Billy Donovan: An Appreciation

Donovan at his introductory press conference in 1996, age 30.
Donovan at his introductory press conference in 1996.

Billy Donovan: An Appreciation

There is rarely sadness without something joyful to remember, and it is with joy we should choose to remember and celebrate the unrivaled 19 year success of Billy Donovan as head coach of the men’s basketball team at the University of Florida.

That Donovan is irreplaceable is self-evident.

This is a coach, after all, who was recently named the # 1 coach in college basketball by basketball people at ESPN.

That he, a basketball coach, is, in the view of this writer and at least one more notable one, who has seen his fair share of Florida athletic events, the best hire in any sport at the University of Florida and is so by some measure, is also an opinion of merit.

Donovan’s departure is heart-rending and sorrowful, yet understandable and immediately forgivable, all at once.

There is no anger, or bitterness, or at least there shouldn’t be, even if the sadness is ineffable.

For me, for many, Donovan’s departure represents somber seachange, which is to say I’ve no idea if there’s a moment in life where you begin to feel old. I’m not referencing a “Murtaugh List” of things you can’t do at a certain age. That’s too easy and less about mortality than it is about humor.

About the genuine end of childhood and the purgatory of your 20’s and if you’re fortunate, a few years after it. Perhaps it is too melodramatic to suggest there is one moment. Perhaps instead we recognize our own mortality through an accumulation of markers: the birth of a child, the day after the wedding when more friends are married than aren’t, a college or (gasp) high-school reunion.

There is all of that in Donovan’s departure. He is, after all, the only Gators basketball coach many Gators, up to and into their 30’s, remember or knew. Nineteen years. That’s nearly a generation. As a parent, that’s enough time to see a child born and leave home. For time spent working a single job, it’s practically pension qualifying. In sportswriting terms, it is an immense amount of time to contemplate.

But he’s gone.

And there is rarely sadness without something to mourn and something joyful to remember.

So as we blame the dust or the May oak pollen and wipe away memories thick as August night air on the banks Lake Alice, from Mike Miller’s runner in the lane to beat Butler in Winston-Salem (the second time I hugged a Gator I didn’t know) to Al Horford’s shimmy-shake in the ATL to Pat Young, prostrate on the Jerry’s World floor chasing a ball in a game that was hopeless, mostly what remains is appreciation.

To begin to understand Billy Donovan’s astounding nineteen seasons as Florida’s basketball coach, it helps to start in the middle.

Raleigh, March 2004

There will be plenty of stories written about Donovan over the next couple of days, praising his reign as peerless, and with good reason. And we’ll get to that.

It’s just that the best way to tell the story is to start at a press conference in a dark and dank Raleigh arena where the promise and wonder of Donovan’s early years had faded into a series of maybe’s and whispers about whether a bright young star had peaked, leaving only a prolonged fade. Words like peerless seemed distant.

At the podium, a 38 year old Billy Donovan, four Marches removed from wunderkind status in a coaching community so often simply measured by Marches, fought tears.

His team had been dispatched on the tournament’s opening weekend for the fourth consecutive March, this time humiliated by Manhattan College, 75-60 in a game that was only competitive until the second media timeout of the second half. By then, Manhattan led by 14, and would never lead by less than twelve again. Florida was outshot, outrebounded, out-hustled, out-executed and perhaps, outcoached.

Manhattan did everything but skin the Gators for shoes.

The other team’s coach, 40 year old Bobby Gonzalez, was the young coaching star of the day. (This alone is a great story, but we’ll get to that.)

The losing team’s coach seemed short of answers.

“I felt our guys had that deer in the headlights look a little bit,” Donovan said. “They just competed harder than we did.”

Of that, there was little debate. UF students and fans alike may have laughed when Anthony Roberson, a high school All-American who picked Florida over Duke and Michigan State, referred to Manhattan as Montana in the days before the game. No one was laughing after the game, least of all Roberson, whose 22 points at least suggested he came to play, even if he didn’t know who Florida was playing.

David Lee, an All American from St. Louis who picked Florida over Kansas, Kentucky and Duke, managed only six rebounds in a game where he had an enormous skill and athleticism advantage. “I thought we were on the right track coming in here,” Lee said in the locker room after the game. “I was wrong.”

As the players collected themselves in the locker room, searching for answers, Donovan searched for words on the podium.

“I keep asking myself what I can do,” Donovan said. “Were we unprepared? What can I do better?”

Donovan looked beaten and sounded sad. He appeared tired, unsure.  Looks can be deceiving.

“We’ve got some guys with some serious deficiencies,” said Donovan, who tiptoed right to the edge of painting his team as frightened of Manhattan. “I’m not blaming those guys for the loss. But we’ve got some very, very competitive kids and we’ve got some kids that really need to be a little more competitive than they are.”

To fix that, Florida basketball would reformulate its image and culture.

At that point in time, of course, the mere suggestion Florida needed to change the culture around the basketball program seemed sheer lunacy. After all, Donovan’s numbers were already staggering. In the 77 years before his arrival, Florida went to five NCAA Tournaments and won 20 games a total of five times. By 2004, Donovan had won 20 games six consecutive times and his teams had been invited to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments. First weekend exit or no, Florida basketball mattered, which, save a magical March under Lon Kruger and some heady years under nefarious Norm Sloan, it hadn’t before.

So it was with great humility, and even greater focus, Billy Donovan went home and got to work.

Not that Donovan’s humility should surprise anyone. It’s in his DNA. Humility is the only way to prevent complacency.

“The first thing he is going to do is look at himself and what he could have done different, and he’s going to beat himself up about it,” former Florida assistant coach Matt McCall said earlier this year. “He never feels like he has things figured out. One of things I respect most about him and when I become a head coach I will take from him, he’s never content.”

To understand how a lesser man (and coach) might not have changed much at all, it helps to go back to the beginning.

