Billy Donovan's Quest to Resurrect the Florida Gators from Mediocrity—Again

Brad GoldbachCorrespondent IJune 1, 2010

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 11:  Head coach Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators gestures as he coaches against the Auburn Tigers during the first round of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena on March 11, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

You can tell just by looking at Billy Donovan that he was a tough, scrappy team player who did what he had to do to get the job done. He was pretty successful at it too, dropping 20 points and seven assists per game during his senior year at Providence College that included a Final Four run under then Friars' head coach Rick Pitino.

You can also tell by looking at Donovan, that he wasn't a John Wall or Derrick Rose the kind of players who showed up on Chad Ford's mock draft a few days after they were born. Donovan is the old-fashioned, hard-nosed kind of guy who works hard to succeed.

Donovan has always carried that mentality into his career as a college hoops coach, as well. Not coincidentally, the teams that have followed Donovan's hard-nosed, team-first blueprint have succeeded.

Luckily, Donovan has been wildly successful at recruiting a group of players able to work together to this common goal for several of his signature squads.

Unfortunately, those periods of great success seem to be followed by waves of players whose sole goal is riding those coattails of success to a big money contract without any of the hard work that goes along with it.

Led by Donovan, the Florida Gators put one of the most talented teams on the court in over a decade not too long ago. But the bad apples that followed that "perfect team" (I mean this in the truest sense of the word, as there may have been more talented squads but not many that played together so flawlessly). Those bad apples completely derailed the program for several years.

At least, until now. Donovan finally seems to have cast off all of the dead weight, and gotten his program back to where it always should have been.

So how did Donovan go from the pinnacle of college basketball, to coaching a team that was the truest definition of the word "mediocre" so quickly? Let's roll back the clock.

We'll start by revisiting 2000, when Donovan truly made his mark on the coaching world. He had one of those teams that when you took a quick glance at them, you thought, "Hey, they're not too bad." When you turned back around, they were playing Michigan State for the national championship.

Sure, he had some talent on that team. All great teams do. He had Mike Miller, the future NBA Rookie of the Year. Donovan also had the likes of future draft picks Udonis Haslem, Donnell Harvey, and Matt Bonner. But he also had players like Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson, who could hit a big three when the Gators needed it.

They were able to buy into Donovan's selfless system, and turn it into a stunning success.

Unfortunately, with Donovan's program at Florida, success seems to be followed by highly talented players who don't seem to fit the mold. 

These were the players who didn't buy into his system, and who tried to win it all by themselves. They seem to find out too late that they can't do it all by themselves and realize that attempting to fill the stat sheet not only doesn't help you win games, but it also doesn't help you get favorable looks from scouts.

The Gators brought in very talented players like Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson. They had all the talent in the world, but they were also the kind of players who would jack up a three with a guy in their face.

Sitting under the basket was the talented, but much underutilized David Lee. He was the kind of player that if you got him the ball, he would make things happen. Most people didn't realize that until he went to the New York Knicks.

The team wasn't terrible, but you knew they were not going to go very far when it mattered.

For some reason, Florida has remained a football school, and people were content with the moderate success Donovan's basketball squads had. They made the NCAA Tournament and kept things interesting, but they never reached a Sweet 16. 

Nonetheless, there was some disappointment when those guys left. Soon, the question became, 'Who was going to step up and replace them?'

People may have felt that Florida would completely drop off the basketball map without their beloved "stars." Surely, these no-names like Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, and Al Horford aren't going to do any better than who the Gators have now.

Gator fans didn't know what to expect, but they were certainly rewarded for trusting in Donovan.

This was a squad of guys that truly worked hard and loved playing with each other. They understood what Donovan was trying to say, and left a blueprint that all teams should follow, particularly in Gainesville under Donovan.

Of course, you know the rest of the story. 

Florida went on to win back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007, as a true dark horse (at least the first time around) that nobody really expected to be there at the end. They didn't want to be the kind of players who played selfishly, and left the court every night with that empty feeling in their stomachs.

And you know what? They were recognized more than any of their predecessors for that reason. They loved it and each other. And they returned for one more run.

That return kind of spoiled Gator fans, though. They forgot the time between point A (2000) and point B (2006-07). All they knew was the point at the top of the mountain.

And that was the only point that many of the recruits who came to Florida knew. They expected things to be easy and not to have to work for it. When they didn't start and excel from day one without having to work, they pouted and they decided they wanted to leave Florida for "greener" pastures. 

It left Donovan and his true disciples in a pickle, the kind of pickle that takes years to navigate. He had to fight through the currents and remove the dead weight to get where he wanted to be. Five players transferred from Florida in the past two seasons, and 15 have transferred since 2003.

Jonathan Mitchell (Rutgers), Jai Lucas (Texas), Eloy Vargas (Miami Dade College), and Allan Chaney (Virginia Tech) all left Gainesville. They thought Florida was no good any more. They wanted immediate dividends. They joined players like Nick Calathes and Mareese Speights, both of whom left early for professional gigs, on the early ride out of Gainesville.

All of those players had their reasons for leaving. But the only thing that was for sure, was that they weren't the kind of players Donovan was accustomed to having. They weren't willing to work for those victories, and it showed.

Soon, there weren't even enough players left to buy into the whole team concept. The ones who really wanted to play Donovan's way eventually burned out by the end of the season because there just wasn't enough talent. You saw it in the late season collapses of recent years.

Last year was a transition period, when Florida weathered the late-season storm and had just enough players to finally make it back to the NCAA Tournament.

Donovan had finally drifted through all the deadwood, and the last pieces seemed to be swept away this past offseason. Donovan appears to be on track to finally get back to his winning ways.

Whether it's because Florida is a football school first, bad luck, or it's just one of those things, this seems to be the way Donovan's program works this constant cycle of ups and downs. 

He now has plenty of size, reminiscent of those two national championship teams. He has rising sophomore Erik Murphy, and senior Vernon Macklin to welcome a slew of talented front-line players: Patric Young (6'9"), Cody Larson (6'8"), Will Yuguette (6'7") and Casey Prather (6'6"). He also has Scotty Wilbekin to give some extra rest to the overused Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. 

There is also a little bit of fate working on Florida's side. Larson brings some of that South Dakota magic back to Gainesville. That is after all, the same state the Mike Miller originated from.

Most importantly, he has a group of guys that understand that you don't get to hoist that trophy in the end without working hard. If you get lazy, you will be sitting at home waiting for your next NIT game. Even at a school like Florida.

Donovan knows how easily a program can be toppled, even if it was at the pinnacle of the sport. 

Now his players know what will happen if they don't listen to him. Those two rings will always be a selling point for incoming freshmen and fans. But being able to show them what can happen if you don't play the game the right way, and understand it's a team game is perhaps an even stronger motivational technique.

The fans have also gained an appreciation for the kind of run that those championship squads had. Success really can be fleeting. But they will see why it is fruitful to trust in Donovan.

Now that Donovan has righted his ship, expect the Gators to once again have an impact on the college game.

They may not win a national championship in the immediate future, but they will surely have risen from the depths of mediocrity.


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