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Staying at Florida puts Billy Donovan in position to become next coaching legend

November 24, 2014
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Which coaches are the most respected and admired kings of their sport?

In the NBA, after Phil Jackson took his 11 rings and went to the front office, Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs became the league’s most successful coach. In the NFL, Bill Belichick rules; in college football, there’s Nick Saban and everyone else. Major League Baseball had a void after Tony La Russa retired, but then Bruce Bochy won his third World Series in five years.

And in college hoops, there was Adolph Rupp, then there was John Wooden, then there was Dean Smith, and now there is Mike Krzyzewski. But soon, Coach K will retire; some speculate it’ll be after the 2016 Summer Olympics, which he has said will be his final time coaching Team USA. And the other legends of Coach K’s generation – Hall of Famers like Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Louisville’s Rick Pitino and North Carolina’s Roy Williams and even SMU’s Larry Brown – can’t be too far behind. We are approaching a changing of the guard in college hoops.

A few years from now, when this latest Greatest Generation of college coaches rides off into the sunset, who’ll take the crown as the most respected ambassador of the college game?

I would like to toss a name in the hat: Billy Donovan.

A resume, for your consideration: Billy the Kid will turn 50 next year. He’s 14 wins away from 500. Before Donovan came to Florida, the Gators had made five NCAA tournaments in school history, two of which were vacated by the NCAA. In Donovan’s 18 years, the Gators have been to 14 NCAA tournaments, won six conference championships, been to eight Sweet 16s and four Final Fours and won two national titles. He’s taken a football school in a football conference in a football state and turned it into a basketball blueblood.

And he’s considered by many to be the heir apparent to succeed Coach K and lead Team USA in the 2020 Olympics.

When you take the long view of the trajectory of Donovan’s career over the past two decades – since the recommendation of Pitino, his old boss at Kentucky, helped the 28-year-old Donovan become Division I basketball’s youngest coach – it’s nothing short of astounding. At first he was the unknown youngster at a school that didn’t care about hoops. Then he became the upstart recruiting master who was bringing names to Florida who’d never considered the school before. Then he became the guy who kept getting that elite talent to come to Florida but who couldn’t win the big games.

And now? Now he’s a two-time national champion who a recent ESPN poll voted the top coach in the college game.

“I always was amazed how I got this reputation as a great recruiter,” Donovan told me recently, as we were talking on a perch above the basketball court at Florida’s O’Connell Center. “I always felt a lot more comfortable coaching, to be honest.”

But you get elite high school players like Mike Miller and Teddy Dupay and Matt Bonner and Brett Nelson to come to your school – a school that for its entire basketball-playing history had been about as far from a blueblood as you could get – and people start focusing on your recruiting acumen more than your coaching ability.

“I always felt like I got way, way too much credit as a recruiter,” Donovan said. “Really, all I did was I went against the grain and decided to recruit some guys Florida hadn’t recruited in the past, and we were able to sign some of those guys. It was something I learned as an assistant coach at Kentucky, when I saw so many people not even try in the recruiting process.

“When I was an assistant coach at Kentucky, I was always amazed that when we got involved in recruiting, how a lot of schools didn’t even try. And I always said, if I ever became a head coach at a high level, that I was going to recruit the players who best identify with how we want to play. And some of those guys were high-level, highly touted guys, and we went after those guys. And it was unprecedented when Florida got some of those level of players, so immediately the attention went into all the recruiting and me being this recruiter.”

There’s not a person out there who still tosses out that old saw about Donovan, that he’s a great recruiter who can’t coach. It never was true; now it would never be believed. He’s among the most respected coaches and player developers in today’s college basketball. Just look at last season’s Final Four team, which started four seniors – each of whom improved dramatically under Donovan, none of whom was a talent elite enough to be taken in the NBA Draft. If a man is to succeed the Coach K mantle, it must be someone who does everything and does it all the right way, from recruiting to coaching to being that big-picture standard-bearer for the game.

You could pick another coach who’ll follow in Coach K’s lineage as the game’s top ambassador. Arizona’s Sean Miller would be a solid choice, the guy I’ve heard is most likely to take the reins of Team USA if Donovan does not. I wouldn’t argue if you said Bill Self, who is two years older than Donovan, has 46 more wins on his resume and who might be America’s single most charismatic coach in any sport. Big Blue Nation would argue for John Calipari, though I see him as more the maverick outlier – the guy who innovates, the guy who bucks the trends, the guy who does whatever the hell he wants – instead of the insider type who would be the perfect college hoops ambassador.

But there are many reasons I see Donovan as the guy who, a decade from now, will rise above the rest as the voice of the college game. He’s as liked as he is respected, and being liked is an important thing in the schmoozy world of college hoops. He’s one of the most dedicated self-improvers you’ll ever meet; Richard Pitino, the Minnesota head coach who used to be an assistant under Donovan, told me he’s never seen a man so motivated to be great at absolutely everything, whether it’s being a coach or a father or a husband or just working out in the gym.

But the main reason I pick Donovan is the fact that, in order to be the voice of the college game, you have to be in the college game. Calipari’s offseason flirting with NBA jobs was much-documented, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Miller and Self both end up in NBA jobs some day. (There’s not another college job that would make sense for any of those three.) But Donovan is someone who once decided to go down that NBA road – when he signed a contract to become the Orlando Magic coach in 2007 – and then, after a few days of serious soul-searching, changed his mind and decided to stay where he’s happy. Perhaps his most Coach K-like qualities have nothing to do with basketball: Like Coach K, Donovan is a philosophical man, a man of faith and wisdom and perspective. He speaks less about developing players and more about developing people – of balancing humility and confidence to make the perfect team. Yes, he is an ambitious man, but he is also a man who realizes climbing one rung higher on the ladder isn’t all that important in the grand scheme.

It crosses the mind of every elite college coach how much greener the grass would be in the NBA. There are so many things that make the NBA enticing – lifestyle things, things that are apart from the facts that the stakes are higher and the money is bigger and the players are better. It’s that your sole job is coaching. You needn’t worry about academics and speaking to booster clubs and scheduling for a good RPI. And it’s that you’re not out there spending half your time on the road recruiting, trying to woo teenagers to join your program.

I was in Gainesville recently to talk with Donovan for an exclusive one-on-one interview that will run on FOX Sports 1 next week. I asked him about the allure of the NBA and why it tempts so many of the elite college coaches who have the most stable, well-paid jobs you could imagine.

“The one thing I think is hard in college sometimes for me (is) here I go through this unbelievable run with this group of guys last year, and it comes to an end the first weekend in April,” Donovan told me. “And all the sudden, everybody says their goodbyes. But I’m not really starting over because it’s on the road recruiting, it’s going and speaking, it’s doing this and that – and you get out of what you just did for seven months. I love that part of my job. I love the coaching. I love the teaching. I love the team-building. I love being part of a team. I love the individual player development, the film sessions, I love all that stuff. When I’ve always talked about the NBA, I’ve always talked about it from the reference point that it’s all basketball. And I love all those pieces of it.”

When he speaks of it, it does sound alluring. But the sense I get from Donovan is that, although the college game has plenty of downsides, it’s the perfect place for him. It’s a place where he gets the satisfaction of seeing a player like Scottie Wilbekin, in four years under Donovan’s watch, grow from an immature boy into a man. It’s the place that could vault him to one of the greatest honors in this sport, coaching the national team. And it’s the place where, sooner instead of later, he’ll be considered the king.

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