How Billy Donovan can stay at Florida and still fulfill his NBA dream
Billy Donovan has been asked about his future with Florida several times in the past few months. And never has the Gators' head coach said what the team's fans want to hear: he'll be in Gainesville forever. Instead, he has replied with something most sports fans would find surprising: honesty.
"I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to [the NBA]," Donovan told reporters in Orlando during the NCAA tournament. "When you try to project where your future is, where you're going to be, and you don't know because I don't have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida. I love being here."
On May 27, at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., Donovan addressed the topic again: "I think when you start making guarantees about life and start making guarantees about where you're going to be, that's not good because if for some reason I ever change my mind and did something, I wouldn't want [people] saying, 'Well, he promised, he guaranteed, he said this on record.' I just think when you start doing that, that's a mistake."
In a sports world more accustomed to Nick Saban saying "I will not be the head coach of Alabama," Donovan's unexpected decision to express his true feelings, even if it was just out of fear of being labeled a liar, is a refreshing change. The real question, though, is whether he should actually take the chance to work with the best basketball players in the world or stay and further cultivate a Florida program that he has grown into one of the best in the nation.
Donovan has made no secret of his interest in the NBA. He is a Long Island native and grew up a huge fan of the Knicks, the team he says he roots for to this day. After his career at Providence College ended in 1987, he played for the Knicks for one year under his college coach Rick Pitino. When the team waived him after that 1987-88 season, Donovan took a job as a stockbroker but bugged Pitino for a chance to work with the Knicks. Pitino relented and gave Donovan a job -- at Kentucky, where Pitino had taken over in 1989.
The first job Donovan sought was in the NBA. He loves coaching basketball, and at that level, he would have the opportunity to do so with the players who are at the peak of their abilities. It's only natural that coaches, who choose competition as their profession, would also be curious about whether they could succeed at the highest level.
It certainly shouldn't be surprising Donovan would still feel that way. After all, he infamously accepted an offer to become the head coach of the Orlando Magic in 2007 before reversing course the next day and returning to Florida. "It was my mistake," Donovan said at the time. "There was no pressure by anybody to come back. It was what was in my heart."
From that debacle, which included a stipulation by the Magic that he not coach in the NBA for five years, Donovan learned that he wouldn't leave unless it was for a perfect situation. And among the NBA jobs still open this season, there isn't even a good situation. The Knicks' coach won't have any freedom under Phil Jackson, the Lakers are seriously short on talent and the Cavaliers haven't even sniffed the playoffs since a certain hometown star took his talents to South Beach.
There is, however, a way for Donovan to continue to build on the success he's enjoyed at Florida while still getting the chance to coach the best players in the world: He should stay at Florida and angle to become the next coach of USA Basketball. If you think Donovan is a longshot for such an illustrious job, consider this: The closest coaching comparison to Donovan is Mike Krzyzewski. And Donovan has actually been more successful to this point of his career than the current Team USA coach was in his.
Donovan and Krzyzewski began their head coaching careers elsewhere before taking over middling high-major programs -- the former at Florida and the latter at Duke -- and molding them into consistent winners. They are also the only coaches since John Wooden to have led their teams to back-to-back national titles. Donovan, who turned 49 on May 30 and just completed his 20th season as a head coach, has more wins (486) than Coach K did in his first two decades on the sidelines (431) and the same number of national championships (two), though Krzyzewski had been to seven Final Fours at that point compared to Donovan's four.
Krzyzewski didn't take over Team USA until he was 58, in the summer of 2005. Donovan has plenty of time to further strengthen his case for such a post, and he already has international experience on his resume. This summer he'll coach a USA Basketball development team for the fourth straight year. After serving at a training camp for an under-19 team in 2011, he has gone undefeated in international competition the past two years. His teams are 14-0 and have won gold medals at the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championship and the FIBA U19 World Championships in 2013.
Donovan has also coached more than a dozen players at Florida who went on to the NBA, including Mike Miller, Chandler Parsons and Joakim Noah, so he is no stranger to elite talent. There won't be any shortage of candidates to replace Krzyzewski, but if Donovan continues along his current path, there's every reason to believe he should be a serious contender.
Krzyzewski famously flirted with the pros as recently as 2004 before spurning the Lakers to remain in Durham. And Donovan's predecessor at Florida is one of the many college coaches who tried and failed in the NBA before returning to campus: Lon Kruger, who took the school to its first Final Four, spent two and a half undistinguished seasons as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks before returning to mid-tier jobs at UNLV and now Oklahoma.
Even if Donovan does succeed at the next level, in the modern NBA the best coaches stand in the shadows of their superstar players. If he stays at Florida, he will continue to be the face of a program he has built into a true blueblood.
After three straight years of losing in the Elite Eight, the Gators entered this season's NCAA tournament as the No. 1-ranked team in the nation and reached the Final Four. Despite losing four senior starters to graduation, Florida is expected to remain a top-20 team in 2014-15, which means, barring a significant surprise, Donovan should win his 500th game next season. And if he wins one more championship, he will join just five other coaches with at least three titles: John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (4), Krzyzewski (4), Bob Knight (3) and Jim Calhoun (3).
None of those coaches ever spent a day in the NBA, yet they are considered basketball icons. Donovan can either chase the dream of coaching at the highest level or he can realize an even greater opportunity: to join those men as legends.