When Lon Kruger abruptly resigned as Florida’s basketball coach after the 1995-96 season, it caught athletic director Jeremy Foley a bit off guard. He didn’t have a ready-made list of potential replacements at his fingertips, as he keeps now for such occasions.
All Foley knew for certain was he had no intention of going the previous Florida hiring route, which was to bring in an established coaching veteran. He wanted a young, ascending coach, somebody with the personality and work ethic to erase a perception that UF could never be a national player in basketball.
It wasn’t until Foley interviewed the second prospective candidate, 30-year-old Billy Donovan, then a two-year head coach at Marshall, that he felt compelled to end the search.
“I didn’t know Billy from Adam, but I loved his energy, his passion, the way he sat on the edge of his chair projecting his plans,” said Foley. “I talked to him for three or four hours. It felt like 15 minutes. I just thought we had a chance with this guy. There was a lot of something to him.”
Eighteen years later, there’s no denying Foley hit the mother lode with that hire. Who would have thought two decades ago that a basketball coach few Gators had ever heard of could equal, and now surpass, Steve Spurrier as the most impactful acquisition in UF athletic history?
Spurrier made a champion out of a “sleeping giant,” as Alabama’s Bear Bryant once described Florida football. But Donovan has created a hoops giant few believed would ever have anything more than pockets of success.
“He changed the culture of the entire program,” said Foley. “He didn’t do it by himself, but he’s the linchpin.”
At 48, Donovan might be at the peak of his career. Not just because his Gators are on a school-record, 20-game winning streak or ranked No. 1 in the country. It’s how he kept UF at mostly a national elite level since it first reached the NCAA title game back in 2000, never hitting the pothole that can send programs reeling for long stretches.
Even when Florida was so-so by Donovan standards, at least after those first two years, it still won 20, 22, 24 games a year. The Gators (26-2, 15-0 in SEC) don’t have a long enough history to be considered a basketball blueblood like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse or Kansas, but Donovan has put them in rarefied air.
As remarkable a run as those back-to-back national championships were in 2006 and 2007, this team is potentially Donovan’s masterpiece, especially if the Gators win it all.
Thanks to a senior class that is long on maturity and chemistry, though iffy on certified NBA-ready talent, Florida has a chance to reach the mountaintop. Seniors Will Yeguete, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather, along with sophomore guard Michael Frazier, keep winning because nobody tries to do too much.
Donovan’s process of constantly prodding his players to focus on a defined role, and never permitting anyone to become bigger than the team, has allowed UF to so far march perfectly through the SEC.
The Gators do not so much dominate people as find a way to prevail over 40 minutes. In their last five games (four on road), the opponent has had a higher overall shooting percentage, but Florida survives by whatever means necessary. Sometimes it’s a clutch three-point shot (Ole Miss, Vanderbilt), sometimes it’s rebounding (Auburn), sometimes it’s superior free-throw shooting (Tennessee, Kentucky).
Quite often, it’s Wilbekin — a fearless, unrelenting point guard — creating or making a big play. Another time, Young might carry them with an offensive spurt. At Vanderbilt, it was the shooting of backup Dorian Finney-Smith to the rescue.
UF’s one constant is defense, ranked eighth in the country at 58.7 points per game. That keeps the Gators in games when the offense can occasionally look ragged, sometimes waiting until midway through the second half to find a rhythm.
Whatever the method, it works because Donovan never stops pushing the Gators — coming off three consecutive Elite Eight appearances — to strive for excellence. His .738 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament (31-11), sixth all-time among coaches with at least 40 games, is surpassed only by colleagues who have won a combined 19 national titles.
At 48, Donovan is already the winningest tournament coach in SEC history. Only five coaches have won more NCAA crowns, so he’s certainly Hall of Fame-bound, maybe as soon as 2015 in his first year of eligibility (coaching candidates are required to have 25 years as a full-time assistant or head coach).
But here might be the true testament to Donovan’s greatness: Even if this team wins a third national championship, it’s doubtful any of the five starters will be selected in the first round of the NBA draft, if at all.
Since the draft began in 1947, every NCAA title team has had at least one starter (in most cases, multiple starters) chosen in the first round or as a top-12 pick. Florida could become the first team to cut down the nets without that luxury.
That’s a credit to Donovan’s coaching acumen. Most of his teams are better than the sum of its parts, maybe none more so than this one.
Among the many things that solidified Donovan’s hiring was when Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, his former boss at Kentucky, told Foley he was the hardest-working assistant he ever had.
“I also liked that Billy made himself into a really good basketball player [at Providence],” said Foley.
For a man once known as Billy The Kid, it was a sign of things to come. Billy Donovan has made Florida a really good basketball school. What you’re now witnessing might be his finest hour.