Todd Golden, youngest coach in the SEC, bringing an energetic approach to Florida Gators

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

Before the start of Florida basketball practices, first-year coach Todd Golden often can be found chest bumping his players, heaving up halfcourt shots or blanketing guys on defense as they dribble up and down the court.

 There is no shortage of energy for the 37-year-old Golden, who will debut as Florida coach on Monday night when the Gators host Stony Brook at the O’Connell Center (8 p.m., SEC Network Plus). As the youngest men’s basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference, Golden has brought a fresh approach to the Florida program, using analytics as a tool in game planning and player development.

But Golden’s ability to relate to the current generation of college athletes could wind up being his biggest asset. Florida senior All-SEC center Colin Castleton, whom Golden convinced to stay with program this past spring, said there hasn’t been a day in practice where his new head coach’s energy has wavered.

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“That’s something as players you just feed off of because when your coach is doing the same thing every single day you have to have that same approach,” Castleton said. “So he’s really blown it out of the water for me. I feel like he’s a great person and just continues to build relationships with all the players. That’s something he takes great pride in.”  

Florida Gators head coach Todd Golden smiles during the Orange & Blue Scrimmage at Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, FL on Tuesday, November 1, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

The Golden approach isn’t all fun and games. When practice begins, there’s plenty of teaching, with keen attention to detail and repetition. If players don’t bring the energy Golden expects, he isn’t afraid to challenge them or speak his mind.

“The most important thing to allow myself to be able to get on them when you need to, is to have a strong relationship with them,” Golden said. “When they know you care about them and know you are invested in them, on and off the court, then they’re going to be more receptive to constructive criticism.”

Youth being served

In 1996, Florida took a chance on 30-year old Billy Donovan, hiring him as men’s basketball coach after two seasons at Marshall. Less than 10 years later, Donovan led the Gators to their first of back-to-back national championships. By 2007, Donovan joined Indiana’s Bob Knight as just the second coach in college basketball history to win two national titles before their 42nd birthday.

Like Donovan, who led Providence to a Final Four as a player in 1987, Golden was a successful college basketball player at Saint Mary’s. A starting guard, Golden helped lead the Gaels to NCAA Tournament in 2005 and 2008 under Randy Bennett, who remains the program’s head coach.

“He was smart,” Bennett said. “He knew everything, stats, players, teams, like he followed it. He’s a sports junkie, and then he was super competitive.

“Physically, you could have slept on him and not knew he was going to be good, but once you get him in the program and see how competitive and smart he is, he was one of those guys, yes, he was going to be good at whatever he did, whether it was going to be an agent, run a business, coaching.”

Golden said the source of his boundless energy derives from being underestimated.

“I’ve kind of had to be that way to be successful or make it, whether it just making a high school basketball team or making it at Saint Mary’s or getting into coaching and finding my niche - what separated me or made me different,” Golden said.

That approach has served Golden well in his coaching career, first as a grad assistant at Saint Mary’s under Bennett, then working under Kyle Smith at Columbia and Bruce Pearl at Auburn. By the time Golden landed his first head coaching job at San Francisco, he was ready. In three seasons at USF, Golden posted a 57-36 record, capped by leading the Dons to their first NCAA Tournament since 1998 in the 2021-22 season.

“Being a little bit of a younger coach, you gotta instill confidence in the players,” Golden said. “You have to make them understand you’re right there with them. I don’t think you can do that just kind of sitting back on your heels and not having energy at practice. So I try to challenge the guys that way.”

How will it translate

Golden survived and at times thrived in a competitive West Coast Conference while facing Gonzaga’s Mark Few and his mentor, Bennett, who led Saint Mary’s to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament last season.

He will join another league filled with accomplished coaches. One of his mentors, Pearl, led Auburn to a Final Four in 2019 and an SEC title and No. 1 ranking last season. Kentucky’s John Calipari has led the Wildcats to one national title and four Final Fours during his 13-year stint at UK. Eric Musselman has led Arkansas to back-to-back Elite Eights, while Tennessee’s Rick Barnes has a Final Four on his resume from his stint at Texas (2003) and has led the Vols to four NCAA Tournament trips in seven seasons.

Bennett said Golden has a presence and confidence that could help when facing veteran coaches.

“He was a fighter,” Bennett said. “He may not look like that, but he definitely was. He was trash talking, he’s right in the middle of it. He’s not taking a step back.”

Golden has opened Florida basketball practices this preseason, which Castleton said has re-enforced accountability.

“That’s something that’s a little new to me, but I enjoy it,” Castleton said.

Florida returns five players, led by Castleton, with eight new faces. Golden has utilized the transfer portal to build a deep roster, with five transfer additions, including Kyle Lofton of St. Bonaventure, who he has penciled in to start at point guard.

The challenge will come in building chemistry and developing productive rotations through the grind of a 31-game regular season. Golden said he feels ready for the challenge, and doesn’t expect any jitters in making his UF coaching debut Monday night.

“We’ve been working toward this for like six months now,” Golden said. “I’m relatively comfortable being on the sideline. It’s going to be an awesome experience. I’m looking forward to walking out there for the first time.

“But I know once the ball goes up, it will be competing whether I was coaching at Columbia or coaching at San Francisco. It’s basketball, 40 minutes, it’s going to be a pretty sweet experience.”