It was a little bit odd seeing Billy Donovan in Amway Center a few weeks ago.
If things had gone a bit different, he might have been the one on a West Coast trip while Florida battled in the NCAA Tournament. He might have had a hand in the 2009 Eastern Conference championship the team won or built and led the franchise in another direction. He might have been hand in hand with Dwight Howard — or the whole thing could have fallen apart.
The NCAA Tournament in Orlando two weeks ago was not the first time Donovan had been in the Magic’s home, painted with reminders of the job he accepted and then abruptly passed up in the course of a week in the summer of 2007. He has played a few non-conference games in the Magic’s home arena(s) since. The thought of what could have been was not escaping anyone however as Donovan began the quest in the 2014 NCAA Tournament that has led him and his Gators to the Final Four.
“I guess being in this building they love to keep bringing that up here,” Donovan said. “For me, it seems like a long time ago. Great organization, it’s a great place. You know, but for me, like I said, it was just something internally I felt like this [University of Florida] was where I needed to be. Who knows where I’d be right now. I’m excited that I’m still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I’m happy that making that decision there’s been a lot of things that I’ve had a chance to experience in my personal life, my personal life that I really wouldn’t trade for anything.”
The Magic went on to hire their greatest coach in franchise history in Stan Van Gundy and began the best five-year run in team history which included that trip to the 2009 Finals. Donovan survived two years at the NIT before returning to the NCAA Tournament. His current group of seniors have gotten to the Elite Eight in each of their four seasons in orange and blue. The Gators are the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament as they head to North Texas for the Final Four and a shot at the national championship, which would be Donovan’s third at UF.
“My opinion at the time to him was to stay put (in Gainesville),” Louisville coach and Donovan mentor Rick Pitino said. “He was ready to make a move, and it was an interesting story about him when he did leave, then right back. I think Billy made the right move for the right reasons. That doesn’t mean that down the road some day he may change his mind, but at that time, he made the move for the right reasons, and you’ve always got to go with your heart.”
There is no doubting Donovan’s success — despite my irrational hatred of him borne out of the jaded times of the Matt Walsh/Anthony Roberson days of the early 2000s. He has made Florida a basketball school (minus a few Urban Meyer title runs) and a legitimate basketball power. They are what Duke usually is — experienced, talented and extremely well coached. Donovan wrings the most out of his talent (and it is elite talent) each and every year, getting “gunners” like Erving Walker to commit to defense while putting them in an offensive system that showcases their strength.
Ultimately, Donovan made the right decision in 2007.
It did not take long for whispers about Donovan flirting with the NBA to come.
“To me, the NBA part of it for me is — it’s all basketball,” Donovan said. “I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to that.
“One of the things that I think I’ve learned, when you try to project where your future is, where you’re going to be, and you don’t know because I don’t have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida I love being here.
“For me, the college part of it is whenever the season comes to an end for us, I really don’t see these guys again in terms of basketball stuff until August, September, and that’s hard sometimes. Now, the NCAA has changed some rules and we can do some different things with our guys, but there’s a lot more that goes into a college coaching job other than the coaching part of it. There’s a lot of other things that you have to do.”
The “basketball pull” is what led Brad Stevens to leave Butler for Boston. There is no doubt that there is a lot of extra stuff that college coaches have to deal with. Whereas NBA coaches deal with basketball and the media with no practice restrictions or anything like that. Any top coach has to at least think about that possibility.
In the meantime, Donovan is going to continue wracking up success. This year’s team might be Donovan’s best coaching job with the lack of NBA-quality players on the roster and the way the whole team has banded together and bought in. Connecticut will be a difficult challenge, as winning any national championship typically is. Donovan is sure to have his team ready with the national championship so close.
“They’re the best team in the country,” Albany coach Will Brown said after his Great Danes lost to the Gators in Orlando. “What’s so impressive about Florida is they bring it every single night. When they don’t play well, they still win. Coach Donovan has those guys understanding their roles, embracing their roles. I’ve been very impressed with Florida, and it’s the best team that I’ve seen this year.”
That might be the biggest statement about Donovan and his Gators of 2014 as much as anything.