Thunder struck: Donovan leaves UF for NBA


Billy Donovan is leaving Florida after 19 successful season to try his hand at the professional level with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, April 30, 2015 at 12:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 30, 2015 at 4:32 p.m.

Billy Donovan led Florida to tremendous heights in his 19 seasons as basketball coach.

Facts

Thunder road

A look at the timeline and connections that landed Billy Donovan an agreement to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder:
August 22, 2014 — Oklahoma City hires former Florida staff member Mark Daigneault as its Development League coach.
February 2015 — Oklahoma City General Manager Sam Presti and Thunder scout Oliver Winterbone, a former Florida video coordinator, visit UF campus to observe Donovan.
April 2, 2015 — Florida announces that Donovan has signed contract extension through 2020 worth $4 million per year. Buyout remains $500,000.
April 2, 2015 — On ESPN's Mike and Mike Radio Show, Donovan's mentor, Louisville coach Rick Pitino, drops first the hint of Donovan's interest in an NBA job, saying he's ready to “give the NBA a try.”
April 17, 2015 — Former Gator guard Bradley Beal, appearing on the Dan Patrick Show with guest host and Sports Illustrated basketball writer Chris Mannix, says he “believes the rumors” that Donovan will leave Florida for an NBA coaching job.
April 21, 2015 — Oklahoma City fires coach Scott Brooks shortly after the Thunder miss the Western Conference playoffs despite a 45-37 record. Yahoo.com reporter Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Donovan is the leading candidate to replace Brooks as coach of the Magic.
April 29, 2015 — Donovan and Thunder begin formal talks about the Oklahoma City Thunder vacancy.
April 30, 2015 — Donovan agrees to terms to coach the Thunder, informs athletic director Jeremy Foley that he's leaving UF.

But an opportunity to coach one of the premier franchises in the NBA was too tempting to pass up.

On Thursday, Donovan agreed in principle to terms on a five-year deal worth a reported $30 million to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder, a month shy of his 50th birthday.

"I want to thank Jeremy Foley, the players, coaches and staff I've

had the chance to work with during my time at Florida," Donovan said in a statement. “The administrative support and stability has been unbelievable here, and it is an incredibly difficult decision to leave that. I knew that it would take a unique opportunity to leave the University of Florida and that is clearly how I look at this situation."

Later, in a statement through the Thunder, Donovan thanked the Gainesville community.

“I have a deep appreciation of what the University of Florida means to me and I'll forever be a Gator,” Donovan said.

Florida sophomore point guard Kasey Hill reacted to the news of Donovan's departure without bitterness or being upset. Donovan couldn't hold a team meeting to inform players because many had already left the UF campus after taking early exams.

“Can't be mad at a man who put Gator basketball on the map,” Hill tweeted.

Florida became a nationally relevant college basketball program under Donovan, who led the Gators to back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 and four Final Four appearances (2000, 2006, 2007, 2014). He led Florida to seven Elite Eight berths, 14 NCAA Tournaments and a school-record 467 wins.

"While we are certainly extremely sad to see Billy go, the primary

feeling I have is one of gratitude for what he has done here at

Florida," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "Billy and Florida basketball have been synonymous for a long time now, and our program would not have reached the heights it has without him. The legacy he leaves here is one of personal and professional excellence.”

Florida will be searching for a new basketball coach for the first time since 1996. Possible candidates to replace Donovan include current UF assistants John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant, Dayton coach Archie Miller, Villanova coach Jay Wright, Minnesota coach Richard Pitino and Louisiana Tech coach Mike White. Another intriguing candidate is Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, though Marshall recently turned down an offer from Alabama and instead signed a contract extension with the Shockers worth a reported $3 million per season.

Foley did not put a timetable on the search and said it would be handled with a group of internal advisers, similar to the search that landed Florida football coach Jim McElwain in December.

“We will work hard to have the right person in place over the coming weeks,” Foley said.

This is not Donovan's first time accepting an NBA offer. In 2007, after leading UF to the second of back-to-back national titles, Donovan was introduced as head coach of the Orlando Magic. But citing a change a heart after an emotional farewell UF news conference, Donovan returned to UF six days later. But it's less likely Donovan will change his mind this time.

Donovan faced a long rebuild after 2007 — the Gators followed their second national title with back-to-back NIT seasons and were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2010. But from 2011-13, Donovan led the Gators to three consecutive Elite Eights, and in 2014 guided the Gators to a 36-3 record and their fifth Final Four appearance in school history. During the 2014 season, Florida strung together a school-record 30-game win streak before falling to eventual NCAA champion Connecticut 63-53 in the Final Four.

