Billy Donovan leaves behind program he built at Florida to fulfill old dream
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sitting at his kitchen table eating pasta on a summer night in 2007, Billy Donovan didn’t sound like a man who would ever leave Florida for the NBA. He had tried to bolt. He had signed a contract with the Orlando Magic that June. He had held a press conference. But he just couldn’t go. As he told the story of the wild seven-day stretch in which he was Florida’s coach, the Magic coach, a coach in contractual limbo and then Florida’s coach again, Donovan kept stressing what a mistake he had made. He was 42. He had just won two national titles with the Gators. He had NBA talent (Marreese Speights) coming back, and NBA talent (Chandler Parsons and Nick Calathes) coming in. And as his four children filtered in that night from various sports practices and school functions, he seemed truly at peace with the decision. He was happy here. Whatever itch had led him to sign that contract two hours south had vanished.
Now, that itch has returned. This time, it will get scratched. Donovan will leave Florida to take over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Billy The Kid, who came to Gainesville at age 30 in 1996 and built Florida into one of college basketball’s name brands, will become Billy The 50-Year-Old next month. If he wants to make the leap to the NBA, now is probably his best chance. Donovan will get to coach one of the three best basketball players on the planet in Kevin Durant and will get to focus Russell Westbrook’s nuclear energy into a force that does more good than harm to the Thunder. It is a job any true hoops junkie would crave, and Donovan is, before anything else, the same gym rat who jacked up threes for Rick Pitino at Providence.
But after his first dalliance with the NBA, it didn’t appear Donovan would ever consider this path again. He seemed so certain.
I was in Donovan’s kitchen that night in 2007 because on the night that he decided to spurn the Magic and return to Florida, I had shown up on his doorstep around midnight. I covered Florida athletics for The Tampa Tribune. My friend Dave Curtis covered the Gators for The Orlando Sentinel, and both our papers had strict sourcing policies at the time. “Sources said” wouldn’t work, especially when everyone in the athletic department was essentially communicating using nods and blinks out of fear of getting sued by the Magic. So Curtis and I decided to visit Donovan’s house. Assistant Larry Shyatt opened the door, laughing. We made some small talk and left. No on-the-record confirmation was given. A few days later, after Donovan was fully back in the fold at Florida, Curtis and I brought cards to Donovan’s wife Christine. Hallmark doesn’t sell a sorry-I-came-banging-on-your-door-at-midnight-during-a-very-stressful-time card, so we made do. A few weeks later, Donovan invited us to dinner. He appreciated the hustle, if not the intrusion.
There, he told the story in more detail than he had during a press conference following his return. How his gut churned on the ride back to Gainesville from Orlando. How he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d blown it. How the Magic’s lawyers had scared him into worrying he’d wind up penniless. Donovan sounded so relieved to be back with the program he’d led since 1996. None of his employees needed to worry about whether they’d have a job or whether they’d have to move. He had turned a football school into a football/basketball school, and he seemed invigorated by the challenge of helping a new group attempt to reach the heights scaled by the Oh-Fours, the 2004 recruiting class of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green that formed the backbone of Donovan’s best teams.
Donovan didn’t turn around the first time because of the situation. It wasn’t a bad job Donovan backed out of in Orlando. The Magic had Dwight Howard and a young Jameer Nelson. It’s impossible to know whether they still would have acquired Marcin Gortat and Rashard Lewis during the summer of 2007, but Otis Smith still would have been the general manager. Donovan likely would have had access to the same talent Stan Van Gundy took to the 2009 NBA Finals. But Donovan still wanted to be a college coach.
When Donovan took over the Gators following Lon Kruger’s departure to Illinois, Florida was only two years removed from the school’s first Final Four appearance. But the roster Donovan inherited suggested it would be a long time before the Gators returned—if they ever did at all. As the campus spent the early months of 1997 celebrating the school’s first football national title, Donovan’s team struggled. During a late-season loss to Georgia, the O’Connell Center was so empty that fans sitting halfway up the stands could hear almost everything Donovan and Bulldogs coach Tubby Smith said to their players during timeouts.
