Donovan's success unparalleled

He came to Florida as a relative unknown and turned it into a basketball power

Originally Published: April 2, 2014
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

On Saturday, after handling Dayton in the Elite Eight, cutting down the requisite nets and dousing their coach in a bucket of water, the Florida Gators packed their giddy, commemorative-cap-clad selves onto a chartered Delta jet bound from Memphis to Gainesville, Fla.

They arrived at the Gainesville Regional Airport at 1 a.m. ET. They were greeted by a scene out of a Beatles documentary. A couple hundred fans had assembled on the tarmac, chanting and screaming through a chain-link fence. Florida players reacted almost in awe: Patric Young and Scottie Wilbekin whipped out their iPhones and began shooting videos; Casey Prather jumped into the crowd and joined in on a chant.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan and Rick Pitino
Malcolm Emmons/USA TODAY SportsBilly Donovan played in the 1987 Final Four while at Providence under coach Rick Pitino.

On Sunday, Florida had the day off. On Monday afternoon, Billy Donovan was back in front of reporters, talking about the normal stuff: How his team had bought in, how to stop Connecticut star Shabazz Napier, how to prepare players for an event like this weekend's. You know, Final Four stuff. Business as usual.

But it didn't take long for him to almost-but-not-quite get the dreaded question, one that still lingers through the 18th year of his remarkable run in Gainesville. Here's the transcript:

Reporter: You always get the "football school" question, and you'll get it again this weekend, I'm sure.

Donovan (smiling): You think so?

Reporter: Yeah. I don't want to ask it, but it will get asked.

Donovan: Are you going to ask it?

Reporter: No. But that said, would you talk about what it was like for you and the guys when you got back Saturday, Sunday morning?

"It was great," Donovan said, and the rest of his answer, like the question itself, was innocuous enough. But the subtext was everywhere.

Late-night basketball rallies are so unusual in Gainesville that they warrant a response from a coach as successful as any in his sport. The question is asked enough that the savvy reporter knows not to ask it directly. And Donovan is so used to hearing it, and at this point so beyond it, that he can greet what should be an annoying rhetorical relic with a quip.

Such are the contradictions of Donovan's life at Florida. After 18 years of mostly uninterrupted success, after two national titles and four Final Fours and a 30-game winning streak in this, his most masterful season -- a run of success that has placed him in historical company by the age of 48 with a salary of more $3 million per year -- he's still somehow the basketball coach at a "football school."

The history of Florida men's basketball can be broken down into two eras: Before Donovan (B.D.) and present day. In 1932-33, the Gators joined the SEC as a charter member. For the next 47 years -- until 1979-80 -- they finished higher than fourth in SEC play just four times. Florida didn't hire its first full-time basketball coach, Norm Sloan, until 1960. Before Sloan's hiring, Florida basketball had been an "intramural program," Florida historian Norm Carlson once said.

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Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDonovan reached the first of his four Final Fours as a coach in 2000.

In 1980, after a successful stint at NC State, Sloan returned to Gainesville. His nine seasons were Florida's most successful, and also its most scandalous: After 70 years without an NCAA tournament bid, Sloan's teams earned three. (His three NIT bids in 1984, 1985 and 1986 were the second, third, and fourth postseason appearances in school history.) Then, in 1989, star guard Vernon Maxwell admitted he took cash payments from coaches and used cocaine before games. Sloan was fired, and the program was placed on probation.

Florida's next coach, Don DeVoe, promised a "no-nonsense" approach. He was fired nine months into his first year. In 1990-91, Florida hired Lon Kruger, and Kruger lifted the Gators into a surprise Final Four run in 1994. But after two down seasons, Kruger left for greener pastures at Illinois in 1996.

Enter Donovan. By 30 years old, the former Providence star and Long Island local hero (legend has it Donovan once cut the gym's padlock at St. Agnes High School and replaced it with his own for unrestricted access) had spent a year in the NBA, a few miserable months cold-calling stocks on Wall Street and five seasons under former coach and mentor Rick Pitino at Kentucky before earning his first head-coaching job at Marshall at age 28 as the youngest coach in Division I. He went 35-20 in two seasons. He had name cachet, the Pitino blessing and a very short track record.

It was a risk, but Florida was Florida. Athletic director Jeremy Foley could afford to take a shot.

Gators basketball hasn't been the same since.

The only two losing seasons of Donovan's career were his first two. By his third season, his team was in the Sweet 16. In 1999-2000, his fourth season, he led a suddenly stacked, blue-chip roster to a national runner-up run. At 34, he was the youngest coach since Pitino to get there. Between 1999 and 2008, Florida didn't miss an NCAA tournament. In 2006 and 2007, Donovan became the first coach since Mike Krzyzewski to win back-to-back titles.

Before Donovan, Florida won one SEC title and went to five NCAA tournaments in 81 years. Since then, Florida has won six SEC titles and been to 14 NCAA tournaments in 18 seasons. This year's Elite Eight trip was Donovan's fourth straight. If UF wins the 2014 national title, he will become just the sixth coach in history to win three NCAA titles.