Billy The Kid, Eddie Shannon, Greg Stolt and Casey Calvary

Before there were McDonald’s All-Americans and lottery picks, way back when Jeremy Foley had a head full of hair, there was a West Palm Beach point guard named Eddie Shannon, who played with great vision -in one eye. Shannon had been blinded in an accident in eighth grade, and could see only shadows in his right eye by the time he arrived at Florida.

In Donovan’s first two years at Florida, Shannon was easily the Gators’ most talented player, save a twenty game cameo by Jason Williams, who would go on to fame and fortune in the NBA and who, for a while, relegated Shannon to a complementary role.

No matter. Donovan took the job promising an up-tempo, attacking style of motion offense and basketball and Eddie Shannon was a more than capable fit at running it. With his savvy handles and the sharpshooting of Huntsville, Alabama’s Greg Stolt, now an NBA executive, the Gators showed progress and promise under the 30 year old Jeremy Foley hired to coach them. More important, they showed that Florida could play exciting basketball.

“We wanted to run and play up and down and sell that for the future,” Shannon said earlier this year, upon being named a 2015 SEC Legend. “Greg and I were the first on the team to do that. There was plenty of losing, it was hard. But we kept believing in what was on the horizon. And we were right.”

Shannon led the team in assists and Stolt led the team in points those first two years, and despite the Jason Williams distractions the Gators managed to qualify for the NIT by year two of the Donovan era. It was a foundation built on grit and grind.

Donovan, for his own part, was forever grateful. “I didn’t recruit Eddie and Greg. It just feels like I did,” Donovan said. “I have to give them both a lot of credit because they proved that winning and team were the most important thing,” Donovan said. “Both guys are integral to why we are where we are today.”

Where they ended up, as seniors, was in the NCAA Tournament for only the sixth time in the history of the school. Playing up-tempo basketball buoyed by Donovan’s first star-laden recruiting class, which included Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay and Udonis Haslem, Shannon was again a role player. Only this time, he was a devastating one, shooting over 50 percent from the field, 35 percent from beyond the arc on a three happy team and dishing out five assists a night. He was the perfect, measured, savvy complement to pair with the brash, gunslinging freshmen Dupay.

The combination worked, as Florida rolled Pennsylvania in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and, aided by a 3-14 upset, defeated the marvelous Harold Arceneaux and Weber State 82-74 in overtime in round two, a scintillating game that saw Stolt bury and avalanche of threes en route to 26 points and saw Eddie Shannon dish out seven assists and pick up five steals.

As Donovan seniors tend to do, Shannon and Stolt saved their best for last.

The Sweet 16 beckoned, for only the third time in school history.

That game, against Gonzaga, who back then was an upstart Cinderella, not the annual overseed they’ve become, was an instant classic.

Both Stolt and Shannon played well, Stolt leading the Gators in scoring with 16 and Shannon leading the team in assists, with seven, adding two steals and six points.

The Gators led by 1 with ten seconds to play when this happened:

It has dawned to me that over the years, people remember Casey Calvary’s tip, of course- in fact, Gonzaga University ran a great story on the tip in this past March, as Gonzaga finally returned to the Elite 8. And they should, spoils to the victor and all.

Most folks- Gators included- don’t remember how close Eddie Shannon’s contested game winning jumper was to going on. And they probably don’t remember Shannon lying prostrate on the Phoenix floor.

Donovan remembered. In fact, that game, and the loss to Manhattan, were two of four games Donovan would mention in 2006, in the aftermath of winning his first national championship.  The question posed was whether Donovan felt a championship defined him, or relieved pressure. Donovan’s answer, long and thoughtful, is worth a reprint.

“Well, I think the questions and the pressures come from you guys. The biggest thing that I have to be able to do is be at peace with myself. Does that mean next year all of a sudden I say, you know what, I won a national championship, therefore I can just coast through it? You know what, I’ll have a team in front of me next year that deserves my best and deserves the same thing.


So I don’t look at it as, you know what, it’s — like I said, I’ve been through some very, very difficult losses in this tournament over the years and been through some unbelievable wins. I mean, I was on the bench at the Kentucky game; we lost to Duke at the buzzer. I was on the bench as a head coach against Gonzaga when Casey Calvary tipped one in that eliminated us from going to the Elite 8.
I watched our team, you know, not come out prepared, whether it was my fault or all of our’s fault, we all take part in it, against the Manhattan team a couple years ago. That was very disappointing. 


But I think it’s all about what you’re trying to do in your life and how you feel about it. I don’t think I’ve been a person that’s tried to let other people define for me what it’s all about. Believe me, I’m very, very thankful. I could be sitting up here — UCLA is a great team. I could be sitting up here as the losing coach from Florida. I’m just not a big believer that this tournament “defines people, coaches, teams, individuals.” I’ll never believe that because too much can happen in a one-game situation. I think too much goes into it. We make too much out of it in terms of recognizing greatness. 


You know what, I’m not trying to go off on a tangent here, greatness to me is the way Dean Smith’s players talk about him. Greatness to me is the way John Wooden’s players talk about him. That’s greatness. ‘Cause you know what, tomorrow this is over. It’s over with. It’s on to the next thing. 


But when you affect people’s lives, that can carry on for generations and a lifetime. I’m more interested in trying to affect people’s lives in a positive way, taking what I’ve been through as a person and a player and maybe hand some things down. You know what, it’s not about me, it’s about what I can give.”

Shannon, now the Assistant Head Coach at Palm Beach Atlantic University, remains philosophical about the defeat. “We almost had the steal on the drive before the first shot,” Shannon remembers. “Then the Calvary tip- foul, no foul, no matter. He made a play. I had a chance and it’s an inch or two one way or the other between an Elite 8 and the end of a career.”

Shannon smiles when told Gonzaga has not made the Elite 8 since; Florida has advanced to that round seven times. (The Zags finally returned to the Elite 8 in 2015, under Mark Few, an assistant coach in 1999).

“As good as they’ve been?,” he asks.

“As good as they’ve been.”

‘Well we started something.  It’s an honor to know that,” Shannon says.

