Billy Donovan leaves Florida Gators to become new coach of NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder

By Adam Silverstein
April 30, 2015

Updated at 2:30 p.m.

Billy Donovan has accepted the vacant head coaching position with the Oklahoma City Thunder, ending his 19-year stint with the Florida Gators. A source close to the Florida coach told on Thursday afternoon that Donovan and Oklahoma City have agreed to terms on a five-year contract with each program announcing the deal a few hours later.

Donovan, who amassed a 467-186 (202-109 SEC) record with the Gators and won 502 games during his 21-year college coaching career after spending two seasons at Marshall, will enter the NBA ranks as a coach for the first time in his career at a salary of nearly $6 million per season.

“I want to thank Jeremy Foley, the players, coaches and staff I’ve had the chance to work with during my time at Florida,” Donovan said in a school release. “The administrative support and stability has been unbelievable here, and it is an incredibly difficult decision to leave that. I knew that it would take a unique opportunity to leave the University of Florida and that is clearly how I look at this situation.”

Donovan continued discussing his shift to the NBA in an Oklahoma City release.

“The Thunder represents so many of the values that I embrace as a head coach; the commitment to the team above oneself, the dedicated pursuit of excellence, the commitment to organizational culture, the identity they have established and the fact that the Thunder and the community are so intricately woven into the fabric of one another. To have the ability to work with such a talented and high character group of players is also rare, and I am excited to forge ahead creating those relationships,” he said.

“It is of course bittersweet as the University of Florida will always hold a very special place in my heart and in my family’s. I’ve had the good fortune of working with the best athletic director in the country in Jeremy Foley over the last 19 years, and I’ll be forever grateful and thankful for the opportunity and his friendship. Countless players, students, and other people in the administration were responsible for our success and for the meaningful connection we had with the Gainesville community.

“I have a deep appreciation for what the University of Florida will always mean to me and I’ll forever be a Gator.”

During 19 seasons at Florida, Donovan led the Gators to two NCAA National Championships (2006-07), four Final Four berths (2000, 2006-07, 2014), six SEC regular-season titles (2000-01, 2007, 2001, 2013-14) and four SEC Tournament crowns (2005-07, 2014). Florida appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 14 of those seasons, becoming a college basketball powerhouse in the process.

Despite his tremendous success with the Gators, Donovan is leaving the team after it completed its worst season since 1997-98, his second year with the program. Florida finished the 2014-15 campaign with a 16-17 (8-10 SEC) record and was left out of the NCAA Tournament for just the third time this century.

Donovan, a three-time SEC Coach of the Year (2011, 2013-14) and the recipient of the John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award in 2010, never hid his desire to attempt coaching in the professional ranks. He even accepted the Orlando Magic job – for five days – following his second-straight national title before changing course and returning to Florida.

He purposely refused to promise Gators fans that he would never leave the team despite being asked by the media on numerous occasions, claiming he did not want to predict the future and did not wish to lie to the public.

Donovan’s close relationship with Foley – the two have formed a friendship and an unmatched level of trust – kept him at Florida longer than most expected. He twice turned down opportunities to leave UF for Kentucky and spurned a variety of other overtures from college and professional teams over the years.

“While we are certainly extremely sad to see Billy go, the primary feeling I have is one of gratitude for what he has done here at Florida,” Foley said.

“Billy and Florida basketball have been synonymous for a long time now, and our program would not have reached the heights it has without him. The legacy he leaves here is one of personal and professional excellence, and we wish him, Christine and the Donovan family continued success and happiness as they make this move. There is no better person than Billy Donovan. He will truly be missed.”

In Oklahoma City, Donovan has another executive with whom he has a close relationship in general manager Sam Presti. The two share a vision about the importance of analytics and the proper way to build an organization. The Thunder, in fact, hired two Donovan staffers just last offseason to fill positions within their organization.

“We are thrilled to welcome Billy and his family to the Oklahoma City Thunder organization,” said team general manager Sam Presti. “When we began the process of identifying the next head coach of the Thunder, we started with a vision and the identifiable qualities that we felt were necessary for our organization as well as the ever evolving role of the head coach in today’s NBA. We wanted to identify a person with the traits associated with high achieving leaders in their respective fields; a continuous learning mentality; the ability to adapt, evolve and innovate, intrinsically motivated, humility and great tactical competence. While we created a comprehensive analysis regarding the qualities we were looking for, it became quite evident that Billy was the ideal fit for the Thunder as we look to transition our team into the future.

“Billy has achieved an incredible level of success and experience within his 21 years as a head coach and has shown the unique ability to not only create but sustain an elite program. His emotional intelligence, commitment to the concept of team, and relentless approach to incremental improvement have allowed him to bring his players together and establish lasting relationships through competitive success. Billy’s core values and alignment with our culture and community, as well as his proven tactical abilities, make him an ideal addition to the Thunder organization.”

Though the opportunity at Oklahoma City is a great one, the position is not without its issues. Donovan is replacing a coach in Scott Brooks who won 62 percent of his games with the Thunder and took them to the NBA Playoffs in five straight seasons with an appearance in the 2012 NBA Finals.

Donovan also inherits a roster in flux with superstar forward Kevin Durant dealing with a serious foot injury while entering the last year of his contract. Durant, a close friend of Brooks, is expected to test the free agency waters at that time. The Oklahoma City roster also includes Russell Westbrook, a tough-to-rein-in point guard who is an emerging superstar in his own right. Westbrook’s contract expires following the 2016-17 campaign.

Foley, who just hired new head football coach Jim McElwain in December, will now be forced to replace the top dog in each of his three major programs (gymnastics) in the same offseason. UF will have a new football and basketball coach in the same season for the first time since 1990-91.

A national search for Donovan’s successor will begin immediately, and Foley has not shown any resistance to moving away from the past and starting fresh when a standout coach leaves Florida.

“Like we have with other recent searches, we will have an internal working group that will identify candidates to be our next head coach,” Foley said. “I don’t intend to put a timeline on our hire, but we will work hard to have the right person in place over the coming weeks.”


  1. cline says:

    thanks for the memories. Good luck coach. GO GATORS

  2. Michael Jones says:

    The NBA is a tough gig. It chews coaches up and spits them out. Very few have been able to have sustained success.

    That said, I wish Coach Donovan all the success in the world. I will never forget all that he has done for this program. He will definitely go down as one of our greatest Gator coaches.

  3. g8ter27 says:

    Well they were all set to hire Grant in when Billy left for 5 days before. In fact, I believe the plane was in Virginia on the runway and Foley got the call from Billy that he wanted to come back and then never got out of the plane if the story is correct. Grant is no worse a coach now than he was then.

  4. 1974Gator says:

    AG should be given consideration but we should also look into other hires. A very close friend of mine, who is a big Bama fan, says that Grant did not interact with the fans, alumni or media well and that he was something of an introvert. We need another communicator like Donovan.
    Best wishes in the NBA Billy!

  5. Ken (CA) says:

    Very Bittersweet. I wish him nothing but the best, but wish he were coach for another 20 years at UF. They still should name the court after him.