Examining his legacy relative to his own school does Donovan a disservice. At 48, he's already one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time.

"I think, for me, I've been very, very blessed, one, to be at a place for 18 years," Donovan said. "Two, I've been very, very blessed that I've had a chance to coach some good players and some great kids. As a coach, you're only as good as your players are. There's a lot of great coaches out there that have never had a chance to get to a Final Four."

Sure, sure, but does he ever think about that? Does he ever take a step back to appreciate just how good Florida basketball is now and how respected he has become? Probably. Just not publicly.

"How do I even answer that?" Donovan said.

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Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesFlorida's 2007 national championship team was led by Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah, all of whom returned after winning a title as sophomores.

In 2013, Florida football averaged 87,440 fans per home game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, 10th-most in all of college football. And that's not counting the other out-of-towners who converge upon Gainesville on a Saturday.

In 2013-14, an average of 11,471 tickets were sold for Florida men's basketball games at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. This was a boom year. At no point since 1979 has Florida's men's basketball attendance ranked among the nation's top 25. The O'Connell Center's dimensions have something to do with that: The arena's official capacity is 11,548. But even so, hoops attendance was an open question at the O-Dome as recently as 2012, when the Gainesville Sun reported an average turnstile count -- not just tickets sold, but actual butts in seats -- of 4,998 in the program's first five games, which included visits from Wisconsin and Marquette.

That was after two straight Elite Eight runs and the signing of one of the nation's best freshmen (Bradley Beal). Florida athletics has done much to turn Florida home games into events. The Gators' student section is raucous. But empty seats are never hard to spot. The "football school" label still applies.

Meanwhile, Florida's status as one of the nation's premier basketball programs is long since cemented. The Gators regularly haul top-five recruiting classes; they almost always return top veterans; they are always expected to be good.

"You know what's expected of you when you come in to a program like this," Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. "It's established."

This season has been Donovan's master class. After a fall spent juggling injuries and suspensions, he has his team at 36-2 and riding a 30-game winning streak, the longest in school history by 13 games. His team is the fifth (1975-76 Indiana, 1977-78 Indiana State, 1990-91 UNLV and 1998-99 Duke) in NCAA history to enter a Final Four with 30 straight wins. Its only two losses this season came to fellow Final Four teams (Wisconsin, Connecticut). With at least one game left to play, the list of team and player records Florida has set is jaw-dropping. All the while, the Gators' success has been received with roughly the same kind of shrug you'd get by telling people that Duke might have a decent team next season. The Gators were the No. 1 overall seed because they were the best team in the country, because duh. Of course they're good. They're Florida, right?

This casual, self-sustaining standard has freed Donovan from much of the pressure coaches often face -- and, in many cases, crave for motivation. That pressure was on the minds of many media in Memphis last week: Would it be scary to be a Florida player at risk of losing in the Elite Eight for four straight seasons? Did Donovan need to live up to his own reputation?

[+] EnlargeFlorida Gators
Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsAfter reaching three consecutive Elite Eights, Florida's senior class finally reached the Final Four after beating Dayton 62-52 on Saturday.

"When you're a young coach, you're always in a position where you're trying to prove yourself," Donovan said. "I don't think it's any different for anybody in any job. You get a job when you're young and you get a promotion and you're young, you're going to want to prove that you can do the job and do it well.

"But for me, there's a lot I've learned as it relates to life and as it related to the drama of the NCAA tournament. ... We all want to win, and I hope we go all the way through, I'd love that. But that stuff, I probably have a lot more appreciation for now than maybe I did when I was younger."

It's that kind of calm acceptance, that low burden of proof that has Florida on the precipice of its third national title. Florida's coach has nothing to worry about besides preparing his team; his team focuses on nothing beyond the next 40 minutes. It's all of a piece.

It also raises a question Donovan has never, even after his quick hire/resignation dalliance with the Orlando Magic in 2007, really answered with a no: Would he leave for the NBA?

"It is really, really hard to stay at a place for a long, long period of time," Donovan said in a "SportsCenter" Conversation after news of his latest contract extension was reported -- months after it was signed. "I feel very fortunate that I've been able to be here for 18 years. ... I flirted with the NBA eight years ago -- seven years ago, whenever it was -- and for whatever reason, at that time, it wasn't right for me. But I'm very, very happy where I'm at right now, and all I've tried to do is live each day in front of me trying to be the best I can be for Florida."

In 18 years, Donovan's life at the University of Florida has seen him go from a little-known, 30-year-old Rick Pitino protégé to one of the most respected coaches in the sport. He has turned a historical laughingstock into a program that will arrive at the 2014 Final Four 36-2 and seemingly like the most predictable portion of the proceedings.

Donovan has done more to improve a moribund basketball program, and more drastically, than any coach in modern college hoops history. Frankly, no coach has done more with basketball at a "football school." Ever.

And still a late-night Final Four airport rally still feels remarkable. No wonder that question gets old. You think?

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