ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 11: Head coach Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators gestures during their game against the Tennessee Volunteers during the quarterfinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 11, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
For the soccer fans among this readership, this might mean something: Florida basketball is a lot like Chelsea. For those of you who don’t understand that, I guess I can explain it further. But while it’s not a perfect analogy, trust me…it’s not far off.
A Short History
The University of Florida began their basketball program in 1915, ten years after the University was formed when the Florida Legislature passed the Buckman Act, consolidating four predecessor institutions to form the "University of the State of Florida". The Gators went 5-1 in their first season under head coach C.J. McCoy (who, surprise surprise, was also the head football coach) but their next 3 seasons were cancelled thanks to World War I. When the team re-formed for the 1919-20 seasons, they didn’t actually even have a full-time coach. William G. Kline, now the Florida football coach, would coach the basketball team basically as a hobby from 1920 until 1922, never finishing with a winning record. Prior to joining the SEC as one of its 13 charter members in 1932, Florida recorded just 3 winning seasons and was on their 5th head coach. Florida wouldn’t have a coach last even nine consecutive seasons at the helm until John Mauer coached from 1951-1960, seeing eight coaches between Kline and Mauer. Almost all of the Florida basketball coaches during this time were also football coaches or volunteers from the physical education department.
For the first half-century of SEC basketball, the Gators were basically a complete non-factor. They only finished higher than 4th twice from 1932 – 1980. Though they would record 26 winning seasons during this stretch, almost all of those winning records were no more than 2 or 3 games above .500 overall and hardly ever above .500 in the conference. Not a single conference championship, conference tournament championship, NCAA Tournament appearance, and just a single NIT invitation following the 18-9 (12-6) season of 1968-69 (they lost in the first round to Temple). They were the very definition of insignificant. Like Chelsea of the English Premier League, they were members of one of the elite conferences but had absolutely no hardware to show off and no claim to any history for their first 50+ years of existence. People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.
Things began to turn around in 1980 when Norm Sloan arrived in Gainesville after a successful 14-year stint at North Carolina State. Sloan had previously been Florida’s first full-time head coach, from 1960-1966. Stormin’ Norman Sloan from Indianapolis, IN, played basketball at NC State from 1947-1949 and then coached at the collegiate level from 1951-1989. During his first stint with Florida, from 1960-66, his teams tallied an 85-63 overall record including the school’s first victory over an Adolph Rupp-coached Kentucky team in 1965. After a stellar 266-127 record in his 14 years at NC State, he returned to Florida with the goal of turning the program around for a second time. Sloan’s Gators were invited to the NIT three consecutive seasons from 1984-1986 and would then appear in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1987 (then again in 1988 and 1989). Florida would also win the school’s first SEC Regular Season Championship in the 1988-89 season going 21-13 (13-5). His teams compiled a 150-131 record in these 9 seasons, giving him an overall record of 235-194 in fifteen total years with the Gators. His reputation as "Stormin’ Norman" continued as he feuded throughout his tenure in Gainesville with LSU Tigers coach Dale Brown. Sloan was forced to resign prior to the 1989-90 season in the wake of an NCAA investigation into the Gators program. He would leave Florida as the winningest coach in the program’s history, and that record stood until 2006.
The 1987 team was led by future NBA journeyman Vernon Maxwell. At Florida, Maxwell was the program’s first true superstar. He averaged more than 20 points per game as a junior and senior and still holds 15 Gators records. He left school after four years as the Gators’ all-time leading scorer (2,450 points) and the #2 scorer in SEC history behind Pete Maravich. The University of Florida would erase all the points Maxwell scored in his final 2 seasons due to Maxwell admitting to taking cash payments from coaches and snorting cocaine prior to at least one tournament game. The investigation by the NCAA into Florida and Norm Sloan resulted in two years’ probation from the program. Former Tennessee coach Don DeVoe led the team as interim coach during the 1989-90 season, and he would then be replaced by a successful former player and coach from Silver Lake, ks, by the name of Lon Kruger.
