PHOENIX — Billy Donovan knew a bad idea when he heard one.
Put on this cowboy hat and these spurs and we'll take a picture of you, his coach told him. Maybe we'll even put it on the front of the team program.
"I was not happy about doing that," Donovan said.
Rick Pitino rarely steered him wrong, though. A quarter-century since that fateful photo, "Billy The Kid" has become a championship coach with a legacy, and the guy who made him dress up that day isn't doing so bad himself.
On Saturday, they meet on opposite sides of the court — Pitino trying to make his sixth trip to the Final Four and second at Louisville and Donovan going for a fourth Final Four with the Florida Gators.
Pitino is 6-0 in the head-to-head matchups, almost all those results explained because he had the better talent when the two met. None, however, have come with the stakes this high or the emotions so mixed.
"Not only did we have success together, but we really, truly love each other," Pitino said. "Billy is like a son to me."
So much of the relationship between coach and pupil has been documented over the years — every time there's an anniversary and, especially, as Donovan's stature rose with his two national titles. After the first one, Donovan celebrated by waving Pitino down onto the court.
"I started crying," Pitino said. "I felt better about him winning it than when I won it."
Nearly two decades before that, Donovan was the overweight guard, a marginal Big East player, and Pitino was fresh on the scene at Providence — a school that had been last or next-to-last in the conference in every season since its inception in 1979.
Having trouble getting off the bench before Pitino arrived, Donovan told his new coach he was considering transferring. Pitino looked into it and couldn't get a sniff but didn't want to break that news to Donovan. But instead of giving up on the player, Pitino urged him to get in shape. As luck had it, the 3-point line was being introduced to college basketball, and while many coaches were fighting the new trend, Pitino was embracing it.
A few months later, the Friars were on their improbable run to the Final Four, and Donovan had learned his first lesson about how to build a program.
"I realized, because I experienced it, how important it was to raise a player's self-esteem," Donovan said. "My self-esteem was obviously very, very low when he came in there. I was sitting on the bench. And I think that belief and commitment by a coach in a player can really take a player to a different level."
Given his size, among other issues, Donovan's star turn at Providence didn't make him NBA material for long. After an un-noteworthy season with the New York Knicks, he took a job on Wall Street. Not a good fit. "It just was not for me at all," he said.
At first, Pitino urged him not to quit but later saw how miserable he was and hired him on as a graduate assistant at Kentucky. The rest, they might say, is history, except both coaches are still making it.
Donovan is in his 16th year with the Gators and is back on an upward swing after a few down years following the titles. His most talented player this season? That would be freshman Bradley Beal, who scored 21 points Thursday in the win over Marquette that moved the Gators to this point.
"He didn't guarantee me anything when I came in," said Beal, a national high school player of the year. "That's really what drew me into this school and this program is that he really didn't guarantee me anything, and I had to work for it all."
Donovan learned that part — the part about not anointing players before they even put on a uniform — from Pitino, as well.
And as much as the up-and-down style, the pressure defense and the reliance on the 3-pointer that Pitino has always taught, Donovan says he's learned about the commitment it takes for a coach to connect with a player.
"I tell everybody I hire that I'm not hiring an assistant coach; I'm hiring a future head coach, and I expect them to act like a head coach," Pitino said. "I expect them to be under the same pressure I'm under, where they drive themselves to the same limits. Billy was no different."
This wasn't only a one-way street. Pitino did some learning from his protege, as well.
This has been a season of ups and downs for the Cardinals, who rose as high as fourth in The Associated Press poll in December but impressed nobody during a 10-8 Big East regular season.
"That experience in 1987 always allowed me to dream," Pitino said. "I've always dreamed we could get here, one game away from the Final Four. I never thought we were out of it. I've never stopped dreaming because of what that team did."
Pitino has a versatile team with no real superstar. Center Gorgui Dieng, out of Senegal, averages nine points, nine rebounds and more than four blocks a game. He blocked seven in Louisville's 57-44 win over Michigan State on Thursday. Point guard Peyton Siva averages 5.5 assists a game and is Pitino's coach on the floor.
He says he'd wear a cowboy hat if Pitino asked.
"If he told me to put a tutu on in front of ESPN, I'd go do that," Siva said.
If things break right, who knows, maybe one of the teams playing Saturday will celebrate the kind of reunion the 1987 Providence team is planning.
A few months from now, those Friars will get together for their 25-year reunion. Donovan's teammates, Delray Brooks and Marty Conlon, will be on the guest list, as will Rick Van Gundy and Herb Sendek, a few more entries on Pitino's coaching tree.
Donovan and Pitino are planning to be there.
When they meet, the memories of Saturday's game, and whatever comes of it, still will be fresh. The results, however, figure to have very little impact on a friendship that goes beyond wins and losses.
"Not at all," Pitino said when asked if it's torture for him to play Donovan with so much on the line. "It's the opposite for me. Because if I were playing School X and we lost, I'd be devastated to not be going to the Final Four. In this situation, I'd be professionally down about not going to the Final Four, but personally, I'd be very happy for Billy Donovan."
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