Florida bets big Michael White is up to challenge of replacing Billy Donovan
When word percolated Thursday afternoon that Florida focused its search for a new basketball coach on Louisiana Tech’s Michael White, it seemed advisable to ask around about White’s qualifications for maintaining an elite legacy built over two decades. So a flare was sent to Mike Brey, who knows the 38-year-old by way of White’s father, Kevin, the former Notre Dame athletic director. If this hire came to pass, it would not be simple upward trajectory. It would not be a typical steppingstone hop. This was a leap into the shadow of a legend.
So how did a peer coach measure White’s leaping ability?
“Not a more talented young guy in the biz,” Brey told SI.com via text. “The whole package.”
By dusk, White had a six-year deal averaging $2 million per season to run a championship-laden program that Billy Donovan built and ultimately came to define. Florida is now taking a chance with that legacy, to be sure. That seemed an imprudent course in a rapidly mobilizing SEC hoops landscape, at a time when it is not safe to assume anything about the program’s ability to sustain itself once Donovan is gone.
Only this may be the one candidate for whom the risk is worth.
White has zero NCAA tournament berths on his record. Other names that made as much sense for the job—Dayton’s Archie Miller, Xavier’s Chris Mack—have enjoyed sustained success at higher levels. But those who have come across White come back with nothing but exuberant praise, as Brey did, suggesting the 101 wins in four seasons and the three regular-season Conference USA titles are no mirage. To replace Billy Donovan, Florida did not pursue someone capable of preserving what its former coach created. With headlong daring, it sought someone capable of being the next Billy Donovan.
“Michael White is someone who came to the top of our list very quickly and he checks all of the boxes we were looking for,” athletic director Jeremy Foley said in a statement. “He is a winner who has a high level of integrity, plays an up-tempo style of play and has the respect of his peers and the basketball community. He has experience in coaching, recruiting and playing in the Southeastern Conference and has a strong pedigree. He has a certain authenticity with people and is not afraid of challenges.”
No, he evidently is not.
Surely, the Dunedin, Fla., native was not going to turn down a job teeming with promise. “Not only is Florida home for me, but the tradition and success that the Gators have built make this an incredible opportunity,” White said. But he very well could be coaching on a floor that bears his predecessor’s name in the not too distant future. That is a claustrophobic existence: to be juxtaposed with the last guy at every turn. But that is the reality. There is no escaping the comparisons. The only solution is to mute them by being just as good.
Those who know White insist he has the tools to manage that. There is no telling until he’s in the thick of it, and that is the inherent risk Foley and Co. are taking. We will see in time. White should have an adequate infrastructure when he arrives that will only improve; though Florida needs facility upgrades, as evidenced by the $60 million allocated for a “major renewal” of the Stephen O’Connell Center, those close to the program feel the available resources are sufficient to pursue more championships. But that should not override a sense of urgency required to salve the wounds after a 16-17 season. For all Donovan did, he did not immunize the program to failure.
Nor did he leave White with an easy job at any level. Two of Florida’s top three scorers are gone, as is former five-star recruit Chris Walker. A top 20 recruiting class is en route, but the lack of available, proven talent suggests the Gators currently float in the nebulous zone between a reload and a rebuild in 2015-16. If White gets his new club playing at his preferred tempo—fast—it may mask some deficiencies. A good system goes only so far, though. And an SEC that added Bruce Pearl, Ben Howland and Rick Barnes in the past two off-seasons won’t wait on Michael White, either.
When Foley handed his new coach a salary commensurate with the going rate in the league (Howland will make $2.05 million at Mississippi State, for example) it made a statement, intentionally or not. He believed White was a match for the any of the names he’ll face next winter and beyond. Those who know the new Florida coach consider it a good investment.
There were safer hires to make, avenues to pursue that might have put the program in a less precarious position. Evidently, Florida was convinced that wasn’t what it needed.
What it believed it needed, apparently, was someone like the coach who just left.
As he steps into the long shadows in Gainesville, Michael White has not coached a single NCAA tournament game.
But then neither had the last guy Florida hired.