Kruger, born and raised in Silver Lake, played for Kansas State University from 1971-74 and led the Wildcats to back-to-back Big 8 Championships in 1972 and 1973, and would be named Big 8 Player of the Year in 1973 and 1974. He began his collegiate coaching record at Texas-Pan American in 1982 before taking over his alma mater in 1986. In his 4 seasons at KSU prior to coming to Florida, he led the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in each season including reaching the Elite Eight once losing to arch-rival kansas (the eventual National Champions*). He was able to overcome the probation and problems at Florida and by his 2nd season his Gators reached the Final Four of the NIT in a 19-14 (9-7) season in 1991-92. After another NIT appearance in 1993, his 1993-94 Gators would finish the season 29-8 (12-4), good enough for 1st place in the SEC East and they would reach the school’s first ever NCAA Tournament Final Four. They reached the NCAA Tournament again the following season after a 17-13 (8-8) season, but Kruger would leave the school after an unsuccessful 12-16 (6-10) season in 1995-96 to go coach at Illinois, then UNLV, and now Oklahoma. His career record at Florida was 104-80 (51-47), making him another tough act to follow. Well, perhaps not that tough.
Florida’s Athletic Director, Jeremy Foley, looking for a young coach with a proven track record, hired Billy Donovan, then at Marshall, as Kruger’s replacement. William John Donovan, Jr., from Rockville Centre, NY, is the son of Bill Donovan, Sr., who is one of the three leading scorers in the history of Boston College Eagles basketball. Young Billy Donovan would go on to play college ball at Providence College as a guard. His first two seasons with the Friars were unimpressive; he scored an average of two points per game as a freshman and three points as a sophomore. His junior year, however, Donovan flourished in the system of new head coach Rick Pitino. "Billy the Kid", as Providence fans soon nicknamed him, averaged 15.1 points as a junior and 20.6 as a senior, when he led the Friars to the Final Four and earned the Southeast Regional Most Valuable Player honors. Donovan was drafted by the Utah Jazz in the 3rd round (68th overall) of the 1987 NBA Draft. He was waived after the preseason and played briefly for the Wyoming Wildcatters of the CBA. He then signed a one-year contract with the New York Knicks, coached by Pitino. Donovan averaged 2.4 points and 2.0 assists over 44 games with the Knicks. After working for a Wall Street investment firm before joining Pitino as an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky in 1989, he would soon see his success land him the head coaching job at Marshall University.
In Donovan’s first season at Marshall he saw the Thundering Herd double their wins from the previous season, going from 9-18 to 18-9 and win the Southern Conference North Division. His first full recruiting class at Marshall included a high-profile local recruit, point guard Jason Williams. In Donovan’s second season, 1995-96, the team went 17-11 and led the Southern Conference in scoring and three-point field goals. In two years at Marshall, his Herd teams compiled a 35-20 record and a conference division championship.
So in 1996, Donovan took over the head coaching duties at the University of Florida which had slipped from its peak during its 1994 NCAA Final Four appearance. Donovan took the Gators to the NIT in his second season, and the following seasons saw the team make its third-ever NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance and become only the second squad in school history to appear in the Top 25 of the final polls (#17 in the ESPN/USA Today Poll and #23 in the AP Poll). His recruiting prowess was evident early, bringing future NBA star Jason Williams with him from Marshall and having early recruiting classes with future NBA players Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, and Matt Bonner, among others. In the 1999-2000 season, Donovan lead the Gators to the SEC Championship and their second NCAA Final Four appearance, defeating Duke, Illinois (led by former UF coach Lon Kruger) and then North Carolina in the national semi-finals before falling to Michigan State in the NCAA Championship Game. During the next few years the Gators went to the NCAA Tournament every year, but each year they lost in the first or second round. The Gators however repeated as SEC Champions during the 1999–2000 and 2000–01 seasons. The 2004–05 team had the distinction of being the first to win an SEC Tournament Championship, when they beat rival Kentucky in the title game.