Shannon and Stolt, first of the Donovan era to understand process matters. They didn’t play in Elite 8 like seven Donovan teams did, but they understand the Donovan mantra that process, not championships, define people. Winning, never guaranteed, is a byproduct of process. That’s Billy Donovan basketball.

I keep thinking about the fact that Gonzaga, as good as they are and as good as they have been, have only seen one Elite 8 since Casey Calvary’s tip beat Florida in 1999.

I wonder if one Sweet 16 game in the past two decades of college basketball has ever been both a welcoming party for the winning team as a program and the losing team as a program.

For Billy Donovan’s Florida, it was the beginning.

Winning as a Byproduct of Process: An SEC Tournament Championship

Steeled by the Casey Calvary heartbreak and having tasted the rarefied air around the pinnacle in the Mateen Cleaves as Willis Reed national championship game a year later, Donovan’s star turn was meteoric.

A smarter, cooler head would have warned it wasn’t this easy. Couldn’t be. There was bound to be a cooling off period, a star-dimming.  If only there were more of those types around.

Following the loss to Michigan State in the 2000 Final, Donovan’s teams lost to Temple in the second round, Creighton and Kyle Korver in the first round, Michigan State in a brutally lopsided second round game in Tampa, no less, over the next three years.

And then came Raleigh, and Anthony Roberson’s “I don’t think Montana’s better than us” and Matt Walsh’s kung-fu foul down fifteen late.

Frustrated, wounded and awakened by the Manhattan embarrassment and four years of early exits, Billy Donovan set out to redefine what Florida basketball was about.

Florida would be tougher, which failed them against John Cheney and Temple and against Tom Izzo’s medium on talent and massive on toughness Michigan State.

Florida would rebound better, which haunted them against Temple and again against shorter and less athletic Manhattan.

Florida would get defensive stops when it desperately needed defensive stops, which cost them against Creighton despite an otherworldly performance from a brilliant, grizzled Udonis Haslem.

Florida would develop answers beyond its primary scorers, which sank the team during the Walsh-Roberson years, and crushed the team against Manhattan.

To implement these changes, Donovan looked outside the Pitino coaching circles he’d grown familiar with for the first time in his career. Larry Shyatt arrived from Clemson, to give the staff a “defensive-minded coach” who had seen the rugged battles of the physical ACC and understood the value of stops. In this vein, Donovan also began emphasizing higher level statistical metrics, like defensive efficiency and points per possession, common refrains in basketball circles now but very much statistical toddlers a decade ago.

Further, Donovan altered recruiting processes, emphasizing need-based recruiting over superstar-based recruiting and making recruiting trips more joint venture than isolated coach on player. It was these types of trips, with multiple assistants visiting, that unearthed a lanky and thin prospect with a heap of energy and passion named Joakim Noah.

Tom Ostrom, in many ways a classic Donovan assistant, having been promoted from video coordinator to fulltime assistant coach, traveled with Donovan to see an AAU competition and a camp sponsored by legendary prep coach Sonny Vaccaro. At the camp, the two observed Noah.

Donovan left after a day, impressed in his energy and defense, with the directive that Ostrom keep an eye on him, since he was staying for the remainder of the camp. By the end of the camp, Ostrom was convinced they had unearthed a late-blooming gem and Florida began recruiting Noah in earnest. At that point in time, the only other Division I team showing interest was Virginia. And by the time Georgetown, and eventually Duke became interested, toward the end of Noah’s final year of prep school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, Florida was too far ahead.

Noah joined a recruiting class that featured only one McDonald’s All-American (down from the two or so the early Donovan years seemed to reel in with regularity), and that player was a defensive specialist with little offensive polish, Corey Brewer. The other two pieces were the sons of NBA players who met the longstanding Billy Donovan “gym rat” requirement, Taurean Green of Fort Lauderdale and Al Horford, of Puerto Rico and Michigan.

It wasn’t the most highly touted group: FSU’s class under Leonard Hamilton of Ralph Mims, Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich was just below the Gators in the top 20- that group spent three Marches in the NIT. But it was a group Donovan knew well by the time he’d finished recruiting it. And he was content enough with it that after the Manhattan loss, he didn’t immediately take a late run at anyone else.

Of the four, Horford was the most polished, which addressed an immediate deficiency underneath. Brewer gave the team a sound perimeter defender for the first time since Brett Nelson and Justin Hamilton left campus. Green offered decent minutes as a backup point guard. Noah offered cheerleading and student section applause for his passion.

All impressed Donovan.

“These freshmen are not of the mind-set that `I’m not getting enough minutes; I’m not getting enough shots.’ “Donovan told the Orlando Sentinel in February 2005.”They want to get better. They want to learn. These days, that sort of attitude is a rarity.”
Stranger still, Donovan began talking about defense and rebounding in postgame press conferences. Florida won games where Walsh and Roberson missed shots because they rebounded. The team finished second in the SEC but won the SEC Tournament for the first time in school history, crushing top-seeded Kentucky 70-53 in the final.

The Gators earned a four seed in the NCAA tournament, and after surviving a tough game with under seeded Ohio, fell in a highly competitive duel with Villanova, who was, in the words of Dick Vitale, “the only team in America hotter than Florida, baby” when the 2005 tournament began.

Still, with Matt Walsh, David Lee and Anthony Roberson gone, and a relatively unheralded (by Donovan standards) recruiting class on the way in, there were questions about how sustainable the Gators success late in 2005 would be as the team entered the 2005-06 season.

A Thin Line between Casey Calvary and Corey Brewer

Four schools have won back-to-back national championships since college basketball became fully integrated in 1961. Cincinnati under Ed Jucker, UCLA under John Wooden, Duke under Mike Krzyzewski, and Billy Donovan’s Florida Gators in 2006 and 2007. Every other school is trying and has not.

The story of how is best told in dance form…

 

with one sojourn about Corey Brewer’s shot that (somehow) went in and beat Georgetown in the 2006 Sweet 16…

Because Billy Donovan has looked back and wondered on at least two occasions since “What if that didn’t go in?” And he’s wondered that simply to illustrate his long-held belief that championships don’t define people, and they certainly don’t define coaching tenures.

