Billy Donovan tears up before court naming as memories of greatness waft over Florida fans

By Adam Silverstein
February 15, 2020
Billy Donovan tears up before court naming as memories of greatness waft over Florida fans

Image Credit: ESPN Images

The man who built the Stephen C. O’Connell Center — well, the man who was most responsible for its modern renovation, at least — returns to the friendly confines of the House of Horrors on Saturday night to receive the ultimate honor for a person in his position. Former head basketball coach Billy Donovan will see the court on which led the Florida Gators to the most successful run in program history bear his name.

In fact, he’s already seen it. During a private ceremony of sorts attended by his family, athletic director emeritus Jeremy Foley and AD Scott Stricklin, Donovan got a first look at his signature decal and the new logo that will adorn the O’Dome court. It’s fair to say he got emotional at the sight.

While this tribute is certainly a long time coming for Donovan (who should have received it before his tenure with the Gators ended or at least upon the opening of the renovated O’Dome), as the saying goes, better late than never. Donovan, 54, will be honored Saturday night in front of an expected packed house at halftime of Florida’s game against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

A court christening is as big as it gets in college basketball, and considering the Gators have only built statues of their Heisman Trophy winners, it is also the top recognition provided by this athletic program. Donovan will join only Steve Spurrier (Florida Field was named after him in 2016) with such an honor on the University of Florida campus.

“Billy Donovan Court” will surely bring tears to the eyes of the coach again, but fans in attendance will feel the emotion as well. They will remember the great times with Donovan — back-to-back national championships, four Final Four appearances, 10 total SEC championships — while simultaneously taking stock of where Florida stands five seasons after his departure.

The Gators (15-9, 7-4 SEC) enter Saturday night on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, something they occasionally — but not often — experienced under Billy D. While they have failed to meet sky-high expectations this season, more importantly, they have struggled to play consistent basketball and often do not resemble the talent that is clearly on their roster.

In fact, when Florida lost to Utah State on Dec. 21, 2019, falling to 7-5 on the season, the future began to come into focus. The Gators were struggling mightily. Meanwhile, Donovan’s Oklahoma City Thunder were recently coming off a three-game losing streak and sitting at 14-14.

Though Donovan has not been a failure with the Thunder, he lost the Western Conference Finals his first season — the one year he had Kevin Durant — and has been knocked out in the first round of the NBA Playoffs over each the last three seasons. Sitting at .500 with fans getting restless in Oklahoma City, all while in the final year of a five-year, $30 million contract, a picture began to crystalize.

What if Donovan’s tenure with the Thunder came to an end in the same offseason it was determined that the Gators clearly needed a change in direction … perhaps even a 180-degree turn?

Well, a funny thing has happened since that aforementioned time. Donovan has Oklahoma City on a roll. The Thunder won nine of their next 10 games and have won 20 of their last 27 entering the NBA All-Star break. They sit sixth in the Western Conference standings and within striking distance of moving up even further if they can keep the magic going. This despite a roster that was completely remade in the offseason as Russell Westbrook was traded to the Houston Rockets.

Florida has not bounced back in the same way. The Gators are 8-5 since late December 2019, needing two ridiculous comebacks of 21+ points just to hold that mark. Their NCAA Tournament prospects have not improved, and as such, they are in danger for missing the Big Dance for the second time in five years under head coach Mike White.

Assuming everything keeps going well in Oklahoma City and an extension is offered, it will not be Donovan coming in to save Florida if such an opportunity presents itself this offseason.

Saturday night, though, will bring that concept — along with the longing for a more successful program — to the forefront of the minds of Gators fans both in attendance and watching across the country.

Florida basketball has recruited at a high level under White, but that has not beared fruit on the court. The Gators are 35-25 over the last two seasons (.583), 56-38 over the last three (.608). Florida won 62.5 percent or more of its games in 12 of the last 17 seasons under Donovan, who won 71.5 percent of his games over 19 years. That has happened once in five years under White, though it is the exact mark that UF has entering Saturday night’s game (.625).

Donovan was a transcendent figure for the Gators, and following a man like him — who led Florida to as much success as he did — is an impossible task. A future Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member, Donovan transformed the Gators and the SEC as a whole during his tenure.

Saturday night will be a rare reminder of that for fans, and a uniquely awkward one considering their current evaluation of the program. Still, 24 hours after Valentine’s Day, love will be in the air and fans will roar as they used to not long ago as memories of Florida basketball being a national brand and one of the most feared programs in the country will waft throughout the O’Dome.

When they walk out of the arena, though, the questions will begin to formulate. When will the Gators be that successful again?

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