Facing the unfamiliar of replacing an entire staff, Florida coach Billy Donovan went with the familiar on Tuesday.
Donovan’s relationship with John Pelphrey, who served as Donovan’s assistant for eight years at Marshall and Florida, made the former Arkansas coach an obvious choice.
But it was Donovan’s New York roots that led him to Norm Roberts. The former St. John’s coach joins the Florida staff as a newcomer to the SEC but someone familiar with Donovan.
Both 45, Donovan and Roberts were high school point guards in New York City in the early 1980s. Roberts, a native of Queens, went on to Queens College, where his 1,719 ranks third all time. Donovan, who grew up in Rockville Centre on Long Island, went on to Providence and led the Friars to the Final Four in 1987.
“Both being from New York, me and Billy came out the same year. He was a lot better point guard than I was,” Roberts said with a laugh.
He had plenty of those on Tuesday as the veteran coach spoke excitedly about his chance to coach with Donovan.
A longtime assistant to Kansas’ Bill Self – coaching with him at Oral Roberts (1995-97), Tulsa (1997-2000), Illinois (2000-03) and Kansas (2003-04) – Roberts said he was very interested when mutual friends put him in touch with Donovan a week or two ago.
“What Florida afforded me was an opportunity to be at the highest level, to be at the highest level in every aspect,” he said. “There’s Florida, there’s Duke, there’s Kansas. … I see Florida as one of the elite five to seven programs in the country.”
Roberts comes to Florida after spending six years coaching in the Big East at St. John’s. He took over a team that won six total games and one in the conference the year before he arrived.
The Red Storm slowly improved over his tenure, going from 9-18 in his first season to 17-16 in his final season. But they finished better than .500 twice and made one tournament appearance, a first-round NIT loss in 2009-10 that proved to be Roberts’ last game. He was fired in March 2010 after going 81-101 in six seasons.
This year, with the core of eight seniors who Roberts recruited, coach Steve Lavin took St. John’s to the NCAA tournament. While Roberts said he considers Lavin a friend, it was bittersweet to watch the Red Storm’s success this season.
“St. John’s is a great learning experience for me in that we really had to build from the bottom up,” Roberts said. “No one knows how tough a job is until you’re in it. … When you’re in it, you realize, ‘Phew, this may be a little tougher than I thought.’
“I’m totally proud of what we did at St. John’s,” he added. “We were able to leave St. John’s in a lot better footing than when I got there.”
Now, he joins another former head coach in trying to help Donovan continue the success Florida had this year. Pelphrey will know immediately what Donovan is looking for after their long tenure together. Roberts will have to figure that out, but Donovan felt confident that with Roberts’ resume he would fit at Florida.
“Norm is a terrific recruiter, a very, very high character person,” Donovan said. “Norm is a guy who’s been around. He’s been to Kansas, he’s been to Illinois, he’s been to St. John’s, he’s been to a lot of different leagues. He’s had to recruit nationally.
“He has an impeccable reputation, he’s a great guy.”
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas agreed.
“He recruited all those guys to St. John’s that Steve Lavin was able to take to the NCAA tournament this year,” Bilas said. “I think he’ll be a great asset to Billy and the program.”
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