Give Donovan his due as SEC's top coach


Published: Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 17, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Two coaches from Mississippi have done it — Rob Barnes and Rod Evans.

Tubby Smith has done it five times if you count both of them.

Mark Gottfried? Sure.

John Brady? Twice.

Bruce Pearl, Rick Stansbury, the King of the NIT Dave Odom? Absolutely.

Jerry Green, Cliff Ellis, Nolan Richardson, Eddie Fogler, none of whom are still coaching in the conference? I think you know the answer.

All of these coaches have something in common — they have all either been the coaches' choice or the writers' choice for SEC Coach of the Year during Billy Donovan's tenure as Florida's head coach.

Now in his 11th year, Donovan has coached at one school longer than any other current SEC coach.

He also has never been named SEC Coach of the Year.

That should change this year. But it might not.

There are reasons why Donovan has never won this award and I'm quite sure none of them have ever kept him awake at night. In 2000, when Donovan led his team to a share of the SEC title, the award went to Brady, whose team had gone from 4-12 to 12-4. When the Gators again shared the SEC title in 2001, it was Barnes because his team went from 5-11 to 11-5.

And last year when Florida won the national title, that was long after the coaches had voted for Brady and the writers for Pearl.

Those who vote in these two awards probably won't pay attention to the ramblings of a provincial columnist, but I have to get this off my chest. I'm not saying that Donovan should receive an SEC Coach of the Year award as a testament to his consistency (although he should) or as a lifetime achievement award (although it has happened).

I'm saying he has done the best job of any coach in the conference.

Someone reading this on the Internet in Muleshoe, Texas, is sending this e-mail to his Dungeons & Dragons buddies:

"I could coach those five guys to a 24-2 record. How did they lose twice? They won the national title and killed everybody and they all came back when they could have gone to the NBA. All Donovan has to do is roll the ball out there."

Which, of course, is stupid.

First of all, just the fact that Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer chose to play at UF this season rather than be first-round draft picks is a testament to Donovan. Part of coaching is the relationships you have with your players.

So is recruiting, so getting those guys in the first place has to count for something. But, oh yeah, Donovan is the great recruiter, right? It's an unfair label that should have been shredded by Florida's national championship season.

But let's get to the main point here — Donovan has coached his rear off this season.

Just getting these guys, with national championship rings and Pied Piper popularity, to continue to play team basketball, to not worry about who is scoring or who is getting the attention, to continue to buy into their coach as well as each other, says volumes about the job Donovan has done this season.

These guys have had the targets on their backs all year and keep responding. A loss against Kansas in front of a predominantly Jayhawk crowd in overtime and a loss at Florida State without Corey Brewer are the only blemishes.

But that's not the kind of performance that gets rewarded when it comes time for Coach of the Year awards. It tends to go to coaches who have turned a team around. So you may see the vote go to Mississippi's Andy Kennedy, whose Rebels are leading the West, or even to Florida's opposing coach today. Kevin Stallings has Vanderbilt heading to the NCAA Tournament.

Or you could look at the most telling statistic of all. Florida is 5-0 on the road in SEC games this season. The rest of the conference is 13-48.

Or you could look at the games where Florida has fallen behind and rallied to win. Like Wednesday night when Donovan didn't panic down 18 and used his bench to help wear down Alabama.

Or you could listen to opposing coaches after losses to Florida when they talk not just about the players, but the head coach and the job he does getting this team prepared.

Or you could simply look at LSU where the Tigers returned three starters including the SEC Player of the Year from last year's Final Four team and are 3-9 in the league.

I mentioned to a colleague of mine at another paper in the South that Donovan should be coach of the year. He said, "Oh yeah, if they go 16-0 in the conference he should be."

Oh, is that all it takes? Perfection?

If Florida loses today or at Tennessee or at home against Kentucky, the Gators are still going to win the conference. And for once, the writers who cover the league and the coaches who coach in it have a chance to get this right.

Then we'll work on the national media boys.

Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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