Welcome to Billy Donovan Court at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? I’m the Monday Morning Quarterback, and I’m dead serious.
For Gator fans under the age of forty, you have no idea. As bad as the Gator football program had been historically prior to Steve Spurrier taking over, the basketball program was even worse pre-Donovan.
Picture this, the basketball team had never even been to an NCAA tournament before 1987 when Norm Sloan coached Vernon Maxwell, Andrew Moten, and Clifford Lett to the Sweet Sixteen against eventual runnerup Syracuse. Prior to that they had only played in four postseason tournaments in their history. Sure they went to a final four under Lon Kruger in 1994 with Andrew DeClerq and Demitri “Da Meat Hook” Hill, but certainly the Gators had little to no pedigree when Kruger left two years later and Billy “The Kid” Donovan took over after having success at Marshall.
There’s an odd connection to Florida, Donovan, and that 1987 NCAA tournament. The upstart Gators made it to the Sweet Sixteen losing to Syracuse who beat Billy Donovan and Providence in the Final Four. Nine years later “The Kid” was leading a fledgling Gator basketball program that was an afterthought to the nationally ranked football program.
A Rick Pitino protege, he was coached by Pitino at Providence when they went on that improbable Final Four run, he certainly had the pedigree. The question was could he get top recruits to come to Gainesville? Florida had had some great players like Vernon Maxwell and Dwayne Shchintzius among others, but most came from the state of Florida, not traditionally known as a hotbed for top basketball talent.
If he was to elevate the Gator program and compete with Kentucky in the SEC and other top programs nationally, he would certainly need to convince guys to come to Florida. And that’s exactly what he has done. Starting with Jason Williams who he basically brought with him from Marshall to the 14 McDonald’s All Americans he has signed he has been exactly the recruiter the Gators have needed him to be. For a little perspective the Gators had signed only three McDonald’s All Americans prior to Donovan’s arrival.
He went to work immediately improving the fortunes and notoriety of the program. He got them to the NIT in his second season, and by his third they became only the third Gator team in history to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance and only the second in school history to be ranked in the final poll. By the 1999-2000 season they made their first ever NCAA tournament championship game appearance losing to Michigan State. Four seasons from an also-ran to a tournament runner-up. Not bad for a young coach known as “Billy The Kid”.
Here we are, a long 17 years later and “Billy The Kid” is now “Billy The Dean”. As in, the dean of SEC basketball coaches, and by a wide margin.
Think about the number of coaches the top SEC programs have been through since Donovan took over the Gator program. Kentucky has had three head coaches, Arkansas has had five, LSU has had four, Alabama has had three, and Tennessee has had four. Seventeen years at one school for any coach in a revenue sport is almost unheard of these days.
For the Gators to keep such a talented coach at a school that is realistically not a basketball school is in and of itself nothing short of amazing. Bigger programs with more money, better facilities, more coverage, stronger history, and, most importantly, way more fan support ALWAYS come and pluck the top coaches don’t they?
There is nothing about Florida that would have told you they would go on this run. In fact, when the Gators were courting Donovan, many close to him including his former coach, employer, and mentor Rick Pitino told him to wait. They told him Gainesville was a bad idea. No history, no money, backseat to football, and little fan support. Don’t do it they said. He didn’t listen. I’m the Monday Morning Quarterback and I want to say “thank you, Billy Donovan”.
All Gator fans should be thanking Billy Donovan. What has he done? 398 victories, fourteen consecutive 20 win seasons with two 30 win seasons, fifteen consecutive post-season appearances, three SEC titles which came in consecutive seasons and the only three in school history, three final fours with all of them resulting in championship game appearances, and two NCAA tournament titles coming back to back only the seventh team in history to do that. Additionally, he is one of only two SEC coaches, the other being legendary Kentucky coach Aldoph Rupp, to win two national titles. All that while playing second fiddle to a top ranked football program year in and year out.
On top of the wins and the titles, he has put out a large contingent of players to the NBA. Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, David Lee, Jason Williams, Mareese Speights, Donnell Harvey, and Matt Bonner. There’s also Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer from the 04’s who won the back to back titles as well as recent players Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, and last season’s one and done Bradley Beal. Nine first round NBA draft picks, when they had only two prior to his arrival. In 2007 the Gators became the first school to have three players drafted in the first round of the NBA draft with Al Horford (3rd), Corey Brewer (7th), and Joakim Noah (9th).
He’s also trained a lot of assistant’s who’ve gone on to head coaching positions including John Pelphrey who coached at South Alabama and Arkansas, Anthony Grant the current head coach at Alabama, Donnie Jones who is coaching at Central Florida, Shaka Smart at Virginia Commonwealth, and Richard Pitino who is at Florida International.
Donovan is a tireless recruiter, a strong X’s and O’s coach, a fantastic teacher, and as good a role model as you could ask for. He’s the total package, what more could you want? Sadly many Gators haven’t always felt that way.
After a stretch of nine consecutive NCAA tourney appearances which culminated in the back to back titles the Gators settled for the NIT two years in a row. There were grumblings on message boards and call in shows that maybe Donovan didn’t have it. Maybe he got lucky with the 04’s even though only one of them, Corey Brewer, was a McDonald’s All American. He lost a hotly contested recruiting battle for big man Patrick Patterson who ended up at Kentucky.
Fans were also upset with his 24 hour flirtation with the Orlando Magic, taking the job and then turning around and choosing to stay with the Gators. While that is understandable, a guy that had just won back to back tourney titles probably should get a pass. Especially at a school that less than twenty years earlier had never even played in a tourney game.
After losing his whole starting lineup, the Gators suffered for a couple of seasons as a top ranked recruiting class learned on the fly. Additionally, with Speights leaving early, and Donovan losing out on the Patrick Patterson recruiting derby in part due to his Magic flip-flop, the Gators suffered with little inside presence. From that point on, however, he has rebuilt the team and has had them in three straight NCAA tourneys and getting to the Elite Eight the last two seasons.
This season’s team is likely even better than the last two.While the roster isn’t deep numbers wise, they go only eight deep when healthy, all eight guys can score, play great suffocating defense, and play great team basketball. This team is hands down the cream of the crop in the SEC this season and is a potential Final Four team that could end up anywhere from a third seed to a top seed.
The moral of the story for Gator fans? Sit back and enjoy the ride. We have a once in a generation coach who has put a formerly dead basketball program into the elite stratosphere with the Kentucky’s, Duke’s, North Carolina’s, and UCLA’s of the college basketball world. If these Gators do indeed make a Final Four run or, slap my momma and shut my mouth, another tourney championship run, I hope they play one song for Billy Donovan and grumbling Gator fans as he hoists the trophy: Toby Keith’s “How do you like me now”.
I’m the Monday Morning Quarterback, and I like him. I like him a lot