GAINESVILLE, Fla. — He walked into his new, still-barren office Monday afternoon and Michael White maneuvered behind the large desk, set down some belongings, then circled back to take a seat.
The cushy leather chair behind the desk, one that mere days ago belonged to Billy Donovan, remained vacant.
"It’s an honor to sit in this office," White said. "But I don’t feel comfortable sitting in that chair right now."
That the new University of Florida coach has that much reverence for his predecessor is a great place from which to start. Being the head basketball coach of the Gators is a hard job. The added pressure of replacing an icon — one of the best in the history of the game, White said of Donovan — now becomes the challenge.
Earlier in the day, the 38-year-old White stood before a crowded news conference in the Gator Room and gladly accepted it.
"I have tremendous respect and admiration for the legacy that Coach Donovan leaves," said White, who went 101-40 the last four years at Louisiana Tech. "It’s my charge to continue the momentum that he’s maintained for an amazing 19 years."
In the back of the room stood a small gathering of current UF players: Dorian Finney-Smith, Alex Murphy and Chris Chiozza, to name a few. White’s plan was to meet with the team later in the day — the first day of the Summer-A semester — and have all of them on the court for individual instruction Tuesday as the evaluation process begins.
For both sides.
White understands the current roster of nine players came to UF to play for Donovan, the future Hall-of-Famer who resigned 10 days ago to become head coach of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. The transition won’t exactly be seamless, but there will be no doubt who is in charge.
At least two people in the audience Monday could vouch for that.
Father Kevin, the athletic director at Duke, and mother Jane came to see their oldest son take the next big step of his career. Michael was actually born in Dunedin, Fla., while his dad was coaching track and wresting at Gulf High School, but moved just a couple weeks later. Ironically the volleyball player he met and eventually married at the University of Mississippi was born in Dunedin, too.
The White family — all of them, wherever they are — call Florida their second home, congregating en masse annually at Kevin and Jane’s place in Indian Harbor.
"This is life-changing," Kevin White said. "This is a phenomenal opportunity for a guy who has worked really hard to put himself in position to be afforded this very special coaching situation."
Jane recalled how little Michael could be a handful at times, but she always knew the local YMCA provided her son with the outlet he needed. That’s where he learned the game he came to love.
"He could never sit still," she said. "Michael always wanted to be the fastest in the school yard and to have a ball in his hand. He dribbled constantly in the house … yes, I let him."
White admits that playing basketball against hockey-loving kids during their family’s stint in Maine gave him something of a Michael Jordan complex. It wasn’t until his father became AD at Tulane, and the family moved to inner-city New Orleans, that Michael got his first taste of how the game was truly played.
"Our opener my freshman year, I couldn’t get the ball past halfcourt," he said.
But White learned. He was good enough to be hunted by several Division I schools, eventually choosing Ole Miss over Marquette. He averaged 5.1 points, 3.2 assists and shot 36 percent from the 3-point line during his career. His specialty?
"Probably fouling," White deadpanned.
Actually, it was defense. And toughness. And playing hard.
Rob Evans, the Rebels coach who brought White to Oxford, Miss., recalled last week how his team used to play pickup out of season. White’s first day on campus as a freshman he walked into Evans’ office after getting a dose of his new teammates; and they of him.
"They don’t like you, do they?" Evans asked.
"No, they don’t."
"That’s OK," the coach shot back. "They’ll love you before it’s all over with."
It didn’t take that long.
White became the leader, backcourt stopper and coach on the floor. Often undersized and almost always the inferior athlete, White did not just take basketball seriously, he took it personally. The temper that sometimes reared itself was rooted in passion.
"I played football on the basketball court," he said.
Evans, in fact, often had to take White out of the game. For his own good. Or as Evans, now associate head coach at North Texas said, "If a guy was giving it to Michael and getting away it, eventually Michael was going to give it back."
In the 15 years since, White has learned to keep his emotions in check on the sidelines, but his LA Tech teams were known for playing with the same ferocity White did. He got the most out of the appropriately named Bulldogs, all of whom were mid-major recruits who bought into his up-tempo, pressure-defense system.
At LA Tech, most of those teams were made of athletic guards and swing-type forwards, but at Florida, White will get a chance to roll out a conventional 1-through-5 lineup. He and his youthful staff — all of them with roots in the South — also will have a chance to recruit some of the best players in the country.
As new UF assistant Darris Nichols, 28, put it: "Now that we’re at Florida, guys are calling us back."
And as new assistant Jordan Mincy, also 28, added: "Or they’re calling us first."
It’s a new era of Florida basketball, and an altogether new world for Michael White. It’s going to take some time to get comfortable. For everybody. Over the last few days, White spoke to Donovan about what he was inheriting. High-character guys, Donovan said, who are respectful and want to get better.
White is ready for that so-called charge.
"I feel like my world has been turned upside down right now," White said, as he surveyed empty walls where there once hung giant pictures of Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and championships being celebrated. "But as nerve-racking as it is, it’s equally as exciting."
Maybe he’ll get a minute to sit down, relax and soak it in.