By: Robert Craft
TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services
Former Florida coach Billy Donovan returned to the program he put on the college basketball map.
For the first time since 2015 we will see the man return to the O’Connell Center floor that was named after him. His signature was placed at both ends of the court between the 3-point line and the top the key.
Donovan is the current coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. With the NBA All-Star Weekend, Donovan was honored at halftime of the Florida vs Vanderbilt contest.
Donovan became the coach at Florida in March of 1996 after Lon Kruger resigned to take the job at the University of Illinois.
The Gator basketball program had only fleeting success over its history. The Gators reached the Final Four under Kruger in 1994, but slipped back to mediocre levels the next season.
The 1998-1999 season the Gators went 22-9 earning 20 plus wins for only the fifth time in school history. They made their third NCAA Sweet Sixteen appearance and became the second squad in school history to appear in the final top 25 polls (17 in ESPN and 23 in Associated Press).
While success in the regular season became a standard, post season the Gators consistently underperformed.
In the 2005-2006 season, Donovan’s sophomore led Gator team posted a school-best win streak to start the season reeling off 17 straight wins and reaching number 2 in the Associated Press poll. The Gators struggled during conference play, posting a 10-6 conference record heading into the SEC tournament.
Florida cruised through the SEC tournament and defeated South Carolina in the finals, earning the Gators second conference tournament title. In the 2006 NCAA tournament, The Gators were a three seed.
2005-2006 Gator basketball team would come together and defeat UCLA 73-57 to capture the school’s first NCAA basketball title. As exciting as the championship game, during the post championship celebration, the entire starting five (Lee Humphrey, Taurean Green, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Cory Brewer) announced they would return and attempt to win back to back championships.
The 2006-2007 Gators did not disappoint Gator Nation. They became the first team since the 1991 and 1992 Duke teams to win back to back NCAA Championships. The Gators defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes 84-75 for the repeat championship.
With the Florida Gators football having won the 2007 BCS National Championship game (also over Ohio State). The University of Florida became the first school in NCAA history to hold both the football and basketball National Championships at the same time.
The Gators in the Donovan era were 467-186. The Gators won two national championships (2006 & 2007), four SEC tournaments championships (2005,2006,2007 & 2014) and six regular season conference titles (2000,2001,2007,2013 & 2014). Donovan’s Gators reached the Final Four 4 times with trips in 2000 and 2014 in addition to the national championship seasons.
Billy Donovan is the second coach in Division I history to notch 500 career wins before reaching his 50th birthday. The other was Hall of Famer Bobby Knight.
Billy Donovan thanked former players (30 plus in attendance), former assistants (8 in attendance), his former boss Jeremy Foley, his family and Gator Nation for helping him reach this career pinnacle.
Simply put, Billy Donovan made basketball matter at the football first school.