Winning Coach, Devoted Husband, Man of Faith

(This article is part of NFCM's sponsorship of the Catholic Man channel and originally appeared in The Word Among Us and as part of the Catholic Men’s E-zine, Being a Man of Faith, (Jan-Feb 2003 issue) which is available on the NFCM website.. You may e-mail them at [email protected])

Questions for Reflection/Discussion by Catholic Men

1. Billy Donovan’s parents played a key role in forming him into a man of faith and the person he is today. What attributes of his parents do you think were key in that formation? Which ones apply to you as a parent or in how you relate (or related) to other members of your family (or outside your family)?

2. Billy Donovan, on reflecting on God’s hand in his life, says the following: “As I look back on this path from a spiritual standpoint, I can see that God gave me a passion and a talent for basketball and then led me into coaching.” Share the ways in which you see God’s hand on your life, as He has led you in accordance with His call and plan for your life.

3. “I have a special responsibility which goes beyond coaching. I have a responsibility to help young people have faith in God and to put Christ in their lives.” In what ways do you agree or disagree with these words of Billy Donovan’s? Do you believe this is a responsibility that all Catholic men have as well? Why or why not?

4. How did the death of Billy Donovan’s daughter impact his view of life and his faith as a Christian? How have times of difficulty and suffering in your life impacted your faith?

5. In his answer to the last question in the interview, why does Billy Donovan believe that faith is so important to each of us as Christians?

[Editor's Note: This article is the second in a series on the theme “Being a Man of Faith.” Click here to find the first article.]

Billy Donovan is the head basketball coach for the University of Florida. Donovan and his team have frequently been ranked as one of the top ten teams in the country. But in addition to being a winning coach, Billy Donovan is also a man of faith. We asked him to tell us about his relationship with God and how this relationship helps him be a better coach, a better husband and a better father.

Q: What can you tell us about your early years?

A: My two sisters and I grew up in New York. We were a strong Catholic family who went to church together every Sunday. My dad also took me to church on a regular basis just to talk to God. He was always telling me about the importance of faith.

My sisters and I really admired our parents. We admired the sacrifices they made for us and the way they were always challenging us to tackle our work head-on. They were very honest, straightforward people. They never deceived us or misled us, but were always truthful and plain-spoken.

They were also very clear in telling us that we would face adversities in our lives. Things don’t always go the way we want them to, but it’s the way we handle these adversities that determines the kind of people we will be.

Q: What can you tell us about the way your parents shaped your spiritual outlook?

A: As I mentioned earlier, my Dad made it a point to take me to church on a regular basis. Sometimes he took me just so I could be with him when he went to pray. At other times, he asked me to turn to God and pray. This was especially true when I would be going through a difficult time in my life.

We didn’t have a formal time for family prayer, but Dad did make sure we thanked God for all the blessings He had given us, especially for our family. It was the witness of my parents’ faith — shown mostly through their leadership and their love — that had the greatest impact on me. Now that I have children of my own, I only hope that I can do for them what my parents did for me.

Q: How did you get into basketball?

A: For a number of years, my dad was my coach in the local CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) basketball league, so he coached me all the time. By the time I reached fifth grade, I had fallen in love with the game. It was the only sport I wanted to play.

I loved basketball, but I wasn’t a superstar. I was the kind of player who had to work extra hard. As I got older, my coaches saw my willingness to work at it and so they took time for me, both during practice and after everyone else had gone home. They helped me take my limited talents to new heights.

These men were a great witness of generosity and kindness to me. They taught me how to be focused on a mission. They expected every member of the team to do their best for the entire practice. If it was a two-hour practice, and we were expected to spend all two hours doing the very best that we could.

Q: How did you get into coaching?

A: After I completed my education at Providence College, I went to work on Wall Street as a stockbroker. I must tell you that it wasn’t much fun at all. In 1989, I decided to make a career change. I called Rick Pitino, who coached me at Providence and was then working at the University of Kentucky, and told him that I wanted to get into coaching. At first, he tried to discourage me, but when he saw how passionate I was about the game, he hired me to be his graduate assistant. I worked with Rick for the next five years. Then, in 1996 I accepted the head coaching job at Marshall University. Two years later, I accepted the job as head coach of the University of Florida.

As I look back on this path from a spiritual standpoint, I can see that God gave me a passion and a talent for basketball and then led me into coaching. He has given me this opportunity, and in my heart I know that I have a special responsibility which goes beyond coaching. I have a responsibility to help young people have faith in God and to put Christ in their lives. At some point, every young person will face some kind of adversity. I want to tell them that the one thing that will help them get through these challenging times is faith.

