Donovan and Gators a perfect match


Gainesville has proved to be an ideal setting for Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 15, 2013 at 5:41 p.m.

As we say goodbye to another Valentine's Day week and the roses start to wilt and the chocolates are nothing but empty scraps of paper, it brings to mind some of the great marriages of all time.

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Gainesville has proved to be an ideal setting for Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer

Such as Billy Donovan and the Florida basketball program.

This occurred to me after Florida had dispatched Kentucky at the O'Dome. That made it 15 straight 20-win seasons for Donovan, a feat that was pretty much glossed over because it has been a given since 2012 became 2013.

It's also pretty much expected here in these parts now. You know, because Florida has such a great basketball history with its five 20-win seasons prior to Donovan's arrival.




I thought back to that day at the old Bennigan's on Archer Road when Billy and I sat down for a get-to-know-you lunch. He told me his basic philosophies, and I told him about the football culture here.

Who could have imagined what would come?

“Nobody has a crystal ball,” UF athletic director Jeremy Foley said. “But when we met the first time he sat on the edge of his chair for three hours and his passion for basketball came out.

“Don't forget that Lon (Kruger) had left, and everyone was saying that it's a football school and Florida couldn't be good in basketball. We did hire him with the goal of making Florida basketball relevant.”

Relevant? How about elite?

“When he went to Florida, I told him to be patient,” said his father, Bill. “Don't get down after the first couple of years. Nobody gets hired when things are great.”

Those first two years were difficult. Florida went 10 games under .500 in the SEC. On Tuesday, Florida won its 10th conference game for the 11th time under Donovan.

But this isn't only about the success Donovan has had at Florida. You all know how much he's won. Maybe you were in Indianapolis or Atlanta when Florida won it all. Maybe you partied on University Ave.

We all know that this may be a football school, but the best coach UF has ever had is a basketball coach.

But this isn't about the crystal balls or the SEC titles. This is about the perfect fit that is Billy Donovan and Gainesville.

When he first came to our community, Donovan told his father, “This is heaven down here.” He likes it hot, and we have plenty of heat for him.

So that fits. So does his relationship with Foley. Couldn't be a much better fit.

“We don't always agree, but there is a mutual respect,” Foley said. “We've always been in the foxhole together.”

But more than anything, I think Gainesville fits Donovan because it's exactly what he wants. He can live with this being football country. He embraced it from the start, forging a relationship with Steve Spurrier.

“Once you understand that the SEC is football country,” Bill said, “half the battle is over.”

He can live with the O'Dome not being packed for every game. This isn't Kansas or Duke. He knows that. It doesn't bother him.

He has too much tunnel vision to notice and not enough ego to care.

“Billy has no airs about him,” his father said. “He's a pretty humble guy. He just puts his head down and goes to work.”

Gainesville isn't for everyone. Certainly, the biggest college basketball seat in the state would not appeal to everyone.

But it's perfect for Donovan and his personality.

The distractions are few. It's an easy drive to work every morning. He's learned how to deal with the stress that engulfed his former neighbor, Urban Meyer.

“He can handle the losses better whether it's a game or a recruit,” Bill Donovan said. “He still wants to win, but he can handle it better.”

The Florida basketball coach has a saying that I wish more coaches would follow — “Be normal.”

“A lot of time, people in our profession don't act normal,” Foley said. “Billy is a regular guy.”

In a regular town.

The perfect match.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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