Billy Donovan earned the 500th win of his coaching career Saturday evening when the Gators played as well as he coaches for one of the rare times this season. In manhandling Tennessee, 66-49, the Gators hit open shots, got to the rim and finished, chased down loose balls, played a disruptive brand of defense and won the rebounding battle. Wins like that have been few and far between this year.
If a book was written about this 2014-15 season, it might begin by paraphrasing the 1974 collection of short stories and essays about Major League Baseball that Jim Bouton entitled, “I Managed Good, but Boy Did They Play Bad.” The fact that the Gators are a free throw here or a layup there from a 17th consecutive 20-win season despite suspensions, a rash of injuries and games when his entire team seems to leave both brains and game at the team hotel tells you something about Billy Donovan the coach. Only one of the best coaches in the country could keep his team competitive despire all those problems. Instead of a rubber stamp 20-win season like we’ve grown accustomed to, the Gators sit at 14-15 with only one shot to make the NCAA Tournament, a miracle of changing water into wine proportions run at the SEC Tournament that would leave Florida the only team standing for the conference’s automatic bid.
Miracles do happen. Georgia, which finished dead last in the SEC East in 2008 (4-12 record), won the most bizarre SEC Tournament in history, playing and winning two games on Saturday the night after a tornado nearly blew the roof off the Georgia Dome on its march to the tournament title and NCAA berth. Of course, Georgia didn’t have to face a Kentucky team that might become the first to go unbeaten since 1976 Indiana and that’s what looms for the other 13 teams in the Southeastern Conference this year when the tournament is played in Nashville in a couple of weeks.
So barring a miracle, Florida’s run of 16 straight years in the post season will come to an end, but that really doesn’t diminish what Donovan has done this year and certainly doesn’t what he has accomplished in his Florida career. If you simply look at this year’s record, you might think otherwise but this has been a monumental coaching job by Donovan. He’s rarely had a full bench to work with, doesn’t have much in the way of a post presence and has only two
decent shooters on the team, one of which has missed the last six games with a high ankle sprain. He’s still looking for a leader. Yet, with a few breaks the Gators would be looking at maybe one win this week and one in the SEC Tournament to solidify a spot in the NCAA field of 64.
As for what he’s done at Florida, consider the fact that Bobby Knight is the only other coach in college basketball history to win 500 games prior to his 50th birthday. Coach K didn’t do it. Neither did John Wooden or Dean Smith or Adolph Rupp or John Calipari or Bill Self or Jim Boeheim or Rick Pitino or Roy Williams. They’re all great basketball coaches but all of them did their work at basketball schools where the fan bases eat, sleep, live and breathe for the round ball and the schools devote unparalleled resources to ensure success.
Donovan has had to forge his own path at a school where football was, is and always be king. In 19 years on the job at UF, he’s become the second winningest coach in SEC history behind only Adolph Rupp. Other than Rupp, he is the only SEC coach to win multiple national championships (Rupp had four, Billy has two). Since John Wooden’s miraculous run of seven straight national championships (1967-73), Donovan is one of only two coaches (Coach K is the other) to win back-to-back national championships. The full resume reads two national championships, four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights, six SEC championships and four SEC Tournament championships.
Donovan has accomplished all that without scandal. He doesn’t cheat nor does he play the under the table games with some of the sleazy elements that prevail in the AAU ranks. He wins by doing things the right way and staying true to his personal values.
A couple of years ago when I was writing a big feature piece for a magazine about Billy Donovan, I sat down with his dad and we talked about the rather extraordinary person that Billy has become. Very little of the conversation had anything to do with basketball because Bill Donovan spoke in glowing terms about Billy Donovan, the man.
"You do your best and hope your kids will take what they've learned and be good people, but Billy has gone far beyond what I hoped for,” Mr. Donovan told me. “I love that he's a great basketball coach. I love it even more that he's a great husband, father and friend."
A little more than a week ago I was accused of seeing Billy Donovan through orange and blue tinted glasses by an acquaintance. I responded, no, I see Billy through clear eyes and I simply see a marvelous man who happens to be a great basketball coach at the University of Florida.
Here is the weekend rundown:
1. Billy Donovan got his 500th coaching win, becoming only the second coach in college history to get to 500 wins prior to his 50th birthday.
2. The #1-ranked Florida softball team started its long road swing to the state of California by going 4-0 in San Diego including a win over #2-ranked Oregon. In stretching their record to 21-0, the Gators outscored their opponents, 27-1. For the season the Gators have outscored opponents 167-20, have hit 33 homers and have a team ERA of 0.55.
3. The #1-ranked Florida men’s indoor track and field team won the SEC Championship in Lexington, Kentucky, while the #3-ranked Florida women finished runner-up to #1-ranked Arkansas.
4. Florida’s #3-ranked gymnastics team got the nation’s third highest score this season in blowing out #25-ranked Kentucky. Florida got a winning score of 9.90 or higher to win each of the four apparatus titles. With Bridget Sloan (career best 9.975 on the parallel uneven bars) getting back into form (high ankle sprain in the first meet of the season), the Gators are starting to look like a team poised to win their third straight NCAA championship.
6. Florida’s #4-ranked women’s lacrosse team improved to 4-1 with an 18-10 win over Dartmouth behind Shannon Gilroy, who scored six goals to go over the 200-goal mark (202). With three more goals, Gilroy becomes UF’s all-time leading scorer.
7. The #5-ranked baseball team took a 3-game series with Stony Brook to improve to 10-1. The Gators won 1-0 Friday night, 14-3 on Saturday and then wrapping things up with a 6-2 win Sunday. Josh Tobias had seven straight hits (5-5 on Saturday; a single and a homer in his first two at bats Sunday) and the Gators launched five more home runs to highlight the weekend offense. Florida has hit 13 home runs in 11 games. Last season the Gators managed only 26 homers in 63 games. As a team the Gators are hitting .308 and the team ERA is 2.18.
Former Gator Chris Johnson died tragically this weekend at age 22 by what has been ruled a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Johnson played the 2011-12 seasons for UF after a heralded prep career at Ocala’s Trinity Catholic. A star running back in college, he never seemed to find a position at Florida. Although he was a special teams standout, he bounced around between safety, linebacker and running back before he transferred to Division I-AA Duquesne where he played safety. In two years at Duquesne, Johnson was in on 104 tackles, forced two fumbles and intercepted two passes.
ESPN’s top 5 college football jobs among the 65 power teams:
The rest of the SEC: (6) LSU; (8) Georgia; (11, tie) Texas A&M; (13) Auburn; (15) Tennessee; (19) South Carolina; (22) Arkansas; (32) Ole Miss; (34, tie) Mississippi State; (34, tie) Missouri; (45) Kentucky; (59, tie) Vanderbilt.
Also: (7) FSU; (23) Miami.
Please note the presence of four teams from the ACC among the worst 10 jobs among the power 65:
Even with the so-so results of the past four years, are you surprised that Florida is still considered a top five job in college football?
Dr. John turns 75 this year but shows no signs of slowing down. If you haven’t ever had a chance to catch him live, it’s a terrific show. The good doctor will be making his southern swing in May and will include stops in New Orleans, Shreveport, Birmingham, Lexington, Asheville and Charlotte. Today’s music is “Right Place, Wrong Time” which was the lead track of his 1973 album “In the Right Place.” The single made it up to #9 on the Billboard charts while the album hit #24.