“There’s not much of a line between Casey Calvary and Corey’s shot against Georgetown,” Matt McCall suggested this spring. “In both instances, there was basketball left. In both instances, the other team had a good look,” said McCall.

What’s more, in Brewer’s case, the line between hero and goat was slight. Two slips on the Minneapolis floor, really.

On the game winner, Brewer grabbed an offensive rebound, fought through a hand check and fell, appearing to slip before launching an off-balance, falling away shot at the rim. By the time it went in and a whistle sounded signaling a foul, Brewer was six or seven feet from where he’d shot the ball, still on the floor.

After completing the three point play, Georgetown worked the ball quickly to Darrel Owens, traditionally an excellent jump shooter. Owens put a little ball fake on Brewer, who atypically bit, then slipped and fell down to the floor, leaving Owens with a wide open look at a potentially game-winning jump shot. It rimmed out, and Florida held on, 57-53.

The truth is, winning can be a byproduct of process, and process matters.

But so does luck, or at the least, so does chance.

Donovan celebrating another Final Four last March.
Donovan celebrating another Final Four last March.

Live In the Moment

And one sojourn about Florida getting manhandled by an angry and on the bubble LSU team before losing at Tennessee and an angry and sweaty but bubbly Bruce Pearl in the same week in February 2007…

Florida was bad at beating NIT Florida State teams during the championship seasons because- sports- and lost what essentially was a road game against Kansas in Las Vegas, played the evening Florida beat Florida State 21-14 in football in Tallahassee and played with at least two Gator players hampered with mononucleosis.

Beyond that, the “We back” incarnation of the Gators won 24 games heading into the final week of February in 2007, an odd week that featured back-to-back road contests against likely NCAA Tournament teams.

There was an odd mood around the UF camp at the time: some ethereal combination of angst, fatigue, anticipation and impatience. A combination of “Let’s play the tournament already” and “no one, even Coach Donovan, knew how hard this repeat would be.”

One thing that certainly happened in the Donovan era was Florida became “Kentucky B” for every program it visited on the road. The Gators were greeted with filled arenas, raucous student sections, and teams playing above themselves. Winning conference road games in college basketball is already one of the tougher things in sports. What makes the Kentucky’s and Kansas’s and Duke’s of the world remarkable is that they do it consistently anyway.

Under Billy Donovan, Florida received each team’s best shot, and with the nationwide perception of Joakim Noah as villain (Kentucky Sports Radio’s Matt Jones called Noah the “ugliest, most annoying player in basketball history, period”, a jade-colored sad man of a sentiment shared around the conference) and the just gone but not forgotten chicanery before Noah of Matt Walsh, the floppy haired scorer with the Playmate model girlfriend, the Gators had enough villains for opponents to fixate on, even before they won the 2006 National Championship.

Defending the title raised the bar, and the toll began to show in late February. The Gators lost at Memorial Gym in a game they didn’t really compete in. They fell behind early at a bubbly LSU team trying to avoid missing the dance after a Final Four and lost again.

They then traveled to Knoxville for a midweek ESPN game, with Bruce Pearl donning the orange jacket and Pat Summit dressed as a cheerleader. The Tennessee student section was full-throat two hours before tip, with Joakim Noah recalling later “They were the least nice people in a season of not nice people.” Florida was down 19 by halftime and trailed by as many as 25 in the second half, behind an avalanche of senior night emotion, sweltering Tennessee defense, Bruce Pearl scowls and Chris Lofton jump shots. Florida had, by game’s end, lost by ten, handing Bruce Pearl his third victory over Florida’s champions in two years.

While many wrote off the losing skid as nothing significant, noting that the Gators had a similar February swoon the year prior before winning ten in a row to take the championship, Donovan knew better. He knew the weight of expectation and the constant participation in every team’s championship night in, night out, had worn on his players.

Donovan talked about effort, fatigue in commitment after the game. He talked about living in the moment, a mantra of the championship teams that demanded what it sounds like it demanded, that the players focus on one practice and one day and one game at a time, understanding that there will be adversity and challenges but knowing that with their brother next to them, they would be manageable.

But what he did after that displayed the humility of a coach without the championships, a coach still very much trying to better himself to make himself a better leader of men.

Donovan called Sidney Green, Taurean’s NBA father who had starred at UNLV and, at the time, was a Division I head coach. Donovan thought the situation could use a new set of eyes and a different set of lips. Taurean recalled how Sidney Green’s talk rejuvenated the team five years later, speaking with Adam Silverstein of Only Gators.

“He came down and just talked to us and said, ‘Man, you guys are playing tight. You aren’t playing loose. It looks like guys are not having fun out there like you usually do.’ We watched film – two games. It showed on film; we were playing tight, not playing loose. It was good to see that on film. That was good for us. We just got back, Coach Donovan gave that edge back to us, helped us be aggressive. Coming down to the SEC Tournament, we turned it up. That win at Kentucky – that last regular season game – was kind of a momentum shifter for us.”

Plenty of coaches, no matter the pedigree of the player’s father- and remember Donovan had to navigate the potential distractions of athlete fathers Yannick Noah, Tito Horford and Sidney Green in those years, and did so, with their help—wouldn’t want another coach addressing their team in a crisis of confidence.

Donovan had the vision and foresight and humility to recognize the net benefit.

Humility in the moment. That’s Billy Donovan. And over the next two (NIT) seasons, as the Gators struggled to replace the irreplaceable 04’s and battled entitlement issues so deeply entrenched they forced facility lock outs, Donovan would need every ounce of humility he had.

Once again, he’d shave to rebuild Florida basketball from the ground up.

The Donovan Revolution: 3.0: This is What It Means to Be Elite

Whether Donovan’s name ends up on Florida’s court someday we’ll know soon enough (It should, of course.) What is certain is that Billy Donovan will end up in the Hall of Fame, and when he is enshrined, the first accomplishment likely mentioned will be his back-to-back national championships.

In many ways, what he accomplished after that is more impressive.

