There are successful coaches, championship-winning coaches, hall of fame coaches … and then there are transformative coaches that come around once in a generation to shape a program in their image.
After 19 years with the Florida Gators, the efforts made and results produced by now-former head basketball coach Billy Donovan cannot be constrained by even such a broad categorization. Not when they extend well off the court to the athletic program as a whole, the university and even the surrounding community of Gainesville, Florida.
How, then, do you go about replacing a man like Donovan?
A man who finally – to the school and town’s dismay – decided to take the next step in his career but still understood the importance of making one last appearance in Gainesville. “I felt very strongly about standing up here today,” he said Monday. “I would have never felt comfortable leaving without at least addressing so many people here that I love here dearly.”
A man who likely would have returned to the sideline coaching the Gators in 2015-16 had the pitch made to him by Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti not felt the exact same as the one from athletic director Jeremy Foley 19 years earlier.
A man who refused to project the future and would not promise the Florida failthful that he would never leave for the NBA because he knew the strings would always be there pulling at him, begging him to test himself on basketball’s biggest stage at some point before his career was up.
“I tried to be open and honest when I was asked questions about the NBA, never wanted to mislead anybody or anything else like that,” Donovan said. “It’s something I’ve always been intrigued by but I also knew it wasn’t something that I just wanted to do for the sake of doing. I wanted it to be right all the way around for me and I just felt this situation was right for me.”
A man who came to be such close friends with his boss, Foley, that he gave up that very NBA dream eight years earlier because he felt he was not finished at Florida. A man who subsequently turned down overtures from the top college basketball programs and a handful of other NBA franchises until the absolute perfect opportunity came his way.
“I never looked at it like it was ‘time to go.’ … I was just not going to pick up and walk out of Florida unless it was something really unique and special in my mind. That’s what I really feel the situation in Oklahoma is – I think it’s a special and unique situation,” he said.
A man who, through pure effort, passion and resolve, took Gators basketball to four Final Fours and three national title games with back-to-back championship victories, bringing the program to new heights and truly raising the profile of Florida as more than a football school.
A man who was so dedicated to the community that – rather than leave town or ship his children off to a boarding school after he saw an inability to raise them in the type of Catholic school he hoped – raised millions for the construction of such an institution.
A man who was a once-in-a-generation figure for Gators athletics, one who was born in New York, played in Rhode Island, coached in Kentucky but still made Florida his home.
How exactly do you go about replacing a man like that?
You don’t try. Because before you replace the man, especially when you have as close of a relationship with such a man as Foley did with Donovan, you have to get your emotions in check and realize that you first have to say goodbye to a friend.
Foley has fired coaches he’s held dear, seen longtime coaches retire, been surprised by sudden resignations. But never has Foley, a stalwart at UF with a career spanning five decades, fought back tears while participating in a farewell press conference.
The moment overwhelmed him, just like the man he was seeing off overwhelmed the Gators in so many ways.
“We brought him down here to change the culture of Florida basketball. At that point in time, we were being told, ‘You can’t do it in basketball at Florida.’ Kind of didn’t like hearing that and needed to find somebody who believed like we did that this was going to be a special place. He came down here and to say he made it a special place was an understatement,” Foley began.
“We have one now because of the relentless efforts of Billy Donovan and his staff of the last 19 years. The basketball piece, he delivered. What we really didn’t know 19 years ago was the type of person we were getting,” he continued before pausing for nearly a minute and trying not to show the emotion that was attempting to escape.
“One of the best, you know? He embodied everything that this athletic program wants to be – class, quality, integrity. … He cared about people. He did things the right way. He lived his life the right way.
“We love him. I will thank him for that forever. He will be our friend forever. That’s the part we didn’t know.
“And my gosh, that’s what just makes this so hard. Basketball games come and go, relationships like this are once in a generation. … He’s one in a million in my opinion. I want to thank him for what he did for the university, but I want to thank him for his friendship more than anything else.”
Suffice to say, the feelings from Donovan were mutual – even if the ocular precipitation was not.
“It was pretty emotional last week,” said Donovan.
“It starts with Jeremy. Nineteen years ago at 29 years old, he took a chance on me and the relationship that he and I have established will go well beyond these 19 years. I always felt like we were aligned, we were on the same page, had a tremendous relationship. I think what speaks volumes about Florida and Jeremy is not only him being the best athletic director in the country but you look around at the people on his staff and how long everybody’s been together, this has been a really special place that have allowed Christine and I to develop as people. It’s a community that has allowed my children to grow and develop. It’s really a special place.
“It’s really emotional moving on, but I have nothing but great feelings and love. People may speculate was there anything wrong here with Florida. That can’t be the furthest thing from the truth. In my opinion, Florida’s been nothing but perfect for Christine and I for 19 years. I leave here with nothing but great memories, found memories. …
“Three-hundred-and-sixty-five days of the year, those other days for me and my wife and my kids [off the basketball court] have been filled with nothing but joy and pleasure and incredible relationships. I think we all work hard in our jobs and we all want to do a good job in our job but it’s been the relationship part of it that has made this 19 years really special.”
