Tales From Gator Nation

In the spirit of March Madness, I thought I’d share an anecdote that dates back to my college days at the world’s greatest sports school. Obviously I am talking about the University of Florida.

Since everyone has got an opinion/prediction on March hoops and a bracket (or 10) to show for it, I’ve decided to forgo the small talk and focus on the man who essentially jumpstarted my career in the sports industry: Mr. Billy Donovan. Yes, that’s the same Billy D. who coaches the Gators basketball squad. See, it all comes full circle.

So as the endearing Rose Nyland of the 1980s smash hit Golden Girls would say, ‘this reminds of something that happened back in St. Olaf Gainesville.’ Back in my junior year of college, I was the lifestyles editor of the now-defunct “Gator Times” newspaper. Even though I was a total Miami Heat nut – and had the shiny polyester snap button jacket to prove it – I left the sports section editing to my colleague Garin (who now happens to be a PR guy over at the Cleveland Cavs). But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t trying to finagle a way to write a “lifestyles” story with that sports twist the whole darn time!

Then my moment arrived. I may have been wearing pajamas at the time (literally), but my moment had arrived. I had just gotten back to Gainesville after making the five-hour trek from South Florida. When I arrived “home,” which consisted of 50 girls living in a sorority house with like 3 showers, I was surprised to find Billy Donovan (and a whole bunch of sorority chicks) hosting his weekly radio show live right from the house’s living room (which we called the “great room” for some reason I’ll never understand). Apparently, I did not get the memo that this was the result of my sorority winning some sports competition of which I was unaware.

I came in the house, took one look at what was going down and the good ole light bulb went off. This was my time to shine. I ran upstairs to grab my notebook, and came back to the living room all fired up to write about this hard-hitting news. I could see the gripping headline in my head: “Head Coach Billy Donovan Hosts Radio Show Live From Sorority House.” It was going to be epic! I took notes feverishly and when the show ended and the girls dispersed, it was time to make my move.

‘Excuse me, Coach Donovan…excuse me, coach. Can I just ask you a few…’ This wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. Was he ignoring me on purpose? Was he freaked out by the pajama-wearing student-reporter? I would soon find out that the answer to both questions was no. He simply didn’t hear me beckoning him. Apologies if I built that up, only to let you down.

I resorted to tapping him like a 5-year-old who is trying to get their Mother off the phone until he caught on. I had his attention and I was not going to mess this up. I told him that I was writing an article for the Gator Times and asked if he could give me five minutes to talk to him about this “event.” He couldn’t have been more amenable.

We chatted about life, love and loss – I mean basketball – and he told me that he was impressed with my basketball knowledge. I knew a thing or two about hoops after watching Heat games on TV in a super obsessive fashion, so it was pretty cool to impress the big man on campus with my random facts. For example, did you know NBA veteran Bimbo Coles’ real name is Vernell? No? Neither did Coach. Stuff like that.

Coach and I got to talking about my future career, and I told him it was my dream to work in the Miami Heat’s front office. He mentioned that he knew a bunch of folks, including Pat Riley, and would be happy to send them a letter of recommendation on my behalf. Was he serious?! This just went from awesome to unreal. After about 30 minutes of chitchat, he said he’d have that letter ready for me to pick up in his office the next day. OMG.

I wasn’t sure if this was for real, so I played it cool, i.e. told every friend, family member and stranger about this interaction. As directed, I headed over to the Sports Information Office and asked for Coach’s executive assistant, Tracy Pfaff. What a gem that Tracy Pfaff is. As soon as she heard the first syllable of recommendation letter – that would be rec – she was on it. She whipped out this full-page letter of rec, Gator letterhead and all, and presented it to me like it was my diploma. Actually I think it would end up being more valuable than a diploma. She also nonchalantly mentioned that Coach had asked her to send it directly to his contacts at the Miami Heat. Wow! This guy is no joke!

I went home super fired up and can specifically recall sitting on a campus sidewalk telling my mom the play-by-play. I was pretty much convinced that the Heat would come calling promptly, and everyone was all like, “Now Talia, this stuff takes time. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Be patient.” If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s putting all my eggs in one basket. Good thing I was right and they were wrong. About one week later, I received the call of a lifetime – the call asking me to come in and interview for an unpaid internship with the team. I would have been equally as excited if they said I had to pay them for this internship (although that would have been odd), but I knew in my gut that this was my big break. I got the internship, which lead to a full-time position post-graduation, which led me to where I am in the sports world today. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Stay with me.

I always have wanted to share this story for a few reasons:

  1. I want Coach to know the impact he had on my career and how much I appreciate the efforts he made on my behalf. He didn’t have to go out on a limb for me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
  2. Billy Donovan is a class act that genuinely cares about the future of UF students. And his own players throughout the years, like Udonis Haslem and Matt Bonner, certainly share in this sentiment. No wonder Billy D. is the longest tenured coach in the SEC, and his basketball coaching skills and consistently winning records probably have something to do with that too.
  3. It still amazes me the impact that one letter/gesture can have on a person’s future. And that wouldn’t have happened without taking advantage of that opportunity in my sorority house and having the gumption to harass Coach until he paid attention to me. Sometimes those random acts of assertiveness truly pay off.

And while I have no recollection if I even ever wrote/published that article, the experience was headlined by an assist I’ll never forget.

Thank you, Coach Donovan! And GO GATORS!

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