Florida men’s basketball head coach Billy Donovan came to Gainesville in 1996 as a wide eyed young talent who had barely cut his chops as a head coach. After only a few seasons as an assistant to Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Donovan was hired to be the head coach at Marshall but spent only two seasons there before becoming the Florida head coach. When he took over a Florida program with a very short history of success no one, including Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, really knew what they were getting. Billy Donovan was Foley’s first major hire as athletic director.
In my opinion, Foley’s first hire was his best hire, and most important. Oh, I know all about Urban Meyer and his two championships in three seasons. I know all about Tim Walton the highly successful softball coach and I know all about Becky Burleigh the architect of one of the best soccer programs in the nation and the program’s only coach. But soccer and softball are minor sports. They’re not REVENUE sports, the lifeblood of any major university’s athletic program. And football? Well it takes care of itself and has a long tradition of excellence compared to basketball. Besides, who couldn’t hire a great football coach at a school like Florida, a football school playing in the most prestigious conference in the nation residing in a state that is a mecca of high school talent? But basketball? Well now that’s another story altogether.
While the hiring of Billy Donovan wasn’t necessarily controversial there were some questions about how effective he would be in Gainesville. Donovan certainly had the pedigree Foley was looking for. Coached by Pitino at Providence where he led them to a Final Four and learning the coaching ropes under Pitino at basketball power Kentucky, Donovan was young, energetic, and focused. He had a blueprint for success that most certainly impressed Foley and others around the Gator basketball program. But would a northeastern guy be able to recruit and build a powerful program at what was essentially a football school? If you’re under the age of 30 you probably need a quick history lesson to put the previous question into perspective.
For decades, the basketball program at Florida was an afterthought. To say it floundered was an insult to flounders. The first six decades of it’s existence the Gators were bottom feeders of the SEC and most of the time were coached part time by assistant football coaches. Such was the attention paid to the Gator basketball program. Not until the legendary coach Norm Sloan was hired in 1960, the Gators first full time basketball coach, did the Gator basketball team approach any level of success. While Sloan is credited with laying the foundation of a full fledged intercollegiate basketball program, he still was unable to elevate it on a national scale.
It wasn’t until Norm Sloan returned after a highly successful 14 year tenure at his alma mater North Carolina State that the Gator basketball program began to make some noise beyond it’s home court. Sloan coached three NIT tournament teams before taking the Gators to their first ever NCAA tournament appearance in 1987. Their first trip resulted in a surprise Sweet Sixteen berth before they lost to eventual national runner up Syracuse. Ironically, that tournament was the same one that Billy the Kid, a moniker he received during his playing days partly due to his youthful looks and partly due to his sharp shooting skills from the newly installed three point line, led his Providence squad to the Final Four. Sloan would take the Gators to one more tourney appearance in 1989. That season they also won the Gators first ever SEC title as well. It took a mere 74 years before the Gators won their first conference title. This was the state of Gator basketball.
After Sloan was forced out due to NCAA violations, Lon Kruger was brought in and quickly built on Sloan’s success culminating in the Gators first ever Final Four appearance in 1994. After Kruger left for Illinois two years later, Donovan was hired to take over the program which was seemingly at a crossroads.
While Kruger had success, there were many questions hovering over the program. Would any coach be able to maintain a high level of success in a state which rarely puts out top flight talent? Would a new coach be able to compete for top talent with the pillars of college basketball such as Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, or Kansas? Would the Florida basketball coaching position ever be anything but a stepping stone to bigger and better jobs? Would Gator basketball ever reach first rate status alongside a football program which had just played for a national title and would win it’s first eight months later or would it always be a second fiddle which struggled to sell tickets to it’s games?
When Billy Donovan was hired the Florida faithful were hopeful because many analysts felt he was a talented up and coming head coach and fingers were crossed that he would be able to build on the previous spotty level of success from the prior decade. But could he recruit good out of state talent to Florida, an absolute necessity if the program was going to compete on a national stage? Would a northeastern guy be able to satisfy Gator boosters and university officials? Would he stick around very long or would he, like Kruger, build a team and move on to bigger and better things? All of the above left Gator fans and alums nervously optimistic. Foley was banking that Donovan would elevate the program while recruiting solid student athletes that didn’t just compete at a high level but would go to class and not leave the program subject to NCAA investigation.
In terms of risk taking, the hiring of Donovan was a safe bet. Usually low risk bets offer low return. In this case, the return on investment was a million fold. It was the equivalent of investing fifty bucks and building a billion dollar empire. In his wildest dreams, Foley, and the whole of Gator Nation alike, could never have imagined the heights that Donovan would take the program. Certainly no one expected Donovan to go from Billy the Kid to Billy the Legend all while still at the helm of the little basketball program that could. If you would have bet a dollar in 1996 that Donovan would still be at Florida eighteen years later, you’d be a millionaire today. Such were the odds of that happening.
To fully appreciate Billy Donovan one must simply look at his achievements while head coach at Florida. A Sweet Sixteen in 1999 Donovan’s third season followed up by a regular season split SEC title and Final Four in 2000 finishing as national runner up after losing to Michigan State in the title game. That alone was enough to qualify him as a legend at Florida. And make him a hot commodity for other higher profile programs something that Gator fans were all too leery of happening. But surprisingly it didn’t. Donovan stuck around and continued to recruit and coach at a high level. The Gators made the NCAA tournament a school record nine straight times from 1998 to 2007 winning back to back national titles in 2006 and 2007 something that hadn’t been done since Duke did it in 1990 and 1991. Despite the Gator program slipping for three years after the two titles being relegated to NIT appearances, due in part to Donovan’s flip flop from agreeing to leave Florida to coach the Orlando Magic for a few days before deciding to stay at Florida, Donovan fought through the adversity to bring the program back to three straight Elite Eight appearances the last three seasons.
