Ocala throws a night to remember

OCALA — “Twenty-seven point five million or twenty-one million” says Larry Shyatt, holding a letter-size envelope to his forehead. He is draped in a white sheet, wearing a red beach towel which is wrapped around his head turban style. Tonight, Billy Donovan’s chief lieutenant is “Shy-nak the Magnificent” and he’s doing a take-off on the old Johnny Carson character Karnak much to the delight of 360 members of the Ocala Tip-Off Club who have sold out the ball room at the Hilton.

Augie Greiner Jr., in his best Ed McMahon style, repeats, “Twenty-seven point five million or twenty-one million.”

Shy-nak gives him a cold stare, raises his eyebrows and cracks, “I think I just said that.”

Shy-nak rips off the end of the envelope, blows it open and pulls out the paper with the question that fits the answer he’s given.

“What’s the difference between stinking rich and just plain filthy rich?” he asks and the room erupts in laughter.

No one is laughing harder than Billy Donovan, seated to the right of the podium along with several members of Augie Greiner Sr.’s family. On this night, Donovan will be the target of one barb after another. Often he’ll be the target of his own barbs. He knows how to take it; he knows how to dish it out.

He can do it here. This is Ocala. This is the tipoff club that Augie Greiner founded 28 years ago. It’s grown into the largest Gator basketball booster club in the state, one that has endowed four Florida basketball scholarships and is well on its way to a fifth. On this night, more than $25,000 will be raised for scholarships, more than $15,000 from basketballs auctioned off by Shyatt, assistant coaches Lewis Preston and Rob Lanier, and director of basketball operations Matt McCall, an Ocala native and son of former Gator football player Wayne McCall.

The big ticket item, which Donovan auctions off, is a trip for two to the Kentucky game in Lexington that includes the flight to and from Lexington on the team plane, a room at the team hotel, attending the shoot-around with the team the morning of the game, eating the pre-game meal with the team and two tickets to the game. To enhance the bid, Donovan throws in a suit from Greiner’s, the stylish clothing store founded by Augie Greiner.

“That alone’s worth what?” Donovan asks Greiner. “Two grand?”

As the bidding begins to stall once the number hits $9,000 Donovan cracks, “For $500 more, I’ll even throw in a year of personal counseling. Any tough decision you have to make you can call me and I’ll help you make it.”

Again, plenty of laughter but Donovan gets the additional $500 and the bidding closes at $9,500.

“This is the most fun we have all year at a booster function,” says Shyatt. “Augie Greiner makes this event something special. When we come here we know we’re going to have a lot of fun and we know the people are so appreciative. It makes this a very special night.”

It is the first big booster function at Florida attended by Lanier, who joined the Florida staff in late May, just before Donovan accepted the Orlando Magic. His life was in no small state of turmoil over a six-day period when Donovan re-thought what he had done, asked out of the five-year, $27.5 million contract with the NBA team, and then returned to the University of Florida as the head coach.  Donovan has since signed a six-year, $21 million contract to remain as the coach of the Gators.

“I’ve been to booster functions at other places,” says Lanier, shaking his head. “Before I left Gainesville tonight, Larry and Pam Shyatt told me I was going to have fun, that this is the one function you do not miss, and they were right. I’ve never been to anything like this. This is actually fun.”

Preston, who takes a lot of heat for being a “6-9 saxophone player in his high school band,” takes auctioneering to a new level. He starts the bidding at $2,000 for an autographed basketball and instead of standing at the podium, he gets in the middle of the crowd and works the entire room. By the time he’s finished, he will raise $4,300 and the winner will also get a lifesize cutout of Greiner wearing his Florida uniform, circa 1950s.

“Next year I might bring my saxophone and play a couple of tunes,” says Preston, a Branford Marsalis fan.

* * *

The evening includes eight minutes of video compiled from “Cinderella in Black,” a 45-minute video tribute to the 1987 Providence College basketball team that made it to the Final Four. Donovan was the All-American and star of that team which was coached by Rick Pitino. There is a touching segment when Pitino admits that at the half of one of Providence’s NCAA Tournament games, an assistant coach told him if they were going to win the game, he would have to shake up the team by yelling at Billy.

Pitino didn’t know he could do that because Donovan had carried the team on his back to even get to this point in the tournament. Even 20 years later, Pitino’s eyes tear up when he thinks about it.

“I had never yelled at Billy, not once,” said Pitino, who admitted the team did need shaking up if they were going to advance in the tournament. So he yelled and when he had yelled, he said, “I felt like crying.”

Donovan came alive in the second half and Billy the Kid carried the Friars on his back. The dream lived on that day but ended on a Saturday evening in New Orleans when Providence lost to Syracuse in the NCAA semifinals.

Twenty years later, Billy Donovan has taken the Florida Gators to nine straight NCAA Tournaments and the last two NCAA championships. The Cinderella story he began 20 years ago lives on at the University of Florida.

* * *

The evening is made possible by Greiner, the former Florida team captain and MVP of the Gator Bowl Basketball Tournament. During Greiner’s days at the University of Florida, he was the roommate of Rick Casares.

“I could tell you some stories,” he says, wearing a grin that makes even new acquaintances feel like an old friend.

“He is the Ocala Tip-Off Club,” says Wayne McCall, an Ocala attorney and a member of the club since its inception. “You look at all the things that this club has done and the special relationship we have with the Florida coaches … it’s all because of Augie Greiner. He’s been the force behind it. Without him, this club wouldn’t be anything like it is.”

Donovan knows just how true that statement is.

“When I first came to Florida, I went to some booster clubs down in South Florida and maybe we had 25 people at each one,” he said. “Then I came to Ocala to speak and we had 225 people.”

Greiner was already an Ocala institution when he founded the Ocala Tip-Off Club 28 years ago. Following graduation from the University of Florida, he started working with the Ocala Parks and Recreation Department, then he began Greiner’s Men’s and Women’s Clothing, which has become the store that defines fashion style in Ocala and Marion County. He’s spent his adult lifetime devoted to his family, his friends, helping kids in Ocala and Florida basketball.

When he founded the club, Norm Sloan was the Florida basketball coach. Greiner has been a close friend and confidant of Sloan, a relationship that continued with Lon Kruger and has been taken to a deeper level by Donovan.

“The greatest day in Florida basketball was the day that Billy Donovan became our coach,” says Greiner. “When he became coach, I couldn’t imagine Florida winning one national championship … but two? I couldn’t even dream of something like that, and it’s all possible because of Billy. He’s a great coach. I think he’s the best coach in the country. I think he’s a much better person than he is a coach. Billy is so much more than just a basketball coach.”

* * *

Thursday morning there was a special ceremony honoring Augie Greiner at the basketball complex on the Florida campus. On the left side of the door of Larry Shyatt’s office is a plaque bearing Augie Greiner’s name. The office of the associate head coach is now dedicated to Greiner, secured by a donation to the University of Florida by the Ocala Tip-Off Club.

Greiner had no idea the members of the club were going to honor him.

“I can’t see that I’ve done anything to deserve this,” he said.

Reminded that he’s spent his life giving to people and helping others, Greiner responded, “Well, that’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s not special.”

The friends, family and citizens of Marion County would disagree. So would Billy Donovan.

“He’s one of the best people I’ve ever met,” said Donovan. “He’s got a passion for basketball and he’s got a passion for life and helping people. I’m very proud to be associated with Augie Greiner. It’s an honor to be called his friend.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.