Donovan’s Florida basketball teams last to win consecutive NCAA championships
Billy Donovan was new to all this fraternizing.
As the weather turned warmer in May of 1996, everyone who was anyone in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) gathered at the Sandestin Beach Hilton for the league’s annual spring meetings.
And Donovan, who was better known as Rick Pitino’s former little dynamo guard at Providence College than as Florida’s new basketball coach, was yet to make it big in this fraternity. Exhibit A: As then-Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville wandered through the lobby pushing baby strollers, smiling and joking with reporters, the 31-year-old Donovan stood alone, no more than 20 feet away, by the large lobby window overlooking the pool area outside. Hands in his pockets, eyebrows raised, he appeared uncomfortable, wondering where to go or what to do next.
“Some people said we took a risk” in hiring Donovan, then-Florida athletics director Jeremy Foley told Chris Dortch in his 2002 book, String Music. “But what was the risk? People said we couldn’t be a basketball school anyway. What did we have to lose?”
As it turned out, the Gators’ eventual back-to-back NCAA championships under Donovan proved that the only thing to lose was Florida’s reputation as a football-only school.
Flash forward four years later. Donovan, known as “Boy Wonder” for his actual youth and his even younger appearance, leads the Gators to their first NCAA championship game in school history.
Flash forward 10 years later. Donovan’s Gators win the first NCAA championship in school history.
Flash forward 11 years later. Donovan’s Gators win the second NCAA championship in school history.
Bye-bye, nervous new kid.
“We were playing so well, man, we felt like whoever you put in front of us, we were going to kick their butts,” Florida wing player Corey Brewer told FoxSports.com.
What a moment in time. Since UCLA won seven consecutive NCAA titles from 1967-73, only tradition-rich Duke had won back-to-back championships (1991-92) prior to the historic run that Florida went on during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. And no one has done it since.
“I think I was fortunate enough to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all-time,” Donovan told the media after the second title.
History was made. Donovan, along with several players who contributed to both titles, will live forever in Florida basketball annals. Guys like Brewer, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey.
In 2006, Florida used a “suffocating defense,” as described by the ESPN Basketball Encyclopedia, to make its run. Florida won its six NCAA Tournament games by an average of 16 points and fittingly won the title game by 16—knocking off UCLA 73-57—in Indianapolis. Noah, a 6-foot-11 center, was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player and helped beat the Bruins in the Monday night finale with 16 points, nine rebounds and a title-game record six blocked shots. The team had started 17-0 that season and finished 33-6.
That fall, it surprised no one that the Gators began the next season ranked No. 1 in the nation. So when March Madness rolled around in 2007, no one batted an eye when the powerful Gators were back. There were no buzzer-beaters — this team won all six of its NCAA Tournament games by seven or more points — and capped off its season with an 84-75 win over Ohio State in Atlanta. The team finished 35-5 and is easily regarded as the best in school history.
And to think, it all started in 1996 when Foley took Pitino’s advice and hired a “kid” who had proven to be a valuable assistant for him at Kentucky before taking the head job at Marshall and going 35-20 over two seasons.
Truth is, Foley was in a predicament before the hire. His former coach, Lon Kruger, had left on his own accord to take over the Illinois program. And though then-Gator football coach Steve Spurrier’s Fun N’ Gun offense was all the rave in Gainesville, Foley was frustrated that he couldn’t find consistency in his hoops program.
“At the time Lon Kruger told us he was leaving, I immediately went to the president (John Lombardi),” Foley told Dortch. “At that time, I’d been here twenty years. It was the same old stuff being said about Florida. `Florida can’t be a basketball school. Football dominates. There’s no basketball commitment.’ It was stuff I was tired of hearing.”
So instead of going the old route and hiring established veterans like Florida had done with Kruger and Norm Sloan before him, Foley looked for someone younger with fire in plentiful supply. Someone not intimidated by the football program.
Foley told Dortch that after spending four hours interviewing Donovan he felt like he’d known him all his life. Not to mention that Pitino had already told him “he’d never had a harder worker than Billy Donovan.”
That translated to his players. After a disappointing title game loss to Michigan State in 2000, it took a few more years before Donovan finally landed the kind of recruiting class to get over the hump. Freshmen Horford, Noah, Brewer and Green had a disappointing freshman season in 2005 as they played second-fiddle to veterans David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson. The 24-8 campaign ended with an 11-point loss to Villanova in the NCAA second round.
“Then the guys declared for the draft — Anthony, Matt — and D-Lee was a senior, so it’s like ‘This is our team now, what are we going to do?’ ” Brewer told FoxSports.com. “And we said, ‘We’re going to win a championship.’”
It didn’t start that way. Florida lost six of 11 games during one stretch of the 2006 season and former Gator star Udonis Haslem admonished them, calling them “embarrassing.” The team got hot again, won its second straight SEC Tournament and took momentum into the NCAAs as a No. 3 seed. Thanks in part to Sweet 16 wins over Georgetown and Villanova, Florida made it to Indy as somewhat of a Cinderella story due to its previous failures in March. But first it disposed of an even greater Cinderella in George Mason, 73-58, before cruising past the Bruins. With the low-post dominance of Horford and Noah, the athleticism of Brewer and the 3-point shooting of Humphrey, the team rolled.
“I’m extremely proud (of Donovan),” Pitino told ESPN after it ended. “We talked this morning and everything he said he wanted this team to do, it’s done. It’s really amazing to see.”
That’s when the pressure began. The following season was all about maintaining. In 2007, Florida swept through the SEC Tournament again, this team winning its three games by a combined 59 points. In the NCAA, this time as a No. 1 seed, the dominance continued. In the Midwest Regionals, it beat Butler and Oregon by eight points apiece, then disposed of UCLA by 10 in the national semis before the Ohio State win. Four players wound up in double figures, led by Horford’s 18 points and 12 rebounds.
So, why not a three-peat? It could have happened, but the Gator stars were ready for the NBA after their junior seasons.
“It was too much fun, but we couldn’t risk it again,” Brewer told FoxSports.com. “You never know what could happen; somebody could get hurt. But we had the time of our lives.”
Only 41 years old at the time, Donovan would go on to take Florida to another Final Four in 2014 before leaving in 2015 to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA. But first, he made his mark on the program.
On Feb. 28, 2015, Donovan became the second-youngest college coach to reach 500 wins, joining Bob Knight as the only ones to do it before turning 50 years old. He finished his Florida career with a school-best 467 wins (easily outpacing Sloan’s 235) and a .715 winning percentage. He led the Gators to 14 NCAA appearances, seven SEC regular-season titles and four SEC tournament championships.
Not bad for a kid who took a job on Wall Street when he got out of college and then paid his dues as an assistant coach before striking gold.
“Billy was a basketball junkie,” Pitino told the New York Post, “but was very quiet, very shy, very humble.”
And very good. H&A
Cover photo courtesy Florida Athletics