Florida came into the game losers in five of its last six games, including back-to-back losses in at LSU and Missouri. When Missouri broke its 13-game losing streak against the Gators on Tuesday, the chances to earn career win No. 500 this season for Billy Donovan looked to be dwindling.
All Florida needed was a rivalry game.
In front of an impressive 11,970 crowd despite it being the first day of spring break for students, Florida pummeled Tennessee 66-49 to reach the milestone for Donovan. He joins Bobby Knight as the second coach under the age of 50 to reach 500 wins.
“When you get into this, you never know how long you're going to be into it or if you're fortunate enough to be into it,” Billy Donovan said. “I started when I was relatively young, and I still really enjoy doing this. I really do. I get great pleasure from coaching. I enjoy the games, I enjoy the preparation and I enjoy the practice and those kind of things. For me, how much longer I go, I don't know. But I do enjoy it.”
The O’Connell Center anxiously awaited the final minutes to run off the clock, ready for the celebration. The student section chanted “five hun-dred, five hun-dred.” The public address announcer waited barely a minute after the game ended to inform the crowd of the accomplishment. A video tribute for Donovan played just seconds after the Tennessee team left the floor.
Shots from all different stages of Donovan’s career played on the screens of the O’Connell Center, the arena he helped build into one of the toughest in the country. Donovan was shown hugging former players, coaching animated on the sideline and finally holding up a national championship trophy -- twice.
With his team behind him, Donovan did his normal postgame interview with the Florida radio crew and soaked in one last standing ovation from the fans before exiting the floor with a grin ear-to-ear.
“I've been part of at least a lot of unbelievable experiences in that building,” Donovan said. “For me personally, it was very, very meaningful. I thought there was a great crowd tonight, and obviously our team has struggled this year. For the amount of people to come out like they did to watch our team play, I was very, very appreciative and very thankful for that.
“I thought we had a great environment, a great crowd. Then to be kind of honored like that at the end of the game was extremely touching, and I was very, very thankful for that."
His postgame press conference was just like the others after any of his achievements. Donovan didn’t want to talk about himself, turning questions about his age and how meaningful Saturday was into opportunities to praise the people that have been around him. He went through lists of assistant coaches, players and athletic director Jeremy Foley as people he was thankful to be around.
“You’re only as good as the people around you,” Donovan said. “It’s really the players. It’s the coaches that I’ve had here. I think people lose sight a lot of times that Jeremy [Foley] has been here since I started. And as an athletic director, there’s an incredible bond that he and I have in terms of a shared vision. Not to say we get along and agree on everything, but I think we’re always moving together in the right direction. There's been a lot of stability.
“Even with John Pelphrey, Anthony Grant and Donnie Jones for a long period of time. and then having Larry Shyatt here for seven years and now having the staff that's here and John being back. There's been a lot of really, really good players that have come through.”