along with most of the rest of America– thought it would be a cakewalk, but for 30 of the game’s 40 minutes it was anything but. That game motivated Florida to come out from the get-go against Pittsburgh ready to win, and that they did, defeating the Panthers 61-45. They understood that if they played poorly their season would come to an abrupt end. It’s one thing to see it happen to others. It’s another to have a game against a 16 seed hanging in the balance midway through the second half.
The newest motivational scheme Donovan is using involves Mt. Everest. He’s using that because the season is always a climb and adversity will hit you along the way. He also doesn’t want his team looking back before the end of their journey and enjoying what they’ve already accomplished too much.
“I think you’ve got to be unique. I think you’ve got to be creative,” Donovan said. “I think you’ve got to come up with different ideas and things to do, and every game there’s different challenges that present themselves, and in presenting those challenges to your team you want to be able to get them across, and sometimes, like I said, when you talk verbally, sometimes the message doesn’t get across.”
If Donovan keeps pushing the right buttons and drawing the right illustrations, Florida may be reaching the summit very soon –the first Monday in April to be exact.