The word is that Billy Donovan has made his decision and that he’s leaving for the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder with a Thursday announcement. A couple of days ago, there seemed to be clear indicators that Donovan was leaning toward staying in Gainesville for at least the immediate future but sometime Wednesday Donovan made the choice to follow his dream to coach in the NBA.
It’s a sad day for the University of Florida. Donovan has come to represent all that is good in Florida athletics. He’s a demanding coach who proved you can win big in basketball at a football school doing it the right way no less. There hasn’t been even a hint of a scandal and he’s won 467 games, two NCAA championships and six SEC championships in 19 years. He’s the greatest basketball coach in UF history and perhaps the greatest coach in any sport period.
The right thing to do is to say, “God speed Billy. You’ve given us far more than we ever dreamed possible when you came here 19 years ago. Go win an NBA title and fulfill a dream that has been burning deep within you for so long.” But most of us, selfishly, will think he’s made the worst decision of his life when we know in our hearts he’s going to win.
We’re selfish. He’s our coach. We all want him to stay.
Former UF president Bernie Machen on more than one occasion has called Billy Donovan a treasure and who could argue that? Look what he’s done in a squeaky clean manner. The NCAA could send its bloodhounds to Gainesville and any place Donovan goes on the recruiting trail and they would never sniff scandal. But it’s more than just basketball. In the community, whenever Billy and wife Christine get involved in a charity – whether it’s with their money or their participation – it’s going to be successful. And we see him as a role model: a devoted husband, a loving father and a marvelous son.
Months ago when I was preparing a magazine article about Billy, I spoke to his dad and asked what makes him so proud. It was only after five solid minutes of Bill Donovan Sr. gushing about how proud he is that he’s got a son who is a great husband, involved father and dedicated family man that he finally got around to talking about what Billy has done as a coach and mentor to the kids who have played for him at UF. I’ve rarely heard such a strong endorsement of character in my more than 63 years on this earth.
It is because of all these things that you can know that when Billy steps to that podium to announce he’s leaving that it came after far too many hours of going back and forth, trying to decide what’s best. He knows how tough it’s going to be to uproot Christine and the kids from Gainesville. This has been their home and refuge, the place where they’ve all grown up. We tend to forget that Billy was only 30 years old when he accepted the job to become Florida’s head basketball coach. For two of the four kids, this is the only home they’ve ever known. Buried here is a daughter who died due to childbirth complications.
Billy will get a long term deal that’s probably worth something like $6-7 million a year and he’ll be working for good friend Sam Presti. In a lot of ways, the money will be small consolation. Donovan knows the personal and emotional pieces of his heart that will be forever left behind in this community. He knows the anguish that will reverberate through the basketball complex. If he leaves a whole lot of people will face the next day with uncertainty about their futures. When your life depends on a paycheck and the person who makes that paycheck possible is thinking about packing up and leaving 19 years of personal investment behind, there will be untold anguish.
Then there are his players. Donovan has forged a reputation as a player’s coach who has created a family atmosphere second to none. A year after he left for the NBA, Joakim Noah was back on campus in the late spring. Sitting outside on a bench in front of the basketball practice we caught up on the whirlwind the last year had been. As we talked, he looked up to the big window at the left hand corner of the basketball facility – Donovan’s office.
“I miss this place so much,” Noah told me. “Do you know what I miss the most?”
Before I could answer, he said, “Laying down on the sofa in Coach Donovan’s office and just talking. Coach Donovan always listened. We don’t always agree on things but it doesn’t matter, because he’ll listen and when he gives advice, you take it and think about it because you always know he’s got your back. You always know he wants the best for you. I miss being able to lay down on that sofa and just talk to him.”
In the NBA, Donovan won’t have the chance to forge those closer personal relationships and he won’t be the mentor that has a hand in shaping the lives of youngsters who come to him as kids and leave as adults, ready to face the world. It’s a cold, hard game in the pros where the average player makes millions and half the roster makes more than the coach. But, it’s what he wants to do and the best thing we can do is wish him well.
Jeremy Foley knew this day would come eventually and he’s got his list of potential replacements. It’s not an ideal situation to step into because some coach is going to have to say good-bye to kid he recruited the same way Donovan is going to have to face the kids he’s leaving behind at Florida. But, life will go on.
Foley will need to act fast. Already there are rumors that at least two players are planning to transfer if Donovan isn’t the head coach, so a quick move is imperative. Whoever takes over will have the core of a very good basketball team. If the new coach can avoid roster attrition, then the Gators will have a chance to be a tournament team next year.
It’s a sad day for the Gator Nation. Nobody wanted this to happen, but in our hearts, we all probably knew that someday Billy Donovan would need a new challenge and would be leaving UF. So wish him well and say a prayer for Jeremy Foley to make the right choice to fill some enormous shoes.
Here is a list of eight coaches plus two off the radar types that just might be on Jeremy Foley’s list.
2. Archie Miller, Dayton: He’s 90-41 as a head coach, only 37 years old and his star is only going to rise. Great recruiter.
4. Chris Mack, Xavier: He’s 134-71 as a head coach. At Florida he would have resources he would never have at Xavier. From the Skip Prosser coaching tree.
6. Bryce Drew, Valparaiso: His dad is coaching legend Homer Drew and his brother Scott is the coach at Baylor. Bryce is 90-42 as the head coach at Valpo and he’s going to be somebody’s coaching star in the near future.
7. Larry Krystowiak, Utah: He spent nine seasons in the NBA, has been a head coach in the NBA and turned Utah respectable again. The last time Jeremy Foley hired a coach from Utah that worked out pretty well.
8. Johnny Dawkins, Stanford: He’s 141-100 in seven years at Stanford. Considering how few of the top players he can even think about recruiting because of the academics, you have to think he’d be lights out at a place like UF.
Two off the radar coaches:
1. Kevin Keatts, UNC-Wilmington: He’s 42 and a dynamic recruiter who spent four years working for Rick Pitino. He turned the mess around that Buzz Peterson left behind at UNC-Wilmington where they went 18-14 after a 6-23 in Peterson’s last year.
The Bucs will take Famous Jameis and Marcus Mariotta will go #2 but not to the Tennessee Titans. I think either Sam Bradford will be the QB in Tennessee next year with the Eagles getting the #2 pick from the Titans or else Cleveland will deal players including Johnny Manziel and two #1s for the chance to draft Mariotta … Unless the Jacksonville Jaguars trade down for players and a chance to draft Todd Gurley, I think Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr. will go #3. If the Jags trade down, he’ll go #5 to the Redskins … I think D.J. Humphries realizes a dream come true and is the #1 pick of his hometown Carolina Panthers with the 25th pick … Trenton Brown, Chaz Green and Max Garcia should all get drafted after the third round which makes me wonder how is it Florida could have four O-linemen drafted and stink it up so much on offense last year? … I think Matt Jones goes perhaps as high as the third round … Kyle Christy’s bad 2013 will keep him from getting drafted but he’ll punt for someone in the league next year … Someone may take a flyer on Andre Debose in the last 40 picks. You can’t teach fast … I think the Emmitt Smith of this draft will be UCF wide receiver Brett Perriman. Fifteen teams spent a bunch of years kicking themselves for not drafting Emmitt (went #16 to Dallas in the first round). I think Perriman is a late first rounder who will be more productive than any receiver not named Amari Cooper.
If Billy Donovan leaves, who are the three coaches you would have on your short list?
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