Mysteries of life

Billy Donovan has never been selected the Coach of the Year for the Southeastern Conference. There are greater mysteries in life — the man on the grassy knoll comes to mind; what Bill Peterson meant when he said “You guys line up alphabetically by height” is another — but if we narrow the field to Southeastern Conference basketball, you would be hard pressed to find something more unexplainable.

Take last year for example.

In 2007, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings was selected SEC Coach of the Year. Now, this isn’t a rip on Stallings — he actually is a very good coach — but someone please tell me how going 20-10 in the regular season and 10-6 in the SEC is better than Billy Donovan’s 26-5 regular season that included a 13-3 SEC mark that was good for the outright SEC championship? We could also talk about how Vandy’s Derrick Byars was selected the SEC Player of the Year over more deserving candidates such as Al Horford or Corey Brewer or how it is that Taurean Green only made second team All-SEC, but that’s another story altogether.

Oh, I know how it goes. Someone out there will say that Billy Donovan had all the horses. He should have won the SEC last year with all five starters back from the 2006 national championship and poor ole Kevvy won 20 games with Vandy, where the girls may be ugly but they did score high on their SAT and professors wear bow ties when they debate the universal question of why is there air?

Answer: There is air to blow up footballs and basketball and volleyballs among other things. Even the folks at Alabama and Mississippi State and the other nine state-run institutions in the SEC know that. They don’t have volleyball at Vandy and everybody knows about the football team. Basketball is their one hope of athletic glory and by golly they won 20 games! So give that trophy to Kevin Stallings!

Yeah, right.

The only problem with that theory is that Kevin Stallings didn’t deserve to win Coach of the Year in 2007. Billy Donovan did.

The 20 wins during the regular season at Vandy really wasn’t all that impressive. Everybody figured the Commodores would win 17 or 18 games, which they seem to do every year in putting together the kind of numbers that make them irresistible to the NIT so two or three more wins wasn’t that great an accomplishment. Nice? Yes. Great? No.

For those that might think what Billy Donovan did wasn’t a great accomplishment consider this. Other than UCLA’s marvelous run of seven NCAA championships in a row (1967-73), winning two straight NCAA titles has been done six times in history — Oklahoma A&M (1945-46), Kentucky (1948-49), San Francisco (1955-56), Cincinnati (1961-62), UCLA (1964-65) and Duke (1991-92).

Think about this for a second. Bobby Knight never won two NCAAs in a row. Dean Smith didn’t either. Those are the numbers one and two coaches in history when it comes to Division I basketball wins and they have five NCAA titles between them. Adolph Rupp only pulled off a repeat national title once in his illustrious coaching career at Kentucky. Coach K has done it exactly one time in his tenure at Duke.

Here’s a dose of reality. Winning the second one is tougher than winning the first one. The coaching job required to get the second straight national title is monumental because you’ve got this huge target on your chest and every single game you play on the road is a storm the court game for opposing fans.

Billy Donovan won two NCAA championships in a row. Nobody expected the one in 2006 but the Gators were heavy favorites to make it two in a row last year which meant the pressure was on them from day one until that first Monday night in April in Atlanta when they completed their second straight 9-0 run through the postseason.

Now SEC Coach of the Year is not about winning the NCAA but the Gators were the national champs and they marched through the SEC with the best record, winning the league by three full games. To go 13-3 in a league the year after the league put two teams in the Final Four is a tremendous accomplishment and it’s not like the SEC is some slouch of a league. Winning the regular season league championship is so difficult that the SEC awards its championship trophy to the team that wins the regular season title and not the winner of the SEC Tournament.

But last year, the SEC Coach of the Year was Kevin Stallings, a good coach for sure but certainly not in Billy Donovan’s league and the proof was in the accomplishments.

Here are a couple other Donovan accomplishments to chew on.

Billy Donovan has won 20 or more games at Florida nine straight years. Rupp, who won more than 876 games at Kentucky back when Kentucky was the only school in the SEC that took basketball seriously. The best Rupp did was seven straight 20-win seasons.

Only Tubby Smith has a string of 20-or more wins that is longer than Billy Donovan. Tubby did 10 straight at Kentucky and with two more wins, Billy will tie the record for most consecutive 20-win seasons at one school. Tubby also holds the all-time record in the SEC of 12 consecutive 20-win seasons when you add in those two years at Georgia. Considering who the Gators have recruited, that record will be tied in 2010 and broken in 2011.

In the past 100 games, Billy Donovan is 86-14. Only Kentucky has ever had a better run among SEC teams.

Donovan has nine consecutive NCAA Tournament bids, a national runner-up and two national championships on his resume. Before he got to Florida, the Gators had been to the Big Dance exactly four times.

And yet Donovan has never won the SEC Coach of the Year. Maybe it changes this year.

This year there won’t be the excuse that the Gators are loaded. All five starters from those two national championship teams and the SEC’s sixth man of the year are playing for pay these days. That means the Gators are playing with a bunch of fuzzy faced kids — okay I can’t explain Lt. Dan who has a three-day growth of beard within 30 minutes of shaving — and only Walter Hodge (11 starts to his credit previously) had ever started a game at the college level.

Florida is 18-3 and 5-1 in the SEC. Two more wins and Billy ties Tubby for most consecutive 20-win seasons at one school. Three more wins and possibly a fourth will mean ten straight NCAA bids.

Now I know what Bruce Pearl is doing at Tennessee and he’s a great coach. I know that Kevin Stallings is doing a great job at Vandy and I know that Andy Kennedy will have Ole Miss in the NCAAs again this year — and we could even argue that he could have been the Coach of the Year last year when he won 21 games at Ole Miss with a team that was picked dead last in the West when the season began — but it’s hard to argue that any coach has done a better job this year than the one Billy Donovan has done with the Gators.

As young as the Gators are, they are good and getting better by the game. Just ask if Vandy got the license plate of the truck that ran over them Sunday at the O-Dome if you don’t believe that. The Gators have shown they can win on the road and they’ve shown that they can come from behind.

You can’t get five freshmen, three sophomores and one junior to play this well unless you’re doing one heckuva coaching job. Some might even argue that this coaching job ranks right up there with the ones he did in 2000 when the Gators made it to the NCAA title game or in 2006 and 2007 when they won it all.

It is a coaching job that deserves recognition. It is a coaching job that should put an end to one of life’s great mysteries, SEC basketball style. We know who shot J.R. so that’s not a mystery anymore. Billy Donovan, SEC Coach of the Year, shouldn’t be a mystery either. Not after the job he’s done this year.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.