Even though Florida and Minnesota have only met one time in school history, the coaches of both programs have deep connected roots. Recently, we have all heard of the Billy Donovan coaching tree churning out great coaches such as VCU’s Shaka Smart and Alabama’s Anthony Grant. But, Billy Donovan himself is part of a greater chain of coaches that began with current Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Billy Donovan began his coaching career alongside current Minnesota coach Tubby Smith at Kentucky, as both served as assistants under Rick Pitino during his time as the head coach of the Wildcats.
From there, the two coaches diverged paths; Smith bounced around at Tulsa and Georgia before coming back to Kentucky as the head coach where he would face off against his old friend Billy the kid once again. “We have gone way back when Billy first got into college coaching as a graduate assistant at Kentucky and we have had our battles when I was at Kentucky and at Georgia…I’m happy to be here facing him again in this type of a venue versus any other,” Smith said Saturday about squaring off against his old friend.
Both coaches had nothing but kind words to say about one another and Donovan said him and Smith “have got a very good relationship,” calling Smith “a terrific coach, he’s done a great job with his team.” Smith was equally as kind in speaking about Donovan Saturday, “He’s got some outstanding players and what Billy’s been able to do, what he’s done at Florida has just been outstanding.
On Sunday the two coaches will square off for the 25th time in their coaching careers and the first time since Tubby was the Wildcats coach six years ago. Tubby Smith leads the coaching matchup 14-10 all time, but Donovan captured the last six wins in the series during Smith’s time at Kentucky.
Donovan and Smith both believe their essential coaching philosophies have evolved over time but are entrenched in the same beliefs. “I think we try to coach and try to teach and play a style similar,” said Smith when asked to compare two coaches. Both teams put a strong emphasis on defense, a trait they inevitably picked up while learning under defensive guru Rick Pitino.
As we enter Sunday with the Gators looking to clinch a Sweet Sixteen birth for the third consecutive year, both coaches dismissed their relationship as anything important to the game, talking instead of the challenges both teams will present one another. As Donovan put it, “I think the one thing for myself – I’m sure Tubby feels the same way – really all the time is the players playing on the floor.” And play they will, as the Gators will battle the Golden Gophers on the biggest stage yet as the two national championship winning coaches square off on Sunday in Austin, Texas.