The 2005–06 team began the season unranked and went on a 17–0 winning streak for the best start in school history, surprising many with a young (four sophomores and one junior) but selfless squad following the graduation of David Lee and the departures of Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson to the NBA. The trio accounted for sixty percent of their offense in 2005. The team faded late in the regular season, losing its last 3 games in February and entering the postseason with a 24–6 record, yet still managed to win its second consecutive SEC Tournament Championship. The Gators entered the 2006 NCAA Tournament as a No. 3 seed with a 27–6 record. They were ranked No. 10 by the AP and ESPN. They beat South Alabama and Milwaukee to advance to the Minneapolis regional. There, the Gators defeated the Georgetown Hoyas and upset the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats 75–62 to avenge their loss in the previous year's tournament and move on to their second Final Four under Donovan. Florida defeated the upstart George Mason Patriots 73–58 in the national semifinals in Indianapolis. On April 3, 2006, the Gators defeated the UCLA Bruins 73–57 in the national final to win the school's first men's basketball NCAA Championship. The University Athletic Association then purchased the floor used in Indianapolis for the Final Four, and installed it in the O'Connell Center where Florida plays its home games.
The Gators returned all five starters from their championship team to begin the 2006–07 basketball season ranked as the preseason No. 1 in both major media polls, a first for the university. The Gators locked up the SEC regular season Championship relatively early in the 2006–07 season and were in possession of a 24–2 record before going on a late-February 1–3 skid that mirrored their 0–3 run a year earlier. For the second season in a row, the losses in February would be their last. Florida closed out Kentucky on Senior Night to end the regular season 26–5, and won their third straight SEC Tournament Championship with relative ease, beating Georgia, Ole Miss, and Arkansas 77–56. Florida entered the 2007 NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, and they advanced to the Final Four after wins in the regional against No. 5 seed Butler and No. 3 seed Oregon. In a rematch of the 2006 title game, the Gators again eliminated the UCLA Bruins in the national semifinal. Florida defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 84–75, in a rematch of a game they won 86–60 three months earlier, to become the first team since the 1991–92 Duke Blue Devils to win back-to-back national championships and the first college team ever to repeat as national champions with the same starting line-up. Following the 2006–07 season, three of the Gators' starting five were drafted among the first ten picks in the first round of the 2007 NBA Draft: Al Horford (third), Corey Brewer (seventh) and Joakim Noah (ninth). Taurean Green and Chris Richard were both selected in the second round.
Donovan agreed to coach for the NBA's Orlando Magic on May 31, 2007. It was revealed on June 3, however, that Donovan had done an about-face and asked to be freed from his contract with the Magic to return to Florida. He was soon thereafter released from his contract and reintroduced as the Gators coach on June 7. The Gators failed to make the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, the Gators were eliminated by UMass in a semi-final game of the NIT. In 2009, the Gators were eliminated by Penn State in a quarter-final game of the NIT. In 2010, the Gators were eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament by BYU in double overtime. In the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Gators were the No. 2 seed in the Southeast region. In the Second Round of the Tournament, Florida beat UC Santa Barbara. In the third round, the Gators defeated the UCLA Bruins to advance to the Sweet Sixteen. On March 24, 2011, the Gators defeated BYU 83–74 in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2007. Their tournament run ended there against Butler. In the 2012 NCAA Tournament, Florida advanced to the Elite Eight and were defeated by Louisville, coached by Donovan’s long-time mentor Rick Pitino.
Once again, I remind you of Chelsea FC in the EPL. Chelsea is now one of the elite teams in all of European soccer, winning the EPL in 2005, 2006 and 2010 along with the Champions League in 2012. They were runners-up in the EPL in 2004, 2007, 2008 and 2011. People often think Chelsea has simply always been a world power, but the reality is this is a very new development in the grand duration of college basketball. While it’s likely that Billy Donovan can continue to lead Florida to great success, it’s not a foregone conclusion that they will forever be a dominant power in the sport.