After taking the Orlando Magic job then deciding against it and coming back, Donovan, slapped with a five year NBA ban, set about another reshape and rebuild, the two NIT seasons fertile fodder for any player interested in joining the program, both from a “help now” perspective and a “see what happens at Florida if you aren’t bought in” perspective.

Starting with the recruiting class of Kenny Boynton, a streaky shooting, tenacious defending, hard-working and kind McDonald’s All-American from Pompano Beach who from day one looked more like a four year player than a high school All-America, Donovan built the program around coachable kids who loved to play basketball and insisted on playing defense.  The other piece of that class, Erik Murphy, was a remnant of the old Billy-ball: a pick and popper Bonnerish from the perimeter and (hardly possible!) defiantly worse than Bonnerish on the defensive end.

That foundation, along with now eligible Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin, joined what to that point had been a ragged band of misfits on campus and began the process of winning again, first falling in a thrilling opening round game to Jimmer Fredette and BYU in the 2010 NCAA Tournament but utilizing that season and the experience of winning again to win the Donovan’s fourth regular season SEC title in 2010-11.

Remarkably, Donovan won his first SEC Coach of the Year award, only to suggest his former assistant Anthony Grant deserved to win and deflect the praise to his players. Humble to a fault?

More rewarding?

The growth of the misfits, including Chandler Parsons, who went from a player many recruiting analysts felt Florida only offered a scholarship to out of high school to ensure that Nick Calathes, a teammate, chose the Gators too, to a mismatch nightmare with his sharp shooting, good handles and ability to get in the lane. Parsons became the first player under Donovan to win SEC Player of the Year that March, besting Kentucky’s latest wunderkind, Brandon Knight, who chose the lavish spoils and embrace of John Calipari over the Gators despite being a Florida lean for years.

Donovan talked to Howard Megdal of Sports on Earth about the third Donovan revolution two Decembers ago, shortly after another group of talented Gators had rolled a good Memphis team in the Coaches vs. Cancer classic. This excerpt is illuminating:

“I think it’s been twice, inside this program, where we’ve had to start over,” Donovan told me as we chatted in a corridor just beyond the press conference room Tuesday night. “And that’s the hardest thing to do. You know, when I first got here, there were two losing seasons before I got here. There were two with me here. So it’s four straight losing seasons for the program. So then we kind of, got to the national championship game, got to the Sweet 16, we won a couple titles,” Donovan listed the résumé of a Hall of Fame coach, almost parenthetically, like it’s a grocery list, “And then we lose all those guys. And then we’ve got to start over. We’re at the ground floor. And we go to two NITs.

“So it wasn’t really about, for me, the starting over part, although that’s hard to swallow, because you work so hard to get to that point. But it’s also been very, very rewarding, starting over again at the ground floor. Not that you’re gonna win a national championship every year, but you know what? The last three years, we’ve given ourselves a chance. We’ve given ourselves a chance to get to the national championship game, to play in the Final Four. We’ve been right there.”

Of course, heartbreak upon heartbreak also followed this time. The 2010-11 team blew a late lead against Brad Stevens and Butler in the Elite 8 and lost a trip to the Final Four in overtime.

The 2011-12 team, led by Boynton, Murphy, Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario and the rare Donovan one and done, Bradley Beal, finished second in the SEC behind Anthony Davis and Kentucky, playing the to that point once beaten Cats to one possession in the SEC Tournament before advancing to the Elite 8 again, this time to face Donovan mentor Rick Pitino and Louisville.

Behind Erik Murphy and Bradley Beal, the Gators stormed to a halftime lead, making eight of eleven three pointers in the first half. The shots stopped falling in the second half when Louisville extended their defense, and the Gators guards, brilliant often during the season, missed multiple chances to tie and take the lead in the game’s final minute.

Another Elite 8, another lead late, another loss. It’s folksy and arrogant all at once when the Kentucky fans tell you “They only hang Final Four banners in Lexington.” Maybe. But you have to play in Elite 8s to hang Final Four banners. Many programs wait years or decades for Elite 8’s. Especially in the football first basketball enclaves in the SEC.

Ask Missouri, whose 25 trips to the NCAA Tournament include four Elite 8’s, most recently in 2009, but zero Final Fours. Ask Alabama. Twenty NCAA Tournaments. One Elite 8- and the coach that accomplished that, Mark Gottfried, was fired for not being Wimp Sanderson, who wore houndstooth but never sniffed the Final Four. Ask Tennessee, whose 20 trips to the NCAA Tournament have resulted in plenty of SEC Network chit chat but exactly one Elite Eight, under Bruce Pearl, in 2010. Ask Vanderbilt, whose 13 NCAA appearances have featured one Elite 8, in 1965. Ask Mississippi State, who made the Final Four in 1996, and haven’t played in an Elite 8 since. Ask Georgia, who went to the Final Four in 1983, and hasn’t seen an Elite 8 since. (What is it about the early 80’s and never again for the University of Georgia?) Ask Arkansas, whose six Final Fours are second-best in the SEC behind you know who but who have played in zero Elite 8 contests since losing the 1995 National Championship Game to Ed Bannon and UCLA.  Ask Ole Miss, with its one Sweet 16 appearance. You get the idea.

After the Louisville loss, Billy Donovan was immediately concerned with the hurt his players were feeling, speaking with CBS. “When you put your heart and soul into something and don’t get the result you want, it hurts. That’s in life, too.”

Inside the locker room, the Gators, in hushed, saddened whispers, reflected on what might have been. GatorZone’s Chris Harry spoke to Erik Murphy:

“A lot of players don’t get this chance in their entire lives,” Murphy said, barely audible. “We got it two years in a row … and the same thing happened.”

Erving Walker, the Lilliputian senior point guard who had put his body on the line throughout the season and NCAA tournament, and who had taken more heat from Billy Donovan during his career than most players could bear, was through tears, thankful. He spoke not of another brutally close call, but of his time with Donovan:

“He (Donovan) means a lot. A great male figure in my life. He helped me in so many ways as an athlete,” said Walker, clutching a yellow towel, his voice catching, “and just as a person.”

