Florida basketball, in my early teenage years when i started to enjoy the game, was dare I say an after thought to the football team. Sure people would attend the games and the Gators had some ok players but it wasn’t a must see event like the football games; lets face it football at Florida was and still is king. I remember the NCAA tournament of 1994 when the Gators under then head coach Lon Kruger made their run to the final four and gave Florida basketball a shot in the arm but then in 1996 after Vince Carter took his talents to North Carolina Coach Kruger couldn’t continue at Florida thinking that no real talent would come to Florida and help take the program to the next level.
March of 1996 Lon goes to Illinois and Jeremy Foley, the Athletic Director at Florida, had the task of finding the new Florida basketball coach, he looks to Marshall and the 30-year-old Billy Donovan. Donovan was a young, energetic, and very likeable coach who was just fiery enough to get across to the young guys and able to teach the game of basketball the right way. Billy had a rough first couple of years, but during that time he was recruiting his tail off to bring in talent that Florida had never had. During the 1997-98 year Donovan was able to guide the Gators to the NIT tournament which for Gator fans was kinda a big deal at the time. The following season however we saw the beginnings of what would be an amazing run of basketball at the University of Florida.
The 1998-99 season saw Donovan guide the Gators to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament, a feat that was only accomplished twice before at Florida and was the 2nd team at Florida to ever end the year in the top 25. The following season led by Mike Miller (one of those big time recruits), Udonis Haslem and the rest of the crew went on to defeat North Carolina in the Final 4 and move on to the championship game where they would fall to Michigan State but that was the start of what many Gator fans thought we would never see, a football school with a basketball problem. During the following years Donovan would keep the Gators very consistent by returning to the NCAA Tournament and winning the SEC Championship a few times but could never get it going really; falling to lower seeds and getting knocked out rather quickly. Then one would hear that well maybe Billy just is not that good of a coach but just a great recruiter, that he couldn’t get the Gators any further than they’ve already gone. Then the guys we like to call the 04’s showed up.
The 04’s a group of not so highly recruited guys coming out of high school (besides Corey Brewer) were Donovan’s greatest coaching job. He taught those guys to play as one, putting ego and self aside for the greater purpose of the team. In 2006 the University of Florida was already riding the high of the football teams’ National Title then we hit basketball season and this team displayed early in year that they may have something special. It was the perfect mix of defense and post play and shooting all rolled together into a machine that Donovan had firing on all cylinders. Winning the National Title made Florida the only school to ever hold the Football and Basketball Titles in the same calendar year. Donovan was able to keep that team intact when Noah, Horford, and Brewer in particular would have been top 10 draft picks if they came out early. The university would go on to win another title in back to back years. Billy then went on to have a couple of off seasons only to bring the Gator right back up the rankings with a team that lacked major talent but he was able to coach guys like Wilbikin, Young and the rest of that team to get them to 4 straight Elite 8’s and 1 Final Four during their time in school making them the winningest class in Florida history.
That’s my history lesson on Billy Donovan now to the heart of this piece. The last 19 years I had the privilege of watching a young college basketball coach grow up to become one of the greatest college basketball coaches of all time; at a school where basketball was looked at as just a sport to pass the time until spring football started back up. Ive had the pleasure of meeting Billy on a few occasions and he was always a professional and always had time for you. I also had the pleasure of watching his team play, perform, and represent the University of Florida in a way befitting their coach. The last 19 years of Gator Basketball has been fun to watch because Billy had made it fun to watch, the style of play mixed with the talent meshed in a way that only a few coaches could have done. His work with USA basketball has been great as well helping some of those big time recruits get ready for college ball and representing their country in a positive light. Billy will be more than missed by this Gator fan and many more like me, and I will be rooting for him to succeed and do well in the pro’s. Why you may ask……..that’s simple because Once a Gator Always a Gator.
We Love you Billy the Kid go get em