By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The day Billy Donovan showed up for his first day at work, Donnie Jones could have walked by in the hallway and Donovan would not have known.
The two had spoken on the phone, but that was the extent of their relationship when Donovan took over the Marshall program in 1994. Donovan was a hot-shot assistant at Kentucky taking over his first program. They mostly called him Billy the Kid back then.
Jones was an unknown, having spent the previous four years at Marshall, two as a graduate assistant and two as a full-time assistant. Soon, Donovan realized that Jones was his kind of guy.
“He was the one that really kept everything intact,’’ Donovan said Tuesday. “Really for about a three- or four-week period, Donnie was unbelievable. Any time I had a question or needed an answer … he knew everything that was going on.’’
Donovan knew that Anthony Grant and John Pelphrey were joining his staff at Marshall, but he offered another colleague at Kentucky a chance to join him as well. That would likely mean saying goodbye to Jones.
Donovan looked back with a smile.
“Probably the best thing that happened for me was that that guy turned down the job,’’ he said.
Jones spent two years on Donovan’s staff at Marshall, and when Donovan was hired at Florida in 1996, Jones came with him. Jones spent 11 years with Donovan in Gainesville before leaving after the 2007 season to return to Marshall as head coach.
The two square off as opposing head coaches for the first time on Wednesday night in Orlando when the Gators face UCF at Amway Arena in the Florida Citrus Sports Shootout. In Jones’ first season at UCF, the Knights are 5-0 including a win over USF.
Donovan will look down the bench and be reminded of a lot of good memories, including the ribbing he used to give Jones for wearing the same two suits so often during their early days together at Marshall. Since those days, both have come a long way in the coaching profession, highlighted by winning back-to-back national titles with the Gators in 2006 and 2007.
“I feel like I’m getting old,’’ Donovan said. “There is a lot of substance to him. Coming here, I had all the confidence in the world in him. He played a big part in us winning two national championships and getting to three championship games.’’
Jones and Donovan remain close.
When Jones was contemplating leaving Marshall after three seasons and returning to Florida to take over the UCF program – both Marshall and UCF are Conference USA schools – he called Donovan for advice.
Jones decided moving to Orlando was the best move, and he is thankful that Donovan agreed to play the Knights on Wednesday in the first college basketball game in the new home of the Orlando Magic. Donovan spent a day with Jones earlier this year, taking a tour of UCF’s facilities and catching up with his old friend.
However, Jones won’t be calling Donovan for any suggestions this week.
“I can’t call and ask advice on this game because I know he won’t give me the right advice,’’ Jones said Tuesday. “But he’s always there for me. He is still a mentor and a great friend.’’
Jones was hired March 29 to replace Kirk Speraw, who led UCF to 279 wins and four NCAA Tournament appearances in 17 seasons. However, after building a new on-campus arena and practice facility in 2007, the school decided to go in another direction following a 15-17 season.
Jones sees a lot of similarities in his new job that he saw at Florida when Donovan took over the program nearly 15 years ago. He hopes he can have the same success at UCF and views a chance to face Florida so early in his tenure as a boost.
“We are obviously trying to rebuild our program here and I think that any time you’ve got a chance to play on a national stage against a great program like Florida and a great coach like Billy, I think it’s good for your team,’’ Jones said. “To have an opportunity to play them here in your backyard, in front of your fans, I think it’s just an incredible opportunity for us.’’
Gators senior forward Chandler Parsons remains close with Jones. Parsons grew up in the Orlando area and spent a lot of time last summer working out at UCF. He got to know the players and let them know what kind of coach they were getting.
“I love him. That was my guy,’’ Parsons said. “He was one of the main guys who recruited me when he was here. It was tough that I didn’t play for him, but I’m glad he’s doing well. He’s always there for me.’’
Jones and Donovan will have another memory to add to their collection after the game. During the game, it will be another story between the two highly competitive friends.
“You hear of siblings having an incredible rivalry and competitiveness growing up,’’ Donovan said. “I think it’s healthy sometimes. It’s not a bad thing. You just hate when you walk off the court that somebody’s has got to lose because you know what kind of guy he is and how hard he works.’’
“It’s fun [playing him] before the game and after the game, but it’s not fun when you actually play the game,’’ Jones said. “My philosophy has been influenced by Coach Donovan, and we’re trying to teach that here. Five games into a season, it’s all new to our players still. Billy has been teaching that system for a long time.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for us.’’