Guard Jason Williams followed Donovan from Marshall to Florida and was eligible to play in the 1997-98 season, but Williams’s Gators career lasted only 20 games before he was booted for marijuana use. It took two years of recruiting for Donovan to recharge the program. In the 1998 class, he landed Mike Miller from South Dakota and Udonis Haslem from Miami. (Getting Miller royally ticked off then-Kansas coach Roy Williams, who accused Donovan of recruiting improprieties. The NCAA never alleged any violations.) That group helped Florida reach the Sweet 16. In the 1999 class, Donovan landed likely one-and-done Donnell Harvey and brainy New Hampshire forward Matt Bonner. With role players such as three-point bomber Teddy Dupay and enforcer Brent Wright, the Gators went 10 deep, and Donovan led them to the national title game by pressing opponents with wave upon wave of fresh players.
What followed was a five-year period of recruiting prosperity that never amounted to more than a one-weekend stay in the NCAA tournament. If Donovan was going to get antsy, this was the time. His critics began to wonder if he’d hit his ceiling.
Then a punch in a pickup game changed everything. In April 2005, weeks after Florida’s second-round tourney loss to Villanova, Brewer, then a freshman, slugged junior Matt Walsh as the Gators played at their practice facility. The punch sent a message. The Oh-Fours, who had waited patiently as freshmen, were running the team. The incident hastened Walsh’s departure to the pros and allowed Horford, Noah, Brewer and Green to take over a team that previously had been run by Walsh, David Lee and Anthony Roberson, whose chemistry was questionable.
Donovan thrived with the Oh-Fours, who, other than Brewer, were not big-time recruits. He asked them to play an unselfish game, and they happily complied. Noah didn’t care if he led the team in scoring. He was just as happy to grab 12 rebounds, watch three-point gunner Lee Humphrey light up some overmatched opponent and then celebrate the next morning at Tennessean Humphrey’s favorite restaurant, Cracker Barrel. The group manufactured joy, and that rubbed off on Donovan.
Donovan seemed equally joyous in 2014 as a team led by four selfless seniors rolled to an 18-0 SEC record and a Final Four appearance. Getting so much out of the team led by Patric Young, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather was Donovan’s best coaching job. That team won because Donovan developed those players and fine-tuned their individual skills into a functional unit. But that team should also have been a warning sign.
There are few teams led by a quartet of seniors in high-major college basketball anymore. While it shouldn’t take away from the job Donovan did with the group, it stands to reason that a team led by four seniors comes to be for two reasons: The seniors weren’t good enough to move on to the NBA at any point, and none of the younger players were good enough to take the seniors’ jobs. So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the Gators struggled this season after those seniors left, finishing 16-17.
Though Donovan has never seemed particularly concerned with his legacy, he’ll go down as one of the best ever to coach the college game. He became a head coach at age 28 at Marshall, and he has won 502 career games. If he spent another 20 years at Florida, he probably could approach Coach K-type numbers. But he also never would find out if he can succeed at the game’s highest level. At one month away from 50, Donovan is still young enough to make such a big change.
Donovan will leave behind a sad athletic department, but he’ll also leave behind a program that he built into one of the nation’s best. A good hire will allow the Gators to maintain the level to which Donovan raised them. Athletic director Jeremy Foley will have to make that hire only a few months after hiring Jim McElwain to run the football program. Donovan was Foley’s first big hire as athletic director, and Donovan remains Foley’s best hire. But that was 19 years ago.
It was eight years ago that Donovan seemed at peace with remaining a college coach until retirement. A season such as this past one could change anyone’s outlook, but Donovan’s departure goes deeper than that. Think about how much can change in eight years. When Donovan told those stories at his kitchen table, he had one high-schooler, a middle-schooler an elementary-schooler and a pre-schooler. Now two of those children have gone to college and two are in high school. When I listened to those stories at Donovan’s kitchen table, my wife and I hadn’t decided when we’d have children. Now we have tiny human beings running around who continuously invent ways to beg for new toys. For a lot of people, life in 2015 in no way resembles life in 2007, so how could a person be blamed for deciding he wants something different?
Donovan gave Florida a premier basketball program. Now, he’ll leave to chase a dream that apparently didn’t die on the road from Orlando to Gainesville in 2007.