As great friends do, Donovan kept Foley in the know while a major life event was taking place, again, not just because they are friends but because he felt he owed it to him and the Gators to ensure the program had every opportunity to find a suitable replacement.
Prior to Oklahoma City even firing Scott Brooks, Foley felt an “undercurrent” that the Thunder would go after Donovan, as was reported nationally by a number of writers for major-media entities and assumed by nearly every person that has covered Donovan over the last handful of years.
As such, according to Foley, Florida began looking into replacements and “collecting information on coaches … several weeks ago.”
Donovan claims while the NBA remained a thought in his mind, no contact was made by anyone related to the Thunder organization or otherwise until April 26.
“There was nobody that had reached out to me – third party, fourth party or anything else like that. I know there was a lot of speculation, but it really didn’t get underway until last Sunday in terms of when a phone call came in,” he said.
Donovan communicated with Foley then, as he did multiple times after leaving Gainesville for an off-site hotel to meet with Presti and discuss specifics of a potential NBA opportunity. The talks got serious, Donovan truly became interested, he spoke to his family, and all that was left was for him to make the ultimate decision.
“When he called me last Thursday and said he had ‘peace in his heart’ with his decision, we had peace in our heart as well because we care about him and we love him,” Foley recalled. “We want nothing but happiness for him and his family. ‘Peace in your heart’ is pretty strong.”
Finally, after 19 years of friendship, love – and yes, basketball success – Donovan’s departure was real … and final.
He called his players – only meeting with Dorian Finney-Smith and Alex Murphy in person because everyone else had already left campus after exams – and singees, of whom he only spoke with a few but hopes to hear back from soon.
He called his coaching staff – including longtime assistants John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant (who returned to his side just two weeks earlier).
He then called Foley again, because he wanted to make sure he had one last opportunity to address the media that covered him, university staff that supported him and fans that cheered for him.
How do you replace a man like Donovan? You don’t try. But you do try to replace Donovan, the coach.
That’s what Foley and his internal staff met about – for the first time, he claims – on Monday.
“We’ve been dealing with a lot of sadness around here … but at some point, you’ve got a job to do,” he said.
Transition is “inherent with the business,” Foley added, though Gators basketball has been in anything but a transitional state since Donovan first saw national success with the program in 2010.
To Foley – and many others – Donovan epitomized the perfect Florida coach. He understood the importance of winning, yes, but made sure it occurred along with the development of his individual players and in accordance of the best interests of the athletic program, school and community.
And that’s how Donovan wishes to be remembered.
“People will always look at wins and losses and those kinds of things. I hope that I am able to leave a big, gaping hole here. And I don’t mean that from an arrogant standpoint. I mean, [I hope] that I was able to make an impact – I was able to impact people’s lives, I was able to bring value to people, I was able to help people grow from staff to players to the administration,” he said.
“I just hope that I brought value. I hope that I made Florida better. And I’m not talking about from wins and losses – I hope I made Florida better as an institution.
“I want the people of the community to remember me as somebody who really cared deeply because I had my kids grow up in their primary years and their development had a lot to do with the community and the people here. The biggest thing I would say is that I hope that I really left and brought value here and really changed the perception and the culture here. Just that I worked as hard as I could; I did everything I could. I cared deeply about the program. I care deeply about Florida and just wanted to leave a dent and to bring value, and I hope that by my presence for 19 years that the place is better for having me here.”
Few will argue with those sentiments from Donovan.
In fact, the one issue that could be raised with Donovan for his departure – doing so at a time when the Gators basketball program suffered its worst season since his second with the team – is not even a topic of conversation.
Because when you give two decades to a college town, an institution, a team, you earn that type of respect and loyalty. You deserve the ability to leave the way you see fit, at the time you see fit. And you receive the type of farewell that Donovan did over the weekend and again on Monday.
“I didn’t go into any of this stuff [thinking] that I wanted to leave. That never really crossed my mind. This had nothing to do with me being unhappy. I felt like, in 19 years, I touched every possible scenario you could possibly touch at the University of Florida,” Donovan said.
“I think for myself, [this is] an opportunity to grow and develop and continue to improve, be challenged in a different way. Believe me, I was challenged here every day I was here.”
Wins and losses happen, championship victories are celebrated, and the coaches that lead teams to those milestones come and go. It is the transformative figures, the ones that really make a difference to a team, athletic program, school and community that are hard to find.
Which is why there is no answer on how one goes about replacing someone – whatever you want to call him – like Billy Donovan.
The answer the Gators come up with, however, may very well determine whether Florida basketball is truly the top-tier, sustainable program that Donovan hoped to produce when it took the reins two decades ago.
As far as Donovan’s concerned, the friend who believed that a 29-year-old New Yorker with two years of head coaching experience could be a program-changer is more than capable of getting it done again.
“I have confidence in Jeremy.”