Through the words of a tearful Walker, Donovan’s comments, six years earlier in the aftermath of his first national title, about championships not defining teams and process defining people had come full circle. The 2011-12 Gators didn’t reach the Final Four. Yet here was a player, Erving Walker, who had missed his final five shots- all big looks- and could walk off the court thinking about what he’d accomplished with his coach.

Greatness isn’t always tied to championships, particularly in coaching. Not to Donovan at least. Greatness is tied to the way your players talk about you. Especially when they lose.

The “Oh Tens” As A Celebration of Players

Remarkably, Florida, again SEC regular season champions, would lose once more in the Elite 8, this time in convincing fashion, to Michigan and Trey Burke in 2012-13.

That left Florida’s 2010 recruiting class of Will Yeguete, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather (Cody Larson transferred early in his career but was also in that class) with more trips to the Elite 8 in their careers than more than half the programs in the SEC had in their history, but zero trips to the Final Four.

Donovan sensed the wounds from those “failures” would make this season different. But the team had arrived in shambles in August, with Scottie Wilbekin suspended (again), highly regarded freshman Chris Walker academically ineligible and questions persisting about where the scoring would come from. There was genuine concern in the camp that the team’s tough early season schedule, which included games at Wisconsin, at home against Andrew Wiggins and Kansas, Memphis in New York City and a trip to Connecticut, would prove too daunting until Donovan had the full team together. He told Howard Megdal:

“I don’t get a sense from them like it’s ‘we want more,'” Donovan explained. “Like I said earlier, I think they’re smart enough to know that this is an entirely different year. And that, although they went to three Elite Eights, it’s not like, OK, we’re just gonna get back there again. I think that they understand, they’ve been scarred enough, they’ve been wounded enough through competition, that I don’t get that sense from them.”

The battle wounds proved to be more than enough preparation.

With Wilbekin out, Casey Prather played at a level the team had not yet seen, becoming a midseason Wooden Finalist by finally adhering his coach’s calls to “play within himself.” In a program with a history full of object lessons about Billy Donovan’s ability to develop and get the most out of a player’s talent, Casey Prather sits at the head of the class.

Patric Young, the team’s vocal and emotional leader, completed his four year transformation from physical specimen deemed a lottery pick because of muscles to ferocious defensive basketball player who helped Florida finish #1 in the Ken Pomeroy adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. Quite simply, you weren’t scoring too much against the Gators, not with Young manning the post.

The Gators beat Kansas 67-61 in a game not nearly that close by playing through Prather and celebrating the return of Scottie Wilbekin, the Gainesville native who entered college a year early and years lacking in maturity.

If Prather is Donovan’s grandest object lesson (along with Chandler Parsons) in player development, Scottie Wilbekin is his greatest object lesson in personal accomplishment. Wilbekin took Donovan’s five game punishment, which followed a brutal off-season regiment, with maturity and grace when it would have been far easier, as Donovan himself pointed out on multiple occasions, to transfer. When he returned, he handed in a season for the ages, showing off-court improvement had been coupled with off-season on-court improvement. Wilbekin posted career bests in scoring, field goal and three point percentages, steals and assists to turnover ratio en route to winning SEC Player of the Year.

The Gators lost twice in the non-conference: at Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin without Wilbekin, by six points in a game they could have tied twice after the final media timeout, and at Connecticut in a game they led most the night on a Shabazz Napier buzzer beater. In that game, Florida had actually gotten the first defensive stop (remember Donovan revolution, part 2?) but a weird deflection gave Napier another shot, which he hit.

Still, as Florida entered conference play, Donovan wondered if his group would get complacent, given the laser focus on finishing the Final Four goal this time around. The grind of conference play doesn’t permit nights off, no matter a team’s long term goals.

“I think one of the things we’ve had to battle — when you’re a senior, there’s monotony sometimes, with practice. There’s no more new drills. I may come up with some new ideas, or some different things, but the bottom line is, we’ve gotta play defense. They’ve got to guard pick-and-rolls every single day. There’s things they’ve got to do that are tedious. And can you crank yourself up every single day, to really start all over, at the ground floor, and start the process over, every single day?”

That’s a quote without much subtext: Donovan wants to know who will do the little and often tedious things that, to use his phrase, “impact winning.”

What’s masterful, of course, is that Donovan can make it seem like being a senior is a reason the tedious things become mundane, monotonous. Veterans are battle-tested and possibly complacent, all at once. Donovan as master motivator.

The refrain applies to freshmen and young teams as well of course, and was a familiar Donovan salvo during his final season in Gainesville, the first to end with more losses than wins since year two. ‘Who will impact winning?” “Who understands what goes into winning?”

On the 2013-14 Gators, perhaps no player understood what goes into winning, at least as that is a Billy Donovan construct, as much as Will Yeguete.   Yeguete was Florida’s motor and to some extent, its heartbeat. Yeguete’s defense had long been  been appreciated by Gators fans, but it is how his length and athleticism affect spacing and allowed Florida to press and trap that made him so critical to the Gators’ success.

Yeguete’s absence was most felt in this regard when he missed the 2012 NCAA Tournament, and Florida fell short in the final minutes against Louisville largely because they simply lacked enough inside to keep Louisville off the glass and honest in the paint. With Yeguete, Florida probably heads to the Final Four and brings a blossoming Brad Beal with it– a house money proposition for a team that Kentucky would have had to defeat a fourth time to win a championship. Without him, they fell 4 points short.

Yeguete’s ability to understand and impact winning with defense and rebounding and effort earned him “All Glue” acclaim, first in 2012 from Jon Rothstein, later from Tom Kensler and the AP in 2014. That’s a testament to how long he was the consummate Donovan player.

It’s a testament to the 2013-14 team that they had an All-Glue guy like Yeguete and a player in Patric Young who Seth Davis named captain of his “All-Glue Team” in 2014.  It took Young, burdened by McDonald’s All-American and lottery projection expectation and the attendant ego that accompanies it, longer to become glue. That he did is a credit to Donovan, of course, though the smile from Billy Donovan on Patric Young’s senior day handed the credit directly to Young.

