Donovan tops SEC coaching hierarchy

Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 17, 2013 at 6:58 p.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Entering his 18th season at Florida, Billy Donovan is the dean of Southeastern Conference coaches.

And Donovan achieved a significant milestone last March that put him in elite SEC coaching company. Donovan picked up his 31st NCAA Tournament win in UF's Sweet 16 triumph over Florida Gulf Coast, moving past Kentucky's Adolph Rupp (30) for the most NCAA Tournament wins in league history.

Donovan said he wasn't even aware of the record when asked about it Thursday.

“Certainly humbled,” Donovan said, “Any time your name gets mentioned with Adolph Rupp, just being at Kentucky for five years (as an assistant from 1989-94) like I was, an understanding what he did for that program and with the program is really remarkable.”

Rupp coached when the NCAA Tournament expanded from eight teams to 16 teams to between 22 to 25 teams by the end of his career. But former Kentucky athletic director C.M. Newton still called Donovan's feat “a remarkable achievement.” Newton coached against Rupp at Alabama and was the athletic director at UK when Donovan was an assistant under Rick Pitino.

“I never had any question that Billy was going to be successful in whatever he chose to do,” Newton said. “When he really decided to be a head coach, I was very anxious to help him.”

What made Newton so sure Donovan would be successful?

“His intelligence, his work ethic, his discipline, both self and exterior discipline,” Newton said. “All of the things that you expect in a coach, he possessed. Billy was very innovative. He took the best of what Pitino did and made it his own.”

Newton recalled taking a phone call from Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley in 1996 shortly after Lon Kruger left as UF's basketball coach. Newton recommended Donovan, who by then was the head coach at Marshall.

“I said 'If I were sitting in your chair, I'd go hire Billy Donovan, who is a young Pitino',” Newton said. “I said, 'Now if you interview him, you're going to think he's a player, because he looks so young.' ”

Foley hired Donovan a month shy of his 32nd birthday. In 17 years since, Donovan has led the Gators to six Elite Eights, three Final Fours and two national titles. The knock on Donovan early in his career was he wasn't a good defensive coach, but last season Florida ranked third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 54.4 points per game.

“It depends on players, whether you are good defensively or good on offense,” Newton said. “Billy has always has had the ability to coach his way but do what his players do best.”

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