By every measure, Donovan has been successful. His 18 consecutive seasons at Florida make him the dean of SEC basketball coaches by far and his career record at Florida of 430-168 a .719 winning percentage maked him one of the winningest coaches of his era. He also coached five of the six SEC title winning teams. All of this at a football school that many had suggested could never sustain any level of basketball success. All of this at a school in a state relatively devoid of high school talent. And all of this at a school that had little prior pedigree nationally in collegiate basketball.
While certainly Billy Donovan receives a measure of respect nationally among media who cover basketball and among his peers in the coaching profession, one gets the feeling that he doesn’t receive enough. A lot of attention is paid to seemingly higher profile coaches such as legends like Jim Calhoun from UCONN and Jim Boeheim of Syracuse, both in the top ten all time in wins or his mentor Rick Pitino at Louisville, John Calipari at Kentucky, Roy Williams at North Carolina, or Bill Self at Kansas. Certainly all those coaches deserve all the praise or accolades they receive but for comparison purposes let’s look at some major differences between those coaches’ situations and Billy Donovan’s.
The most glaring difference is in where they coach. All of the above mentioned coaches took over elite programs with a long history of success. Some of the biggest names in college basketball coaching history preceded these coaches at their respective schools. Names like Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith, Larry Brown. Those programs were already historically some of the best. They came in and built upon tradition. Donovan took over a program with no pedigree and very little tradition. While those coaches came in and were expected to maintain or return those programs to a level of prior success, Donovan built his own tradition in a program with no tradition and very little prior success. He built the equivalent of a flowering palace in the desert. While the others were given keys to the kingdom, Donovan was given the keys to the broom closet. And built an empire.
Again, not to downplay the achievements of these other coaches, but Donovan did the impossible at an impossible place. He took a program used to dumpster diving and gave them caviar tastes. They went from Broom Hilda to the Belle of the Ball. Those programs were so used to bringing in an annual haul of McDonald’s All American’s that you’d think McDonald’s was a corporate sponsor. Florida? Before Donovan, Gator fans didn’t know what a McDonald’s All American was. They thought it was an adult kid’s meal. Since Donovan arrived, he’s signed 16 players that received that prestigious distinction. Prior to Donovan’s arrival, the most notable NBA players from Florida were Neal Walk and Vernon Maxwell. Under Donovan, the Gators have had 13 players drafted into the NBA including seven who were first round picks.
Besides the three championship game appearances and the back to back national titles, another good measure of a coach is his legacy, commonly known as the coaching tree. Currently there are six head coaches that all coached under Billy Donovan and a seventh, John Pelphrey, who is back at Florida as associate head coach after stints at South Alabama and Arkansas. The current head coaches are Anthony Grant at Alabama, Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth, Donnie Jones at the University of Central Florida, Larry Shyatt at Wyoming, Richard Pitino at Minnesota, and Lewis Preston at Kennesaw State University. All cut their teeth learning under Billy Donovan and all have become successful head coaches.
Perhaps his best coaching job was the one that on paper appeared to be his easiest: managing the 04’s, as the back to back title teams were known, in their second title season. The first year nobody including Donovan and the players themselves had any clue they would ultimately compete for a championship. The Gators had graduated the core of the strongest recruiting class in Gator history the season before. Most expected a let down. When the team went on a 17 game win streak to start the season everybody outside and within the program were pleasantly surprised. Yet they had no pressure. They weren’t expected to win even when they got to the tournament so they played loose. That second season however, with everyone returning, the weight of expectations from the fanbase to the media to the players themselves seemed like an unbearable weight at times. Donovan masterfully massaged egos while pushing his team to focus on basketball and not the circus-like atmosphere that accompanied a returning title team full of interesting characters. Donovan did something that most coaches could not do with that second title team.
All that and a bag of chips. Billy Donovan IS the Gator basketball program. He’s built a program that is shoulder to shoulder with the blue bloods at a place nobody ever thought it could be done. Is he Wooden-esque? He might not be toe to toe with the Wizard of Westwood in terms of championships but think about it. Wooden coached in an era where basketball was played underneath the basket. He could recruit one big time 7 footer every few years and put some role players around him and dominate. The NCAA tourney was only 16 teams back then and while they were certainly the best 16 teams in the land meaning no patsies, they also didn’t have the great equalizer: the three point shot.
The three point line revolutionized college basketball. It certainly took Donovan from an unknown little used point guard who contemplated quitting basketball before Pitino’s arrival to a national sensation who led tiny Providence to a Final Four. It changed his career and his life. It also energized college basketball and the NCAA tourney which had become a 64 team affair. It allowed smaller schools who became known as mid majors to compete with the blue bloods of college basketball. In my opinion, it has become much tougher to win an NCAA tournament championship in the modern era and much tougher to maintain a long level of success.
All of this makes Billy D’s accomplishments all the more sweeter and all the more prestigious. Yes, Billy the Kid has become Billy the Legend. The dean of SEC basketball is a legend not just at Florida but also in the SEC where the shadow of Adolph Rupp still hovers like a black cloud. Calipari gets the attention bringing in top rated recruiting classes full of “one and dones” as they are known these days due to the NBA’s requirement that players be one year removed from high school before they’re eligible for the draft. But Calipari has a ways to go to match the consistency and level of success that Donovan has achieved at Florida.
Gator fans should take time to appreciate what they have in coach Donovan, especially considering they almost lost him in 2007 to the NBA. In an era when the term “coaching carousel” is part of the everyday vernacular and coaches change schools like changing underwear, Donovan has been as consistent as a Rolex. Consistently successful. Legendary.