As a coach, I think it’s critical that my players trust me. They have to believe that I know what it takes to win. They also have to believe that I am helping them grow as individuals, not just as basketball players. I strive to build a personal relationship with each of my players.

I encourage them to come into my office and feel free to talk to me about basketball issues, girlfriend issues, school, or anything else. I want my players to say, “Billy Donovan isn’t just my coach, he also cares about me as a person.”

Q: What role does God play in your coaching?

A: God plays a major role. There are many times when I feel that Christ is using me to talk to the players. For instance, I tell them that we are on this team because God gave us the opportunity to be here. I tell them that God is in control of everything — of my ability to coach and their ability to play — and that we need to put our faith and trust in Him.

I don’t pray for “wins.” I pray that our lives can be in harmony with God and with the way the Bible tells us to live. I pray for wisdom, knowledge, and strength. I ask God to give my team a good work ethic so we can do our best in preparing for each game and in playing the game. If this leads to a victory, then so be it.

Q: So, what about your family? How do you balance work and home, and what role does God play in your family?

A: Coaching isn’t the easiest profession for a husband and father to have. I don’t want to get so caught up in my work that I neglect the ones I love the most. I always try to spend quality time with each member of my family. When I’m home I spend as much time as I can with them and try not to let work get in the way.

Spiritually, I want my kids to understand that we live in an imperfect world. We’re all going to sin and make mistakes, but I want my family to know that we don’t have to live in the guilt of sins. The best thing God did for us was to send His Son, Jesus, to die for our sins and save us so that we could be with Him in heaven. I want my children to know how much Jesus loves them.

I pray that as my children grow older they will freely accept Jesus into their lives. I know that God will provide the opportunity for this to happen, but I also know that my children have to make a personal decision when the opportunity presents itself. Our family is young. As our kids grow older, they will have to make their own choices. For now, my wife Christine and I need to show them how important Jesus is to us, just as my parents did with me.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about what happened to you and Christine a year and a half ago?

A: In October of 2000, when Christine was nine months pregnant with our fourth child, she became concerned because all of a sudden, she wasn’t feeling any movement from the baby. A few days later, our daughter Jacqueline was stillborn. It was the most devastating experience we ever went through. I can’t begin to explain what Christine was feeling. She had carried Jacqueline within her for so long. For me, it was very hard to accept. I know Jacqueline is in a better place, but not having her with us really hurt.

When I asked, “Why?” my mind raced. Was it because I wasn’t a good person? Did I do something to offend or upset God? Is God doing something drastic to get my attention? In hindsight, I don’t believe any of that stuff now. We will never know why our daughter died. We would love to have Jacqueline with us and to watch her grow and develop, but for some reason God wanted her with Him. This is the way we look at it. Maybe Jacqueline’s not being here is the best thing for her.

What happened to Jacqueline affected my outlook on life. I saw how fragile life could be. I saw how we are here on earth for only a short time. I saw how God wanted me to use every second of my life to do the best job that I could with my family, with the players and coaches, and in my life in general.

I’ll never forget what it felt like for Christine and me to tell our kids — ages eight, six, and three — that their baby sister wouldn’t be coming home. It was very painful and yet, I believe that our great loss will bring us closer together as a family and closer to God.

Q: What advice would you give our readers?

A: I want people to know that God is good, all of the time. Sometimes we can’t explain things. Sometimes we have severe problems to face, like divorce, prolonged sickness, or the loss of a job. In those times, the only thing that will get us through is faith.

Faith is believing without seeing. We have the Bible. We know that God is with us. We believe that He will provide the means to get us through every adversity. The Bible says that God won’t give us something that we can’t handle. Our faith and our relationship with Christ will carry us through each day.

At the same time, we have to carry our share of the load. I want to encourage everyone to try their best, no matter where they are in life. We have to try to treat one another with the same kind of respect and compassion that we would like to receive ourselves. Isn’t that what Jesus taught us to do?

Finally, we all need to try and reach out to others and “coach” them. Perhaps at your office, or maybe as a Little League coach, or maybe in music. God wants us to share our talents and help others. If it weren’t for my parents and a few good coaches who went out of their way to help me, I doubt that I’d be where I am today.

Questions for Group Reflection/Discussion are included on page 2

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