Back in 2002, Steve Spurrier finally made the leap. After enduring years of countless rumors about the NFL, Spurrier left the University of Florida to coach the Washington Redskins. He was made the highest-paid coach in the league and charged with transforming a lackluster team into a contender. This turned out to be a disaster for Spurrier, the Redskins and the Gators.
Two years ago, Billy Donovan decided his future was in the NBA. After years of unending rumors and an ill-fated brief commitment to the Orlando Magic, Donovan accepted the head coaching job with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were annual contenders, stocked with two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Despite Durant’s impending free agency and their place in the same conference as the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the Thunder expected to compete for a title in Donovan’s first year. For many in Gainesville and beyond, this had the potential to be another Spurrier-esque disaster for all parties involved. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
If there was only one photo to depict Florida football, it would be Steve Spurrier’s. Heisman Trophy winner. Alumnus. Head Coach. SEC Champion. National Champion. Spurrier took a program known for its untapped potential and turned it into a juggernaut. He won immediately upon arriving. He won every year. And he won big – 6 SEC titles and the one national championship. His style was defined and set – Fun N’ Gun. And he never deviated from the all-out offensive passing attack that relied heavily on big-time quarterbacks (even when there wasn’t a big-time quarterback on the roster).
Billy Donovan is a New Yorker, born and raised on Long Island. His only connection to Florida was the fact that he coached under then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and was a part of some teams that tormented the Gators. When he arrived in Gainesville, he was young, unproven and certainly not a sure thing. His first two seasons, the Gators carried losing records. But beginning in the ’98-99 season, Florida basketball evolved from afterthought to national power. Like Spurrier, Donovan eventually won big – 6 SEC regular season titles, 4 SEC tournament titles and back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. His style, originally dubbed “Billy Ball” when he arrived in 1996, evolved over the years depending on the players he had. Run and gun, pressing, 3-point heavy teams gave way to tenacious half-court defenders, ball screens and ball movement attacks.
It was common knowledge around Gainesville that it was always a matter of when, not if, Steve Spurrier would jump to the NFL. He played in the league for many years. His first head coaching gig was in the professional USFL. His competitive nature was such that he wanted to prove he could succeed on the highest level. So when the Head Ball Coach resigned in the first days of 2002, initial shock gave way to the reluctant acceptance that this was inevitable. The decision to leave came on the heels of one of the most disappointing football seasons in Gators history. Florida was the preseason #1 team and rolled through the season minus one tough road loss at Auburn on a last-second field goal. Due to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the Tennessee game was pushed back to the end of the regular season. A win would send Florida to the SEC title game and then after that almost surely to the Rose Bowl to play for the national title against Miami. With the game at the Swamp, the Gators were huge favorites against the Volunteers. Rex Grossman was a Heisman Trophy finalist. The defense was led by Alex Brown and Andra Davis. But the Vols physically pounded Florida (a common theme of Spurrier-era defeats), especially in the second half and held on for the massive upset. The Gators finished 10-2 and #3 in the country but the expectations for championships meant it was viewed as a failure by many fans. This weighed on Spurrier and was likely the final straw in his decision to bolt for the NFL after 12 amazing seasons at Florida.
For the longest time, it was assumed Billy Donovan would bolt Florida for greener pastures either at Kentucky, where he began his coaching career, or in the NBA. But after the reversal with the Magic, some began to think Donovan might remain at Florida and become the school’s version of Mike Krzyzewski. After the two national titles and the Magic fiasco, Donovan rebuilt the Gators back into an annual title contender. He was still young for a long-time college coach at just 50 years of age, but already he was on track to be one of the absolute legends of the collegiate game. With a strong connection to the Gainesville community, it seemed possible Donovan had put down roots too deep to pry him away from Florida. Of course, few saw the difficulty of the ’14-15 season coming. Florida sank into mediocrity and failed to record a winning record or reach 20 wins for the first time in 16 years. Donovan’s frustrations with the limitations of the college game may have reached a peak. Even still, it was a stunning move when he accepted the Thunder job in late April of 2015.
Spurrier’s arrival in the nation’s capital was met with much fanfare. And much skepticism. If you are younger or don’t quite remember, think of Chip Kelly to the Eagles times ten. Spurrier was a champion and proven winner who transformed the SEC and the rest of college football from a physical, plodding game into the free-wheeling, quarterback-driven sport we know now. The Redskins, coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons with an anemic offense, craved the excitement Spurrier’s attack promised. The skeptics pointed to a long line of college coaches who failed to live up to the hype in the pros. The Redskins weren’t loaded with superstars either. There were questions about Spurrier’s work ethic fitting in with the rigors and demands of the NFL. Spurrier’s coaching staff was filled with many former assistants from Florida who had little to no NFL experience. The Redskins also quickly brought in former Gators like Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerfful and Chris Doering, something that didn’t sit well with many thinking there might be some cloudy judgement.
Donovan’s arrival in America’s Heartland didn’t generate nearly the excitement or buzz of Spurrier’s professional leap. The Thunder were already a great team, but the clock was ticking due to Kevin Durant’s contract. Expectations were mixed. The Thunder were annual contenders due to Westbrook and Durant, but the history of successful college coaches in the NBA is even shorter than the failed list in the NFL. Donovan’s mentor Pitino was a complete disaster, as was Donovan’s contemporary John Calipari. Unlike Spurrier, Donovan built has staff around NBA coaching veterans that would bring much needed experience. Despite any concerns with the rookie coach, OKC was among the teams that had a puncher’s chance to knock off the Warriors and win it all.
