I remember sitting inside BW3 on the corner of University and Main, enjoying a $3 22-ounce Killian’s when I first heard of Billy the Kid. At the time, Florida basketball was an afterthought. The ’94 “Find A Way” squad that was so much fun and so loveable was a distant memory and seemed like a blip on the radar rather than a new normal. So head coach Lon Kruger left the program for the greener pastures of Illinois. Remember when the Illini were a better program than the Gators? It’s been that long.
Anyway, I was drinking with a couple of buddies, including one of my neighbors from Treehouse Village. His roommate was a student manager with the men’s hoops team and had told us about the new hire replacing Kruger. That night over beers, we were giddy with excitement at the thought of Billy Ball. Kruger’s Gators were gritty but far from dynamic. But Donovan’s style was a replica of Rick Pitino’s, which we had seen first-hand as Kentucky terrorized us and the rest of the SEC in the early and mid-90s. We couldn’t have possibly been more excited for the arrival of a guy we’d never heard of.
Those first few years under Billy D were rough. The team was a combined 27-32 and there was a lot of awful hoops as guys like Eddie Shannon, Greg “Tiny” Williams and Dan Williams were asked to carry the offense. There were just enough signs, though, of what could be when an electric guard tailor-made for Donovan’s run-and-gun offensive style transferred from Marshall. Jason Williams was a rock star, and like most rock stars, he hit insane highs and flamed out early. But with Brent Wright, Greg Stolt and Kenyan Weaks, you saw just enough to know there was potential in this young coach and his system. It was punctuated by one of the greatest upsets in Florida hoops history when J-Will torched the future national champion ‘Cats in Lexington. The entire game is on YouTube if you have two hours to kill. At that point, we were all in on Billy Ball.
From there, Donovan built Florida basketball into one of the elite programs of the past 20 years. Everyone knows the numbers – two national titles, four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights, eight Sweet Sixteens, 14 NCAA Tournament appearances and 16 straight 20-win seasons before last season’s debacle. Florida had never won the SEC Tournament or regular season title before Donovan but now has four and six titles, respectively. Yet even those monster numbers don’t do justice to just how great he was in Gainesville.
After those first two years with only brief glimpses, the current era of Florida hoops began with what would become a familiar pattern in Gainesville. An experienced group of upperclassmen would help lead a young, talented core to some postseason success, only to eventually see the young guys develop and reset the bar the following season(s). The memorable and improbable Sweet Sixteen run in 1999 (thwarted by an over-the-back that wasn’t called on Casey Calvary and Gonzaga that I will never not mention) was inspired by Shannon and Stolt leading an amazing freshman class highlighted by Mike Miller, Teddy Dupay, Udonis Haslem and LaDarius Halton. That success laid the foundation for the following year’s run to the title game. Remember this pattern.
The O’Connell Center became a desired destination for some of the nation’s top talent because of the charms of Donovan and the exciting style of play he employed. When Donovan landed Miller in 1998, the college basketball world was so shocked, Roy Williams (at Kansas at the time) accused Florida of cheating. But after the on-court results in 1999 and 2000, old beliefs of Florida and its place in the college basketball pecking order were erased and Florida became a premier destination. Donnell Harvey followed in 1999 and the class the Gators signed after their NCAA runner-up finish in 2000 included the nation’s top recruit in Kwame Brown, along with top 10 talent in David Lee and James White.
Gator Nation, as we are wont to do, probably expected a little too much from a coach that was still so young and still learning so much about how to build a program and consistently win. The early 2000s were seen as a disappointment despite the annual tourney bids and 20-win seasons. The trio of Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh were unfairly branded as underachievers. Remember the upperclassmen teaching the young kids how to win model? Lee, Roberson and Walsh were hung out to dry by Dupay’s gambling, Halton’s bad knee, Halton’s punch to Brett Nelson’s head and Nelson’s inexplicable decline. Also, Brown never made it to campus, entering the NBA draft and becoming the #1 pick. What if came to Florida instead? It is one of the all-time great what-if’s for Gators hoops and Brown’s basketball career. Looking back, it is no surprise the talented trio fell short of expectations.
Without this stretch of good but not great seasons in Donovan’s tenure, however, the Gators don’t get to 2006 and beyond. Billy learned how to adapt his system to the strengths of his players and became a great developer of talent. Gone were the days when players like Nelson and Halton peaked in their freshman year and regressed horribly every year after. Donovan and his staff were instrumental in the development of Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Chandler Parsons, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin from skittish, lost rookies to all-SEC and SEC Players of the Year. This ability to develop players mirrored Donovan’s development of the program as a whole.
The crown jewel of Donovan’s career at Florida is of course the back-to-back national championships. It began in 2004, first with the signing of the class that become the most beloved group of players in Florida athletics’ history. They were little-used freshmen in 2005 but were around for another turning point in the program’s history. Lee, Roberson and Walsh led the Gators to their first SEC Tournament title, an experience that was vital in teaching the Oh-Fours how to win in the postseason. Here’s that familiar pattern again and it lead from the SEC tourney title in ’05 to the NCAA tourney title in ’06. The fact that it happened so suddenly was a surprise then but perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Donovan had grown so much as a coach in his first decade in Gainesville and he was ready for his return to the big stage. And as great as the run in 2006 was, 2007 was even more impressive. The Gators were never really challenged on their way to a repeat and it can be argued that they are among the greatest college basketball teams of all-time.
Inevitably after losing everyone of consequence from the title teams in 2007, the Gators once again underachieved for a spell. Donovan’s resurrection once again relied on upperclassmen showing a young core how to win. Chandler Parsons developed into the SEC Player of the Year by his senior season and helped led the Gators back to the Elite Eight. Along for the ride were a green group of freshmen who took the reins from Parsons and delivered three more Elite Eights culminating in 2014’s magical season and run to the Final Four.
It can be argued that what Florida did from 2011-14 was more impressive than the back-to-back title runs. The 2006-07 run was built with three future NBA lottery picks, guys who have starred in the league for many years now. Billy’s second act was constructed with four guys that may never play a single game in the NBA. To me, that’s what I’ll remember most about Donovan’s reign. He won in so many ways with so many different types of players, all while doing it the right way with much love, some of it tough when it needed to be.
Florida basketball was nothing before Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville and the fear is that it will sink back into nothing after he leaves. I don’t know who Jeremy Foley is going to target and eventually hire, but I think there is more pressure on this hire than on any of the football hires he’s ever made because of the tenuous nature of Florida basketball’s relevance. Florida football is going to always be a contender because of its location, its conference and its support. Florida basketball isn’t guaranteed a place at the table of national relevance. If this hire doesn’t hit, it could take decades, if it ever happens again.
There will be time to worry about all that in the days and weeks ahead. For now, we grieve. The Mount Rushmore of Florida coaches obviously includes Billy Donovan. I would argue that you could expand that monument to include all of the state of Florida and Billy Donovan’s place is still secure alongside Steve Spurrier, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula. Football is my favorite sport and I’m sure that is the case with most of you. But since my Florida fandom began in 1992, Florida basketball holds as much importance and as much satisfaction as what’s happened on the gridiron. I was in New Orleans in January of 1997 and Glendale in January of 2007. Those feelings and celebrations were matched by what I saw and experienced in Indianapolis in 2006 and Atlanta in 2007. And that’s going to be Billy Donovan’s legacy. He made basketball cool in a state that will forever be football crazy.
Thank you for everything Coach Donovan. We wish you all the NBA success in the world. The Thunder have acquired a lot more Orange and Blue clad fans. You are always and forever a Gator. And if it somehow doesn’t work out in Oklahoma, look us back up in a few years.