Jeremy Foley addressed the podium as he has done so many times in the past.
The task of being the athletic director at the University of Florida isn’t an easy one. There are times like March of 1996 — 19 years ago — where Foley stood in the exact same room on the periphery of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and announced that he had hired a baby faced, 30-year old coach with almost no head coaching experience.
It was a professional gamble, a gamble that many athletic directors have to make, but one that hardly ever pays off in the way that it did for Foley when he hired Billy Donovan.
Professionally, Donovan was one of Foley’s best hires at Florida. Donovan took over a program that, as he put it, had pockets of success but no consistency, and turned the Florida men’s basketball program into one of the premiere brands in college basketball.
Professionally, this was a home run, but the success on the court is not what makes saying goodbye hard.
Foley walked up to the podium and didn’t make it a full minute before emotion overcame him. Tears welling in his eyes, Foley looked down, choking back tears, trying to get through the press conference that he, somewhere in the back of his mind, always knew he would have to do but in his heart hoped he would never have to.
“What we really didn’t know 19 years ago was the type of person we were getting. One of the best, you know? Chip Howard told me the other day that he embodies everything that this athletic program wants to be in terms of class, quality, integrity,” Donovan said.
“He cared about people, he did things the right way. He lives his life the right way, and we love him. I’ll thank him for that forever. He’ll be our friend forever. Again, that is the part we didn’t know. My gosh, that’s what makes it so hard because basketball games come and go. Relationships like this are once in a generation.”
Billy spent 19 years in Gainesville. A young, 29-year old coach just beginning his journey in the profession, Donovan built a home with his wife Christine, raised four kids and became a fixture in the Gainesville community. He’s been more than just a basketball coach at the university. Billy Donovan will forever be the face of Florida basketball, and for that Gator fans and the people he worked with are grateful. Winning basketball games gained him national notoriety but it was the class, integrity and passion he brought to the community that Gainesville will miss.
“[I] Want to thank him for what he did in the university,” said Foley. But I want to thank him for his friendship more than anything else.”
This decision wasn’t easy. 19 years of memories and a life so intertwined with the community wasn’t easy to leave. When deciding to take the head-coaching job at Florida, Donovan was met with naysayers — some of them his closest friends and coaching mentors.
Florida was a football school. You can’t have a great football AND basketball program at the same school. You’ll always be second rate at Florida.
“I think, a stigma out there that you could not be successful in both. You had to be one or the other,” Donovan said. “You couldn’t have a good basketball and football program, and I think Jeremy will tell you I’ve always embraced football here. The one thing I’ve tried to do since I’ve been here is to integrate myself with the rest of the coaches.”
The past 19 years have demolished any stigma that you can’t be successful on both the gridiron and hardwood. But at 29-years old, Donovan needed to be sold on that very idea. Foley laid out a plan, his vision for what the program could be and his confidence that Donovan was the man to take it there.
Foley sold him a vision of building something new, taking a program to new heights and, ultimately, that same vision is what led Donovan away from Florida.
“What made [Oklahoma City] for me unique was the vision that they have for their organization, the kind of players they’re trying to bring in, the kind of environment they’re trying to create, the commitment they’re trying to make, how they want to do things,” Donovan said. “I think everything that was important to me in making a decision like that, I felt very, very aligned with and felt very, very comfortable, and really had a strong belief in what Sam had talked to me about.
“I think the vision really resonated with me when I went there, and really believed in the direction that they want to go.”
Donovan answered questions from Gainesville media — some who have covered his entire career in Gainesville. Donovan is unique in the way that he can make you feel like you’re the only person in a room when he’s talking to you.
He didn’t need to meet with the media but said he couldn’t imagine leaving Gainesville without having the opportunity to speak to and say goodbye to not just the people who work at the University of Florida but the media as well.
How about that?
A Hall of Fame coach with more than 500 wins couldn’t imagine leaving without getting an opportunity to say goodbye to the media?
That’s just the kind of person that Billy Donovan is.
Donovan has reached out and offered to assist Foley and his staff in any way they see fit to replace him. Donovan has created a brand at the University of Florida and made the job a much better position than the one he accepted almost two decades ago but there is no replacing Billy Donovan.
Wins come and go. Losses will happen and Florida will win more championships in basketball eventually.
You can replace a coach.
You can’t replace Billy Donovan.