Initially Spurrier delivered on the promise of his high-flying attack. The Redskins looked explosive in the preseason and won Spurrier’s first regular season game behind Matthews’ big passing day. But the explosion soon fizzled out and the Redskins offense never scared anyone in Spurrier’s two seasons. There has been much speculation about the reasons behind Spurrier’s NFL failure. It likely boils down to his style. He was not able to adapt his coaching style nor his playbook to the demands of the NFL. In the college game, Spurrier was able to mastermind an offense that worked through precision and minimized the weaknesses of his quarterback, receivers and offensive line. Collegiate defensive coordinators were slow to catch up. In the NFL, freakish athletes negated those small windows Spurrier’s passing game relied on. Extensive scouting and coaching meant teams were well prepared to attack Spurrier’s blind spots as well. Spurrier’s relaxed approach to defense and special teams created a culture that was divided and undisciplined. After two years, it was obvious to all that the Head Ball Coach didn’t translate to the NFL. He resigned and walked away from millions of dollars.
Donovan’s first season was a roaring success. He quickly adapted his offense to fit Westbrook and Durant’s strengths, keeping the Thunder’s attack as one of the most potent in the league. The team won 10 more games than the previous season. In the postseason, they were even better. The Thunder quickly dismantled the Mavericks and Spurs setting up a showdown with the defending champs, a Warriors team coming off an NBA record 73-win regular season. Donovan’s ball-movement and physical rebounding game plan stymied the Warriors and OKC built a 3-1 series advantage. The miracle run in Donovan’s rookie campaign wasn’t to be, though. The Warriors won three straight, advanced to the NBA Finals, and altered the course of basketball in Oklahoma City. Durant would leave in the offseason, joining Golden State, and leaving Donovan with one superstar on a team built for two.
Rather than the almost-NBA-Finals-appearance, it was this second season in OKC that has been perhaps most impressive about Donovan’s short tenure. Without Durant, the Thunder still won 47 games (giving Donovan 102 in two seasons) and transformed into Must-See-TV behind Westbrook’s triple-double MVP campaign. Some criticized Donovan for so completely revamping the attack behind Westbrook. But that shortchanges Donovan’s impact on Westbrook’s development. And it doesn’t give enough credit to what both Donovan and Westbrook were able to do given so many new pieces in Oklahoma City, and the huge drop off from playing with Durant and Serge Ibaka to playing with so many young, inexperienced players. Donovan constantly tinkered with lineups and rotations in an effort to integrate the new guys, build their confidence and find the best pieces to fit around Westbrook. While season two ultimately ended in disappointment in the playoffs’ opening round, Donovan showed he has the knowledge, temperament and style to succeed in the NBA.
Spurrier’s departure from Gainesville left a gaping hole. It is usually impossible to replace a legend. Alabama wallowed in the abyss for almost a decade after Bear Bryant retired. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had to find the right coach to keep the program atop the SEC and nation. Instead, he hired a defensive assistant who had never been a head coach. The Ron Zook era has been analyzed and mostly reviled over the years, but honestly it would have been hard for anyone to step into Spurrier’s shoes in 2002. Florida rebounded a lot quicker than the Crimson Tide did, though, as Urban Meyer’s brief stint after Zook brought two more national titles. But after Meyer’s departure, Florida’s football program is still on shaky ground as a national championship contender. Jim McElwain has two SEC East titles in two years but no one would say Florida is close to the elite level they want to be. And no one will until a quarterback is found, something Spurrier did with ease.
Foley once again had to replace a legend in 2015 after Donovan’s leap. Rather than go with a coach familiar with the program like he did with Zook’s hire, he tried to duplicate the home run hire of Donovan himself. At that time, there were skeptics (raises hand) who saw the hire as a potential failure. Why not chase a proven coach with a proven track record rather than a young up-and-comer? But in just two years, Mike White has proven to be a solid addition to the program and it appears the Gators might just have captured lightning in a bottle again. It took Donovan three seasons to get to the NCAA Tournament and a fourth to make the Final Four. White’s team made an inspiried Elite Eight dash in just his second season and with a roster still not shaped completely by his recruiting touch. The Gators appear poised to continue their place in the upper echelon of college hoops established by Donovan.
The tale of these two choices and two paths will forever be linked together in Gator Nation history. The two founding fathers of Florida’s two biggest sports both made decisions to leave for the professional ranks. They approached the task in two completely different ways. One disastrously failed. One has seen enough success to believe in a long-time future in the league. The professional franchises who hired them suffered dissimilar fates as well. The Redskins have tried four coaches since Spurrier, none producing enough consistently good football. The Thunder survived the departure of one of the game’s best players and look to have enough left with Westbrook and a few young pieces around him to consistently make the postseason. There’s hope of landing another superstar to pair with him soon. Lastly, the programs left behind by Spurrier and Donovan saw different results with their replacements. Florida football is still trying to find its identity 15 years after Spurrier’s departure. Florida basketball appears set for the next 15 years. Two Paths and two very different results.