NEW YORK CITY — The questions are inescapable, especially as Florida moves further along in this NCAA Tournament, and all Gators basketball coach Mike White can do is keep reiterating the same point.
He’s never been caught up in the pressure of following his legendary predecessor, Billy Donovan, and he’s not going to start now.
“I mean, someone had to follow him,” White said earlier this week back in Gainesville. “Again, he made it a better job. It’s the University of Florida. I’m not competing with Coach Donovan. I’m just trying to do the best job I can do and my staff is doing the same and we try to keep it that simple.”
Donovan, of course, won two national championships and reached four Final Fours during his 19 seasons at Florida before moving on to the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
White, meanwhile, is enjoying a breakthrough second season with his Gators (26-8) in the Sweet 16 and set for a matchup with Wisconsin on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The same questions, though, followed White to New York City this week. He was asked again Thursday to reflect on the pressure he felt replacing Donovan.
“I’ll leave that for you guys and our fans. I’ve never worried about it much,” White said. “There’s pressure on every coach in the country at every level — and some coaches deal with it differently. Some coaches probably put more pressure on themselves than other coaches. I’m probably one of those guys, to be honest with you, going back from my assistant days and carrying over into my first year at Louisiana Tech, we weren’t supposed to be very good and my, not only myself, my staff and I.
“We’re all very competitive, of course, like every coach. Pressure’s talked about a lot (in) today’s day and age, with the rabid fan bases, of course, and with the social media and the way that you guys do a great job of covering the sport. But no one’s going to put more pressure on me and my team than I am. No one. So I haven’t worried about it. I just, I haven’t.”
White was named the SEC Coach of the Year this season, was a semifinalist for national coach of the year consideration and has given every indication his program is on an upward trajectory.
He and his staff have certainly proven something this season, both to the Florida fan base and nationally — whether he felt he needed to or not.
Assistant coach Dusty May, who was with White for his whole tenure at Louisiana Tech as well, doesn’t get the sense that White is bothered by the questions about following Donovan and everything he built. It’s simply never been a primary focus for him.
“I don’t know if he gets tired of it because it’s going to be here. Anytime you follow a Hall of Famer, a legend like Coach Donovan, it’s going to be there,” May said. “But the one thing about Coach, he’s always stressed from Day 1, ‘I’m not ever going to be what Billy Donovan is, I’m going to be Mike White and I want to be the best Mike White I can be.’ He handles it well. I’ve never seen it bother him. I don’t think it annoys him. … It comes with the job.”
Speaking earlier this season, White said he only viewed Donovan’s success at Florida as a positive that made it a great job — not as any sort of shadow he had to escape. Earlier this week he said his interview with former Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley was the most he ever discussed the subject.
Aside from, of course, the recent wave of questions.
White’s counterpart Friday night, Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, was in a similar spot taking over for longtime Badgers coach Bo Ryan. His situation was different in that he was a longtime assistant coach under Ryan, but he can nonetheless appreciate White’s position.
“One thing I’ve also learned is that you have to be comfortable in your own skin and I think … that would apply to Mike, too. For as a terrific a job as Billy did there, Mike had to come in and be his own person,” Gard said. “… So I give Mike a lot of credit, because that’s — it’s not an easy position to walk into in either case. But I think Mike, from what I’ve noticed from a far, is that he stayed pretty true to himself and (has) not worried about whose shoes he had to fill. It was just trying to do the best thing for his team and his players and his university and doing things that he’s comfortable with, and we have tried to do the same thing.”
Most of the players on this roster are still guys Donovan recruited, though, and White was keen to make the transition as smooth as possible for them.
He wanted to run his team and his program his way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some overlap with the previous regime.
White shared that upon taking the job he went back and thoroughly studied film of past Florida games and practices, going as far back as 5-10 years to gain a closer appreciation and understanding of the way the Gators had played under his predecessor.
“I think that’s a great point that probably is under appreciated, the fact that, at least we’re trying to emulate a lot of the stuff that Coach (Donovan) did,” White said. “Coach Donovan’s teams were always really efficient defensively, and then of course during the national championship runs, they were efficient on both ends equally as much. I’m sure that helped, that we didn’t come in here and just say, we’re going to do everything completely different. In fact, we tried to learn as much (about) the way he was doing things as possible.”
For what it’s worth, Donovan got the Gators into the Sweet 16 in his third season and had them in the national championship game the following year.
Where White takes the program — this month and into the future — is yet to be seen, but he’s no doubt off to a good start.
The questions about Donovan may never stop regardless, but like May said, that comes with the job. Florida is fortunate enough to have a basketball legacy worth bringing up, and White appreciates that.
He also hopes to add to it.
“Billy made this a tremendous job, the University of Florida is a special place, and we’re going to work at it every day as long as we are here to do the best job we possible can do,” he said.