Thursday, July 3, 2014
Top 50 coaches: No. 1 Billy Donovan
By Eamonn Brennan
Editor's note: Over the past five weeks, we revealed the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 2, Kentucky's John Calipari, and No. 1, Florida's Billy Donovan.
It was the spring of 2007, and Billy Donovan had options.
Donovan had just engineered the first back-to-back national championships in 25 years. He was just 42. In the matter of 10 seasons at Florida, he had put himself in the rarefied coaching stratosphere -- the place where you get to make your own demands and know they'll be met, where any college program will have you, where NBA general managers are bound to come calling.
It was all happening for Donovan. Throughout the spring, rumors of Kentucky's interest abounded. Donovan had been an assistant at UK under Rick Pitino; it's where he got his coaching start. Kentucky had just waved farewell to Tubby Smith, and was reportedly eager to reel Donovan in. But Donovan kept the Wildcats at arm's reach, refusing to acknowledge any official contact. Eventually, he demurred. Kentucky hired Billy Gillispie instead.
And then, in late May, the Orlando Magic came calling. The Magic had fired Brian Hill after two losing seasons. After a week of deliberation, Donovan agreed to take the job. On June 1, Donovan was introduced in Orlando. But on June 2, Donovan had changed his mind. The Magic grudgingly released him from his contract and hired Stan Van Gundy instead.
Think of the counterfactuals here. Had Donovan been remotely interested in Kentucky, he'd probably still be there. Gillispie would never have been hired. His successor, John Calipari, who has since turned Kentucky into an annual behemoth, might still be at Memphis. What if Donovan had stayed in Orlando? The Magic won 50-plus games in each of the next four seasons; they went to the NBA Finals in 2008-09, the season Florida slogged its way to a second consecutive NIT.
Instead, Donovan stayed. And seven years later, he's the No. 1 coach in our ESPN Forecast top 50.