Young and Yeguete were the latest in a long line of Donovan student athletes who excelled off the basketball court and on it, ambassadors of a program that churned out leaders of men as efficiently as it turned out professionals. The list is long: beginning with Stolt and Shannon, including Academic All-Americans turned NBA Champions like Matt Bonner and dynamic young coaching prospects like former All-SEC guard Brett Nelson. There are more, and their individual stories are countless, from the long and winding redemption of a player Donovan dismissed, Teddy Dupay to the student manager turned Captain Jake Kurtz, the lone consistent leader on Donovan’s final Gator team.

I think the continued development of these types of young men is what Jeremy Foley had in mind when he praised Donovan’s “personal and professional excellence” in the aftermath of Donovan’s taking the Thunder job.

With players like Pat Young and Will Yeguete to lead them, the 2013-14 Gators won thirty consecutive games, becoming the first team in SEC history to go 21-0 in SEC play end route to the Final Four. They lost three times, all to Final Four teams, twice to the eventual national champion, Connecticut. They defeated Kentucky, a team with multiple lottery picks, three times. They achieved this without a single player who would go on to be drafted by the NBA.

For all the talk about Kentucky’s 2014-15 season—and 38-1 is indeed remarkable- Kentucky and John Calipari achieved those things with seven, perhaps eight, NBA players. Managing those egos isn’t trivial, but Billy Donovan reached the same round of the NCAA Tournament and was the first to accomplish 21-0 perfection in SEC league play, with a team without a single NBA player. This is more remarkable. This is why Donovan, even in a Calipari at UK SEC, won three of the last six conference titles.

Donovan’s last conference champion won thirty consecutive games because they had Billy Donovan and the humility to understand that. Without ego, they understood what was necessary to win.

Four plays exemplified this, and how process shaped and defined that team.

The first came from Patric Young at Tennessee. Late in the game with the Vols hanging around and the crowd still very much involved in proceedings, Young laid out for a rebound where two Vols had advantageous rebounding positions:

young

It was the consummate hustle play, and helped Florida head to Rupp Arena without a defeat shortly thereafter. It was also used by UK’s John Calipari, who called playing that Gators team “a privilege,” to motivate his young team and show them what type of effort goes into winning.

The second came from Casey Prather at Rupp Arena, with College Gameday watching. Prather scored 24 points (on nine shots!!) against the Wildcats on that February evening, but it was a hustle play that helped seal the game for Florida. Weathering one final UK run, Prather stole a rebound between three Kentucky players when the alternative would have been UK ball with a chance to make it again a one possession game. The photo is below.

The third came in the SEC Tournament Final, against Kentucky. Following what was dubbed a “tweak” by John Calipari; Kentucky arrived in Atlanta playing very much like a team that was ready to realize its vast potential. They would, but not in Atlanta, where they fell to Florida for the third time in the season. This time, it was Scottie Wilbekin with the hustle play, guarding and hassling Andrew Harrison until he dished to James Young.  Young curled and slipped, creating a loose ball situation. Wilbekin’s layout assured no one received another shot, and even if no one would have gotten one off for UK without a Wilbekin dive, it was appropriate to see a Billy Donovan SEC Player of the Year diving on the floor on the final sequence of a championship game.

The final play was mentioned in the opening paragraph, and for me, will forever be one of the most memorable plays in the Donovan era. The game hopelessly lost, Patric Young, diving for the ball, in the Final Four. The Matt Stamey photo below is exceptional not just for capturing Young’s effort in a game Florida could no longer win, but for capturing the faces of Prather and Yeguete, already on the bench, astonished and proud. The tears came later.

Team and plays that impact winning, even when they can't.
Team and plays that impact winning, even when they can’t.

Win and lose together. That’s Florida basketball under Billy Donovan.

The End: What It Was, and It What It Wasn’t

The preseason top ten ranking for the Gators in 2014-15 wasn’t ever realistic- not because the Gators would never get there but because they would never start the season there. The best perimeter defender on the club was lost before the season began to injury, and the leadership vacuum left in the absence of Wilbekin, Young, Yeguete and Prather was more cannon than fissure.

The team’s success would ride on the development of its two most highly-recruited players, Chris Walker and Kasey Hill, and the ability of the only other two players with meaningful experience, Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier II, to assume leadership roles.

What went wrong is rather simple: Hill struggled to take a meaningful developmental leap until late in the year and Walker played like a freshmen until the SEC Tournament. Frazier struggled without Wilbekin and the dribble-drive game of Prather, not getting open shots and too often missing when he did. He too would get hurt late in the year and closed his UF career a shadow of himself.

Finney-Smith was hurt in the season opener, and suspended later, a draconian ruling by Donovan that was, as if nineteen years had left any doubt, demonstrative of his commitment to process and integrity and developing men over all else. With Finney-Smith, the Gators almost certainly qualify for the NIT; without him for a handful of key SEC games, the Gators competed but lost often, and missed the postseason.

Combine the development issues with injuries and suspensions and throw in a merciless schedule and a handful of 1-2 point losses, and you get a team that was probably 20 wins type talent with 16 wins.

Of course, a losing season, even with Billy Donovan at the helm, begets overreaction. And so it was with sadness that these types of tweets were sent last week:

The notion that a program with five 20 win seasons and 1 Final Four before Donovan is somehow left “exactly how he found it” is ludicrous.

While the team isn’t perfect, the program is hardly broken.The talent returning is better than adequate, with Kasey Hill improving and Dorian Finney-Smith one of the league’s most talented players. The recruiting class is strong and appears, for the time being, to want to remain in Gainesville pending the hire. The basketball facility- though oddly located several blocks from the O’Connell Center- remains one of the best facilities in America, and is set for yet another upgrade. The O’Connell Center renovations, though reset, will begin in March 2016 and be done by conference play in the 2016-17 regular season.

