Billy Donovan did the unthinkable at Florida

A risk? Technically, Billy Donovan was a risk when Jeremy Foley named him his head basketball coach at the University of Florida in 1996.

Donovan was 30 years old, a Rick Pitino disciple as player and assistant, but an untested one, with all of two years head-coaching experience at Marshall on his résumé. And the Gators just two years earlier had played in a Final Four.

But really, who else was Florida going to hire? Lon Kruger led Florida to that national semifinal and two years later hightailed it out of town, heading to the more welcoming round-ball pastures of Illinois.

Who could blame Kruger? Gainesville was in the throes of its Steve Spurrier swoon. In 1995, the football Gators played for a national championship; a year later, they won one. Basketball, even Final Four basketball, was little more than the distraction between the end of bowl season and the beginning of spring football season -- and not just in Gainesville, but pretty much everywhere else in the SEC, save the chronic outlier in Lexington.

Foley went with a hunch on an up-and-comer. So what? What did he really have to lose?

Almost 20 years later, as Donovan walks away from Florida and, for now at least, college basketball, Foley looks like the smartest man in the room.

As Donovan heads to Oklahoma City and the NBA, the legacy he leaves behind includes the requisite numbers: Two national championships, three national title game appearances, four Final Fours, six SEC regular-season titles and more than 500 victories. But the numbers ought to come with an asterisk:

*Done at a football school.

Or maybe more accurately, what used to just be a football school.

Play word association with a casual fan and he or she might still choose pigskin when aligning the Gators to a sport, but really it's up for debate.

Consider: The football Gators last won an SEC title in 2008; the hoops team won its in 2014, finishing 18-0 in league play. The football Gators won BCS titles last in 2006 and 2008; hoops won national championships in 2006 and 2007 (the first team in 15 years, by the way, to go back-to-back).

Apples and oranges, considering the strength of the SEC in the two sports?


Before Donovan, it was more like apples and hippopotamus.

If the goal when taking a job is to leave a place better than one found it, then Billy Donovan walks into his last Florida sunset with few, if any, regrets. He has done, if not the impossible, the very difficult, carving a niche for a sport that is frankly a niche sport not just on campus, but also in the entire state.

Florida is a national program in every measurable way -- success, recruiting, perception, even attendance. (More numbers worth noting: In 1996, the Gators averaged 6,400 people at their home games; since 2000, they've topped the 10,000-mark annually.)

It speaks volumes to what Florida has become under Donovan that this season, with the Gators mired in their most disastrous year since early in his career, they were still considered the biggest late threat to Kentucky's regular-season pursuit to perfection. When the two played the first time, Florida was 12-10; the second, 15-15.

But they were Florida.

Twenty years ago, you might as well have said they were Auburn.

The feisty New Yorker changed all of that, carving out a coaching success story that mirrors his own playing career. Donovan was a scrapper as a player, suiting up for an underappreciated and unexpected Providence team that went to the Final Four in 1987 (ironically, that also was the first year the Gators made the NCAA tournament). The Friars were him -- dogged and determined, a team that laughed at the idea of improbable and didn't really like to hear the word "no."

Donovan brought that same personality to Florida. His first season was little more than glorified boot camp, his players losing a combined 61 pounds and 27 percent of their body fat as he quite literally remade what Florida basketball would look like.

He didn't fume as much as he smoldered, the intensity almost as severe as the widow's peak on his forehead.

Nineteen seasons later, he's not that guy any more.

He's not a scrapper. He's a guaranteed future hall of famer, Billy the Kid transitioned to Billy the Older and Wiser.

Donovan was an attractive choice for the Thunder because of who he has become as much as his results. "Mellower" isn't necessarily the right word, but he is less frenetic. With so many years under his belt, and lessons both hard earned and richly won, Donovan still smolders and stews, but he's not in such a hurry, not filled with such angst.

Seven years ago, angst ruled the day. When the Orlando Magic came a calling, it created a should-I-stay-or-should-I-go soap opera that lasted weeks. Donovan was like a teenager faced with his first breakup, was afraid to pull the trigger and then instantaneously regretful when he finally did.

There's no angst now, no desperation to prove himself. If Donovan fails in OKC, he won't be another hotshot college coach sent scurrying back with his tail between his legs, but a guy who took a well-timed chance at a new challenge.

Just 49, he is not an elder statesman of college basketball, but he is respected like one.

The same is true of his program.

Florida is not a scrapper anymore, either. The Gators are established, a program of not just national relevance, but national significance.

Whoever follows in Donovan's footsteps will have a very difficult job -- but not because the job is difficult anymore.

Because Donovan did it so well.

And that is Billy Donovan's legacy.