MEMPHIS — The nets had been snipped, individual strands looping around the hats that proclaimed Florida the NCAA tournament’s South Region champion. The players had retreated to the locker room, more celebration awaiting them. Near midcourt, assistant coach John Pelphrey looked around FedEx Forum, where the Gators had further cemented their coach’s legacy with another berth in the Final Four.
“It’s the stuff that gets you into the Hall of Fame,” Pelphrey said after Saturday’s 62-52 win over Dayton. “He created this.”
Over the past nine seasons, Billy Donovan has coached Florida to six Elite Eights, three Southeastern Conference tournament titles, three Final Fours and two national titles. He has created a basketball powerhouse at a football school, erected a dynasty deep in the swamp and now stands two victories away from becoming the sixth Division I coach to win three national championships, beginning Saturday against upstart Connecticut.
After the Dayton game, Donovan approached press row for a postgame radio interview and slipped on a headset. In the stands, camera phones began to flash. “We love you, Billy,” one fan shouted. “We love you, Billy,” another echoed. Donovan smiled and waved back, then sat down and talked about how proud he was of his team.
In Gators circles, Donovan has developed a reputation for such humility, approachable enough for fans to call him by his first name about town. And it is through this muted persona that perhaps he flies under the radar, a March Madness mainstay who elicits respect from even rival fan bases yet rarely comes up in discussions about college basketball’s best coach.
“He is the best of the best that nobody talks about because he lives in the shadows of some of the elite and he doesn’t mind it,” said Larry Shyatt, the head coach at Wyoming and an assistant under Donovan for seven seasons.
Ask the current Gators, the ones who shook off three straight losses in the Elite Eight to finally reach the Final Four, and they scoff at this idea. The coach they know is revered, not devalued. The coach they know has constructed this dominant roster without any surefire NBA prospects, taking four senior starters (Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete) and surrounding them with complimentary pieces (Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II and Kasey Hill) en route to 30 straight victories.
“Billy is Florida basketball,” Pelphrey said. “He created it. It was not like this before. It’s awesome.”
“He pretty much led this team to the Final Four,” Yeguete said.
It almost never happened. Seven years ago, after Florida became the first team to repeat as national champion since the early 1990s thanks in part to three future first-round NBA draft picks, Donovan accepted a massive contract to coach the Orlando Magic. On June 1, 2007, Donovan held both an introductory news conference with the NBA franchise and a farewell news conference in Gainesville. That night, he celebrated with his wife, Christine, and the Shyatts. The following morning, Donovan had changed his mind.
“We can’t do this,” Shyatt recalled Donovan saying. “Everyone’s going to think we left because these guys, these champions are leaving. My heart’s at Florida.”
So the Magic released Donovan from his contract, and Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, who would have been forgiven for feeling spurned, welcomed him back with open arms.
“I don’t know if there’s ever been a greater example of trust and respect,” Shyatt said. “You don’t build that in a year or two.”
This season, the Gators (36-2) became the first team to reach the Final Four on a 30-game winning streak since Duke in 1999. At 48 years old, Donovan has scripted perhaps his best coaching job yet, given how the season began.
Wilbekin was suspended, stemming to a violation of team policy in June, and he nearly transferred at Donovan’s encouragement. Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris joined the point guard on the suspension list in October. Throw in Frazier’s mononucleosis and Yeguete’s offseason knee surgery, and the Gators were suddenly thinned. Six months later, they have won four NCAA tournament games, all by double digits.
“Even without this year, the phenomenal year that they’ve had, I think his body of work is . . . I think it’s all-time stuff,” said Rob Lanier, an assistant at Florida from 2007 to 2010 who now coaches at Texas. “What he gets done in the period of time, at his age, I think it’s a very, very short list of guys in the history of the game who have coached at that level.”
As the on-court festivities wound down in Memphis, Donovan was the last to approach the ladder. He climbed it, scissors in hand, as a chorus of cheers egged him on. “Billy! Billy!” the Gators fans chanted as Donovan cut the net, back in the Final Four another time.
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