No longer a kid, Billy on 16th sweet season at UF
Published: Friday, January 20, 2012 at 5:40 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2012 at 6:10 p.m.
The young coach had just stepped into a tough situation. He was sitting at lunch across from me at what used to be Bennigan's on Archer Road. We talked about his philosophies about offense and recruiting and the perception Florida was a football school that had not embraced and probably would not embrace basketball. At least that was what I told him.
“After talking to you, I wondered what I had gotten myself into,” Billy Donovan said with a laugh.
It was a beautiful spring day in 1996. Flash forward 16 years and the coach and I are standing in the spectacular basketball facility that is home to two crystal balls emblematic of national titles. There are cut-down nets, SEC championship trophies and tournament trophies filling up the glass cases.
And we are playing an impromptu game of trivia.
Name the basketball coaches in the SEC the day Donovan was hired at UF.
Go ahead. Give it a shot.
It was a collection of big-name coaches. None of them are where they were then.
Alabama — David Hobbs.
Arkansas — Nolan Richardson.
Auburn — Cliff Ellis.
Georgia — Tubby Smith.
Kentucky — Rick Pitino.
LSU — Dale Brown.
Mississippi — Rob Evans.
Mississippi State — Richard Williams.
South Carolina — Eddie Fogler.
Tennessee — Kevin O'Neill.
Vanderbilt — Jan van Breda Kolff.
If you named all 11, you have a better memory than I do. That's what a young coach nicknamed “Billy The Kid” stepped into back in 1996 when he succeeded Lon Kruger.
And he has been here ever since, albeit with a 24-hour stint as the Orlando Magic coach.
There are flecks of gray hair above his ears now in the trademark, close-cropped haircut that Donovan wears. His resume is bulging with accomplishments. He has even turned us into NBA fringe-fans because so many of his players have become starters in the professional league.
Since the day Donovan was hired at Florida, there have been 26 coaching hires in the SEC.
“I remember when I first got here, Steve Spurrier was just finishing his sixth year,” Donovan said. “And it feels like he's been gone forever.”
We all know what Florida was B.B. (Before Billy) and what it has become since his arrival. Jeremy Foley took a chance on a kid with two years of head coaching experience, and it ended up being the blueprint he would use for just about every other coach he has hired.
At a school with pockets of success and the occasional postseason excitement, Florida has become one of the nation's best basketball programs.
And when seasons fly by and morph into spring football so quickly, sometimes you just have to stop and smell the confetti.
Who would have thought that day at Bennigan's I was talking to the guy who would be at Florida for so long with no end in sight? Who would have thought that a school with 12 NCAA Tournament games in its history would play in 34 over the next 15 seasons? Or that the number of league championships would be quadrupled? Or that a program with zero SEC Tournament titles could win three in a row?
“You never know,” Donovan said. “It's been a blessing. Having a guy like Jeremy to work with, the guys I've been able to bring in here as assistants, guys I like. I love it here.”
No matter what happens today or the rest of this season, Gator fans should feel lucky to have Donovan for these 16 seasons. The players he has recruited and developed are part of the story. So is his ever-expanding coaching tree that stretches from Richmond, Va., to Laramie, Wyo.
He built this program, then rebuilt it when the Oh-Fours took their talents to the pros. He has stayed despite a remarkable number of empty seats in the O-Dome at times and the shadow that is the football program.
He took us on a run none of us thought was possible. But the really special run is at 16 years and counting.
Certainly, Foley deserves a lot of credit for the hire and for supplying the tools necessary to compete with the big boys. The players deserve a ton of credit. So do the coaches. Gainesville deserves credit for being the kind of place a guy doesn't want to leave.
But most of the credit for what we've experienced with Florida basketball belongs to the guy who has made all this happen — a Gainesville treasure.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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