Donovan’s 15 years absolutely define Florida Basketball. His record at Florida is a staggering 386-158, a .710 winning percentage, with a 160-96 record in the SEC, a winning percentage of .625. He is 28-10 overall in his career in NCAA Tournament games, 21-13 in SEC Tournament games. He was named ESPN.com National Coach of the Year in 2001, John R. Wooden Legends of Coaching Award winner in 2010 and SEC Coach of the Year in 2011. He has nearly triple the number of NCAA Tournament appearances (12) that Florida had in the 77 seasons prior to Donovan’s hire (5). He has 14 20+ win seasons to UF’s previous 5, with the only two 30+ win seasons in school history. He has 4 SEC titles compared to the previous 1, and the only 3 SEC Tournament titles in school history. Nine of the school’s 11 NBA First-Round Draft Picks have played for Billy Donovan. After averaging 11.5 wins per season for 77 seasons, under Donovan the Gators have averaged 24 per season. The only 6 times Florida has even been ranked #1 have been under Billy Donovan.
Four of Donovan’s assistant coaches have become college head coaches in recent years, including fellow-SEC head coach Anthony Grant at Alabama. Donnie Jones at UCF, Shaka Smart at VCU and Lewis Preston at Kennesaw State also served as assistants under Donovan at Florida.
Florida has secured the commitment of the #7 overall player for the 2013 class in Kasey Hill, a 6’1" PG from Clermont, FL. The 2012 class is headlined by a pair of 4-star players in Michael Frazier, SG from Montverde, FL, and Braxton Ogbueze, SG from Charlotte, NC. Coming with them are 3-star SG Dillon Graham from Orlando, FL, and 3-star SF DeVon Walker from Winter Haven, FL. The Gators do return their leading scorer from last season in Kenny Boynton, who averaged 15.9ppg along with 2.6rpg and 2.7apg in 31.6 minutes/game but the departures of Bradley Beal to the NBA and Erving Walker to graduation will leave some gaping holes to fill.
Best Of The Best
The Gators boast 22 All-Americans, 93 All-SEC selections, 88 SEC Academic Honor Roll selections, 48 1,000-point scorers and 34 NBA Draftees. Former Gators that have played in the NBA include Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer, Andrew DeClercq, Jim Grandholm, Taurean Green, Orien Greene, Donnell Harvey, Udonis Haslem, Al Horford, Gary Keller, David Lee, Clifford Lett, Vernon Macklin, Vernon Maxwell, Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Chandler Parsons, Rich Peek, Chris Richard, Anthony Roberson, Dwayne Schintzius, Marreese Speights, Neal Walk, Matt Walsh, James White and Jason Williams. Bradley Beal was selected 3rd overall in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Washington Wizards. Once again I’d like to thank Mike Anderson for his wonderful in-state recruiting skills.
Ronnie Williams officially leads Florida with a career high of 2,090 points from 1981-84. Andy Owens owns the single-season record for points with 676 in 1969-70. Neal Walk leads the all-time scoring average for career at 20.8ppg in 1967-69, while Andy Owens holds the single-season record at 27.0ppg in 1969-70. Neal Walk holds the career mark for rebounds with 1,181 from 1967-69 as well as the single-season mark in 1967-68 with 494. Ronnie Montgomery leads the Gators all-time with 503 career assists from 1985-88, while Nick Calathes holds the top season spot with 231 in 2008-09. Dwayne Schintzius’ 272 blocked shots from 1987-90 is the top mark for blocked shots in a career, while his 96 in 1986-87 is the best single-season ever for Florida. Eddie Shannon stands alone for career steals with 204 from 1996-99, while Dan Cross holds the single-season record with 76 in 1993-94.
The Gators play their home games at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, also known as the O’Dome. The 12,000 seat multi-purpose arena is named for the sixth president of the university, Stephen C. O’Connell, who served from 1967 to 1973. The arena was built in 1980, but problems with the inflatable, Teflon-coated fabric roof required replacement with a permanent, hard shell dome on top of the structure in 1998. The O’Dome his home to the student section known as the "Rowdy Reptiles", and ESPN commentator Dick Vitale said after the Florida-Kentucky game in 2006 that the Rowdy Reptiles make the O’Dome one of the toughest places to play in college basketball.