Donovan departs UF after an iconic 19-year tenure

Billy Donovan compiled a 35-12 record in 14 NCAA Tournaments as the head coach of the Gators.

Billy Donovan compiled a 35-12 record in 14 NCAA Tournaments as the head coach of the Gators.

Published on Wednesday, 5/6/15, at 12:55 p.m. Eastern. 

In the same room he was introduced as the new head coach at the University of Florida on March 27 of 1996, Billy Donovan bid farewell to UF on Monday morning at an emotional news conference in Gainesville.

In those 19 years, Donovan took Florida to the top of the mountain in college basketball. He led the Gators to 467 wins, 14 NCAA Tournaments, seven Elite Eights, four Final Fours, three championship games and won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.

In the last half-century, only two other coaches have repeated as national champs. Their names are John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski. The former won more national titles than any coach in NCAA history and the latter has more career wins than any coach in NCAA history.

He arrived at the age of 30 as ‘Billy the Kid.’ He left Monday as Billy the Legend.

Donovan did what Norm Sloan and Lon Kruger never figured out how to do. He embraced the success of the football program and used it to his advantage. Sloan never got along with Charley Pell and Galen Hall in the 1980s.

After a run to the 1994 Final Four, Kruger felt like the UF program had arrived. However, when he couldn’t land the state’s best recruit (Vince Carter) from Daytona Mainland High School after going to the national semifinals, he figured he should keep his options open. Two years later, he bolted for a basketball school (Illinois).

Four years later, I was in the lower level with my Dad in Winston Salem when the football school (Florida) blasted Kruger’s basketball school to advance to the Sweet 16 en route to the national finals in Indianapolis.

Billy Donovan became just the second coach in NCAA history to win 500 career games before the age of 50.

Billy Donovan became just the second coach in NCAA history to win 500 career games before the age of 50.

When asked Monday about creating a magical hoops program at a football school, Donovan relayed a story from 1997. UF was 90 minutes away from kickoff against Tennessee and Peyton Manning, and guess where Steve Spurrier was? He was in Donovan’s office encouraging Mike Miller to come to Florida from his home in South Dakota.

Florida had only been to a pair of Sweet 16’s before Donovan’s arrival. He took the Gators to eight. UF had never won an SEC Tournament pre-Donovan. On Donovan’s watch, the Gators won the SEC Tournament four times, including three in a row from 2005-2007.

UF had been to only five NCAA Tournaments under Sloan and Kruger, winning just seven games. Donovan compiled a 35-12 NCAA Tourney record in 14 appearances. He won eight SEC regular-season titles at a school that had just one (1989 under Sloan) prior to his arrival.

Perhaps my own personal account will give you a better idea of Florida hoops before Donovan arrived. My Dad and I’s father-son trip every year was to the SEC Basketball Tournament. The first was 1983 in Birmingham when a late shot by Dale Ellis beat the Gators in the opening round.

We would go to 17 SEC Tournaments together from 1983-2004. Venues included Nashville, Knoxville, New Orleans, Lexington, Memphis, Atlanta and Orlando. In that span, UF only made the finals three times. Then in 2005 at the Ga. Dome in Atlanta, Florida finally won its first SEC Tournament in school history. It was an assbeating, a 70-53 shellacking of Kentucky — the school that had tormented us for years in early March.

That was a dream come true. We embraced in the last two minutes, as UK fans headed to the exits in disappointment. For once, the roles were reversed. It took 18 trips but we finally won one. Could it get any better than that?

Yes, as a matter of fact. At the Ga. Dome again two years later, the Gators repeated as national champs with a win over Ohio St. My Dad and I sat together in Atlanta again that night, and once again in Miami for a win over Oklahoma to win a third football national title in early January of 2009.

In late November of 2013, Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Before he passed on June 27 of 2014, Donovan would inspire the Gators on another improbable ride. After losing at UConn on Dec. 2 on Shabazz Napier’s buzzer beater, Florida would win 30 consecutive games.

After leading Providence to the 1987 Final Four as a player, Billy D led UF to four Final Fours as a coach.

After leading Providence to the 1987 Final Four as a player, Billy D led UF to four Final Fours as a coach.

On the night before Dad’s surgery in Gainesville, we went to the O-Dome together one last time on Dec. 10. We were four rows behind the Kansas bench as the Gators hammered the Jayhawks. Patric Young owned Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins couldn’t buy a bucket until garbage time.

As Dad battled chemo treatments throughout the rest of the season and beyond, the 2013-2014 Gators racked up victories — one after the other. With the No. 1 seed in the South Region all but wrapped up going into the SEC Tourney, we went ahead and booked flights to Memphis for the Sweet 16.

Mom and Dad actually made the drive to Orlando for UF’s first two wins of the Tournament. The trip left him drained, however, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it to Memphis on Tuesday and Wednesday. He sucked it up, though, and arrived with my sister hours before UF would send UCLA packing from the Tournament for the fourth time since 2006.

For the fourth straight season, Florida was in the Elite Eight. Dad and I had been there in New Orleans for the overtime loss to Butler in 2011, and we were in Arlington at Jerry World for the Elite Eight loss to Michigan in 2013.

My sister dropped a bunch of cash for us to have second-row seats at midcourt against Dayton. There would be no Final-Four Denial for UF on that night in Memphis, as the Gators cruised past the Flyers to set up a rematch with UConn in Arlington the following week.

UF lost the rematch to the Huskies, but it didn’t sour the weekend we enjoyed in Memphis. ‘Gatorness’ has been a family thing my entire life and my sister, Dad and I left FedEx Arena with a victory in the last Gator game we’d go to together.

Through Dad’s many connections with former Gator coaches, Donovan learned of his terminal diagnosis in mid-June. He was also told about our trip to Memphis. I answered when Donovan called Dad’s cell phone, quickly explaining his long-time friendships with Sloan, Monte Towe, Joe Lawrence and Andrew Moten, who had visited earlier that afternoon.

Donovan thanked my Dad for his support of UF through the decades, while Dad thanked him for all the wins and championships. It was a bittersweet moment, but one that told the story of class and greatness that William John ‘Billy’ Donovan Jr. brought to the University of Florida from 1996-2015.

Billy Legend left his office at UF for the final time on Monday, but the memories he produced aren’t ever going anywhere. They hang from the rafters in the form of banners galore at the O-Dome.

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