When he arrived at the University of Florida, just a few years removed from an All-American senior year at Providence where he took the Friars on his back and led them to an unlikely trip to the Final Four, Billy Donovan didn’t look much older than the kids he inherited from Lon Kruger. Just two years prior to his departure for what he perceived to be the greener pastures of Illinois, Kruger had taken the Gators on a magical mystery tour to the Final Four in what was until that point in time the greatest season in Florida basketball history. Donovan was walking into a difficult situation. Kruger, a veteran coach who had taken Kansas State to the NCAA Tournament four straight years prior to taking the Florida job, departed Gainesville with words to the effect that it was impossible to sustain basketball success at UF because kids like Vince Carter of Daytona Beach (signed with North Carolina) would never choose to be Gators. Donovan was just young enough and just cocky enough to think Kruger was wrong although you wouldn’t know it by his plan to turn things around.
“You hear people talk about five-year plans and 10-year plans and things like that,” Donovan said Wednesday night before speaking at the Augie Greiner Ocala Tipoff Club’s annual scholarship banquet. “We came here with a one-year plan to work as hard as we could starting with developing the guys who were already here in our program. We didn’t have any kind of long-range plan. We just knew we had to do a good job of recruiting and work harder than everybody else.”
Now in the 18th year of that one-year plan to succeed, Donovan is on a collision course with the Basketball Hall of Fame. In his 17 previous seasons at Florida, he has a 415-166 record with two national championships (2006-07), three trips to the Final Four (2000, 2006-07), three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight (2011-13) and five Southeastern Conference championships (2000-01, 2007, 2011, 2013) to his credit. Donovan-coached teams have won 32.1% of the 1,294 games the Gators have won in school history. To put it in perspective, in 77 seasons prior to Donovan, the Gators were 879-874, an average of 11.41 wins and 11.35 losses per season. Under Donovan, the Gators have averaged 24.41 wins and 9.76 losses.
Take away those first two years (27-32 record) when he was putting in his own foundation after the Kruger departure and Donovan’s numbers are even more impressive: an average of 25.86 wins and just 7.88 losses per year. The Gators have won at least 20 games in each of the past 15 years and they’ve made it to the NCAA Tournament 13 times. Prior to Donovan, Florida had five 20-win seasons in history and only five NCAA Tournament appearances.
Florida has gone from a program that caused Kruger to throw up his hands and walk away into one of the truly elite programs in the nation, all on Donovan’s watch. As the Gators prepare to tip off his 18th season at the helm on November 8, there are high expectations. The talent and depth is there to take the Gators back to the Final Four for the first time since the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.
It’s a far cry from what was expected back in 1996.
“I can’t really say what expectations were then,” Donovan said. “I know my own expectations were pretty simple: just put my head down, go to work every day and do the best that I could. I felt this place had great opportunity and great potential but my only expectations were that I had to work really, really hard to have success, but I did think it could be done.”
When he was hired by Jeremy Foley, Donovan was only 29 years old with two years of head coaching experience at Marshall. Prior to Marshall he was a Rick Pitino assistant at Kentucky and that was his entire coaching resume. Donovan played for Pitino at Providence, then joined the Kentucky staff as a graduate assistant under Pitino in 1989 where the first task of the day was to clean up the mess of a nasty NCAA probation brought on by the previous staff. An exodus of scholarship athletes left the Wildcats with eight scholarship players. Because he was still in good playing shape from a year with the New York Knicks in the NBA, Donovan practiced with the Wildcats every day.
“We were really kids, then … both of us,” recalls Florida assistant head coach John Pelphrey, a sophomore on that Kentucky team. “A lot of guys transferred out and we had only eight scholarship players so Billy practiced with us and what all of us remember is that he worked just as hard as we did. That said a lot about him.”
Pelphrey, whose jersey hangs from the rafters at Rupp Arena, also discovered that Donovan has a knack for encouragement.
“He was in my ear every day, talking to me about being better than I was and always being someone I could count on,” Pelphrey said. “When I look back on those days I can see why he’s a great head coach but he’s an even better person than he’ll ever be a coach. You see how he treats people, how he cares about the kids who play for him and how he is as a father and a husband … Billy makes you want to be a better human being just by hanging around him.”
Those first two years at Kentucky taught Donovan valuable lessons about an NCAA probation and why sanctions should be avoided like the plague. At that same time the Wildcats were digging themselves out of the NCAA hole, Florida was dealing with NCAA issues that cost head coach Norm Sloan his job.
When he arrived at Florida, Donovan shared the experiences of Kentucky’s probation with Foley and discovered they shared the same distaste for running afoul of the NCAA.
“Being at Kentucky and seeing some of that and then hearing Jeremy talk about what Florida went through here you realize there is a tremendous responsibility to do things the right way,” Donovan said. “You recruit the right way. You do your best to bring in good kids. If you make a mistake you have to own up to it, move on and make sure you never do it again. I have always thought that you can’t jeopardize your integrity and the integrity of the school and all the people you represent by trying to gain some kind of advantage that’s going to benefit you and the program short term rather than do it the right way. I’m not sure that’s the kind of message you want out there or the kind of program you want to be a part of. Maybe it takes longer to do it the right way, but you can sustain it the right way. I’m not sure you can sustain success by taking shortcuts with the rules.”
The formula for success meant bringing in the best talent in the state of Florida and supplementing it with national talent. The breakthrough years were 1998-99 when the Gators were within a buzzer-beating tip-in of advancing to the Sweet 16, and 1999-2000, when the Gators made it to the NCAA championship game only to lose to Michigan State. The foundation of those teams was in-state recruits Brent Wright, Udonis Haslem, Major Parker, Teddy Dupay and Justin Hamilton and national recruits Mike Miller, Donnell Harvey, Brett Nelson and Matt Bonner.
Donovan is quick to point out that no formula will work without the right kind of support.
“I’ve been fortunate and blessed with great assistant coaches, support staff such as Darren Hertz, who’s been with me all 18 years since I came here, and Tom Williams, the same academic advisor who was already here when I got here,” Donovan said. “I work the same athletic director who hired me. How many coaches stay at the same place as long as I’ve been here and can say that? I’ve had three great presidents of the University of Florida. I’ve got a great relationship with Jeremy and Dr. Bernie Machen has been an incredibly supportive president. Whatever success we’ve had here is all about those people and the great players we’ve had.”
A few things have changed as Donovan enters year 18 of his tenure at the University of Florida. He’s not “the kid” anymore although he still looks much younger than his 48 years and everybody knows his name now. Recruits don’t ask Billy who when he calls and nobody thinks it is impossible to sustain basketball success at the University of Florida any longer. Although the game was played for 77 years before Donovan arrived at UF, you can say that basketball really began the day he accepted Foley’s offer to become Florida’s head coach.
Among the things that have remained constant is that one-year plan. Donovan’s still working on it. It’s still all about working harder than anyone else, developing his players and graduating them, recruiting good players who are good people and doing it all with the highest measure of integrity.
Those things will never change as long as Billy Donovan is Florida’s basketball coach.