But after losing four senior starters from the 2014 squad, Florida stumbled to a 16-17 season in 2015, its first losing campaign since 1998 and its first time not reaching the postseason since 1997. Donovan offered few comments following the 2015 season, which ended with an SEC Tournament loss to Kentucky.

Instead, Donovan spent most of April recruiting and dealing with player attrition. Junior guard Michael Frazier II and sophomore center Chris Walker announced they were declaring for the NBA draft, while junior guard Eli Carter announced he was transferring earlier this week.

Donovan had one of his assistants, Matt McCall, become head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga, but hired longtime friend Grant to replace McCall a day later. Grant was an assistant under Donovan at Marshall and UF from 1994-2006.

Donovan was hired at Florida on March 27, 1996, just months shy of his 31st birthday. It took three years for Donovan to build the Gators into an NCAA Tournament team, but behind a strong recruiting class that included freshman forward Mike Miller and freshman guard Teddy Dupay, the Gators reached the Sweet 16 in 1999 before falling to Gonzaga on a last-second shot.

The following year, in 2000, Donovan led the Gators to their second Final Four appearance in school history, with a deep team that included Miller, Dupay, Brent Wright, Udonis Haslem, Brett Nelson and Matt Bonner. The Gators reached the NCAA Finals for the first time in school history before falling to Michigan State, 89-76, in the title game.

“What he did at Florida was incredible,” Dupay said. “They should name the court (at the O'Connell Center) after him … for him to be able to go to a football school and generate the consistency of success for 20 years, no one can match that.”

After the finals loss in 2000, Donovan endured a string of NCAA Tournament disappointments. For five straight seasons, Florida lost in either the first or second round of the tournament. A low point came in 2004, when as a fifth seed, the Gators were upset by 12-seed Manhattan, 75-60.

But in a magical 2005-06 season, led by a group of sophomores who no one saw coming, the Gators won their first national title in school history. The Gators were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East that season, but behind big men Al Horford and Joakim Noah, slashing forward Corey Brewer and steady point guard Taurean Green, the Gators won 17 straight games to start the season. The Gators won 11 straight to close the season 33-6, beating UCLA in the title game, 73-57.

Following the 2006 season, Noah, Horford and Brewer were projected first-round draft picks. But the three elected to return with Green for their junior seasons. With the four junior starters and sharp-shooting senior guard Lee Humphrey, the Gators became the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to repeat as national champions. The Gators knocked off Ohio State, 84-75, in the title game to finish the season at 35-5.

Beyond the national titles, Donovan led the Gators to six SEC regular-season titles and the first four SEC Tournament titles in school history. Donovan's 35 NCAA Tournament wins at Florida are the most for any SEC coach.

Another aspect of the Donovan legacy at Florida has been his ability to develop players for the next level. Under Donovan, the Gators have had 17 players selected for the NBA draft, including nine first-round picks. There were 10 former Gator players on NBA playoff rosters, more than any other college basketball program. Included in that list are Miller (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Bonner (San Antonio Spurs), two members of UF's first Final Four team under Donovan in 2000.

Donovan's ability to develop pro-ready talent made him intriguing to NBA general managers and led to a relationship with Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti. Donovan will join an NBA team with two of the top players in the league — power forward Kevin Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook. But the move is a risk on some level, because Durant is coming off foot surgery and is entering the final year of his contract in 2015-16. Westbrook, meanwhile, can declare for free agency in 2017 and may want to play in a larger market.

“We wanted to identify a person with the traits associated with high achieving leaders in their respective fields; a continuous learning mentality, the ability to adapt, evolve and innovate, intrinsically motivated, humility, and great tactical competence,” Presti said. “While we created a comprehensive analysis regarding the qualities we were looking for, it became quite evident that Billy was the ideal fit for the Thunder as we look to transition our team into the future.”

Former Gator and current Memphis Grizzlies point guard Nick Calathes thinks Donovan will adapt well to the NBA and relate well to its players.

“He's a players' coach,” Calathes said. “Guys like playing for him. Obviously there will be some things he'll need to learn, but he will adapt.”

The Thunder reached the NBA Finals in 2012 with Westbrook, Durant and current Houston Rockets guard James Harden (Presti traded Harden in October of 2012 to the Rockets for guards Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb and two first-round draft picks). But Oklahoma City lost to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the finals and haven't been back since.

“He's an up-and-down coach,” Calathes said. “The Thunder are an up-and-down team. It's a good fit.”

Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks was fired coming off a 45-37 season when the Thunder, without Durant for most of the season, failed to make the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference.

But apparently, Donovan feels the time is right to make a move and coach players at basketball's highest level. Donovan will need to pay a $500,000 buyout, per terms of his contract at Florida, but it didn't deter him from taking on the challenge to coach in the NBA.

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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