Donovan, Foley relationship trumps wins at UF

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley heard a lot of positive things about Billy Donovan before hiring him 19 years ago.

He knew Donovan had a strong reputation as a basketball coach, a recruiter and a talent developer. He learned from some of the best in college basketball, and his two-year stint at Marshall showed he knew what he was doing as the leader of a program.

The references to Donovan’s character all spoke highly of the man he was, but even Foley knew at the time that he wouldn’t know for sure about Donovan’s character until he was able to work with Donovan on a daily basis.

As Foley publicly thanked his basketball coach one last time on Monday, he dealt with the emotions. The tears Foley fought back and the breaks he needed to take to get through his opening statement didn’t have anything to do with the banners Donovan helped hang in the O’Connell Center or the Final Four courts plastered inside the practice facility. Those tears flowed because of the relationship that was forged between the two over the last 19 years and the person Donovan proved to be.

“One of the best,” Foley said. “(Associate athletic director) Chip Howard told me the other day that he embodies everything that this athletic program wants to be in terms of class, quality, integrity. He cared about people, he did things the right way. He lives his life the right way, and we love him. I'll thank him for that forever. He'll be our friend forever.

“My gosh, that's what makes it so hard because basketball games come and go. Relationships like this are once in a generation.”

When Foley was going through the coaching search in 1996, he was trying to find someone that believed Florida wouldn’t be just a football school. He heard the rumblings about it and needed an energetic coach that didn’t believe that to be the case. Despite people encouraging Donovan not to take over the Florida program, he took the risk and elevated the program to one of the best in the country.

But Foley was always there along the way. Their relationship was built on more than basketball, working hand-in-hand to lead the Florida program. They both had the same vision for doing things the right way and leading the program to an elite level.

“I don't want to get emotional here either, but I don't think people understand the relationship that he and I had,” Donovan said of Foley. “Do we agree on everything? No. But there is a lot of love between he and I and a lot of care. Like I said, he changed my life in a lot of ways, and I'll always be grateful for him and for Florida.”

Donovan felt a similar connection when he met with Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti. That’s what it would take in the NBA for him to consider leaving Gainesville, and it’s why he has turned down NBA overtures in recent seasons when he didn’t feel that way about their front office.

Relationships kept him in Gainesville for the last 19 years, and those won’t end any time soon.

“Will I miss him? Every day,” Foley said. “Will I make sure that I have a relationship with him forever? We will all do that. But I'm not sitting here saying I cannot believe Billy left (or) ‘how can he do that?’ I've never had those emotions. I'll be sad. And that may sound a little like we all walk around with tears in our eyes. It's something good, we all loved, enjoyed and had a lot of fun. Golly, we had fun. When that's over, yeah, there is some sadness. But that will be there forever. The good part is we're excited about the future and we're fine with it.

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