The Gators program has plenty to sell, including the most program alums on NBA Playoff rosters (10) of any school, all of whom sell Florida basketball to anyone who’ll listen.

None of this discounts the importance of the hire for Jeremy Foley. The sentiment that a miss with his hire could end Florida basketball’s consistent prominence is, I think, accurate. But Foley has a great amount of money to play with (4 million was budgeted for Donovan alone over the next five years) and Foley is fiercely proud of the basketball culture and tradition that Donovan has built, recently referring to UF as a blueblood and “one of the nation’s elite programs” at a booster function. I think Foley will get the hire right because the job is attractive (Top 20, per Jay Bilas), the money is there and the truth is, he tends to get the hire right.

By and large, however, the sentiment surrounding Donovan’s departure has been one of gratitude, from Jeremy Foley’s “there is no better person than Billy Donovan” to countless fans and talk show callers. This is as it should be.

There will, however, be noise.

Some will suggest the facilities setback with the O’Connell Center; coupled with the 13 million dollars in buyouts football hire plus the immediate construction on UF’s Indoor Practice Facility upset Donovan and made it easier for him to leave. He was tired of football being first, the argument goes.

This argument is largely specious. Foley himself told basketball boosters in March that “the man in charge understands what is going on and knows we will always give him what he needs.” A contractor dispute is unfortunate, and the timing, given the losing season, was poor, but ultimately the relationship between Donovan and Foley is one of trust and there’s never been any reason to doubt that.

The football first argument is even weaker—Donovan has known that for two decades and his ability to embrace that culture has been a key factor in his success. He’s also always loved the idea of building his own legacy, which is part of the reason he’s turned down the Kentucky job twice, and an immense reason he returned to Gainesville after accepting the Magic job in 2007.

There is, I think, some truth to the idea that Billy Donovan was tired of recruiting, or, more accurately, was tired of recruiting and not landing elite talent consistently.

Despite his wild successes, Bradley Beal was Donovan’s only “one and done” player in the “one and done rule” era. Florida has lost out on others who were close, including Austin Rivers at Duke and Brandon Knight and Julius Randle at Kentucky. The Gators were also in on Ben Simmons of Montverde, traditionally a Gator pipeline, before losing him to LSU, and last year lost Grayson Allen, a Final four hero, from Pat Young’s Jacksonville Providence High School, to Duke. Donovan had the chance to coach this type of elite talent with USA Basketball in the summers, but it wasn’t translating to UF, and that was wearing on him, per multiple sources. I do think, in the end, that mattered to Donovan, especially when given what he called the “unique opportunity” to coach one of the world’s best three players in Kevin Durant, along with one of the world’s best ten players in Russell Westbrook, and a grown-up, actualized version of Chris Walker in Serge Ibaka.

Nonetheless, Donovan’s integrity, coupled with his relationship with Jeremy Foley and his sense of community in Gainesville, suggests he left UF because he felt a genuine desire to see if he could coach at the next level. The ultimate gym-rat and film-rat, Donovan was and is attracted by the 24/7 basketball nature of the NBA: no recruiting and booster obligations, constant contact, and the like. That appeal, and the chance to continue to grow and improve as a person- a constant Donovan refrain- were themes in the introductory press conference in Oklahoma City.
“I really feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to grow as a person, and really be challenged as a person in a lot of different ways,” Donovan said.

In the end, I think that’s what this was. A new challenge.

19 years ago, Donovan’s mentor Rick Pitino was one of those who told Billy never to take the Florida job. You can’t win there, Pitino told Billy.

Many of the early reactions on the Donovan hire by OKC reflect similar cynicism, a small majority asking the cliché questions about the transition from college to the NBA and the more cliché questions about the management of egos and coaching professionals, not amateurs.

Cynics love to attack the pure, to cast doubt on good. It’s been no different with Billy Donovan. The cynics said he couldn’t win at Florida; no one could win at Florida. Not in basketball. They were wrong. The cynics said Donovan’s up-tempo style was fun, but not championship basketball. They were right, but Donovan knew it too. So his teams learned how to defend and became more methodical, yet more efficient, offensively. The cynics said Donovan couldn’t rebuild after back to back titles. He rolled off four consecutive Elite 8’s and a Final Four. And now the cynics wonder if he can win at the next level. I’m less skeptical.

I’d take Billy Donovan in a Swamp against a brace of alligators.

I remember the cynicism at that Raleigh press conference in March 2004, following another early exit for Donovan’s Gators. I remember Bobby Gonzalez, Manhattan’s coach, not Billy Donovan, being the new hot coaching commodity in the game’s aftermath. Ask Seton Hall how that worked out. Further, ask anyone who ever worked for Gonzalez if they’d say “there is no better person than Bobby Gonzalez.”

Actually, don’t waste time on Bobby Gonzalez. He’ll always have that day in Raleigh, but history renders the rest of the judgment for you.

467 wins. 35 NCAA tournament wins. 4 Final Fours. 2 National Championships. More Elite 8s than all SEC programs combined save UK, LSU and Tennessee. A consummate gentleman and a peerless ambassador for the University of Florida.

There is no better person than Billy Donovan. Appreciate him.

6 thoughts on “Billy Donovan: An Appreciation

  1. I really needed to read something like this after seeing nothing but “Billy’s a traitor” all weekend. Well done.

  2. I was at that game in Raleigh, strangely enough. Incredible that you picked that day to center on for this article- and appropriately, too. I never thought I would see or hear about that day again because Billy’s best days and worst days (not that there are many of them but there are some) are what get talked about, while the middle sort of get squished and disappear. I enjoyed reading this.

    1. Thanks, really appreciate the kind words.

      I wasn’t at the Raleigh game, but did see Miller’s runner to beat Wake in person.What a day. And to think that was only the beginning.

  3. This was such a fun read for me! You know how much I love reading your articles. You always give me a different perspective and vision! I think Billy Donovan was the best hire for Florida maybe ever, most definitely for UF Basketball, and especially under Jeremy’s AD tenure. Thanks. Neil.

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