GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s search to replace basketball coach Billy Donovan began weeks — really months— ago.
The Gators have been collecting information on potential successors since at least February, probably even sooner.
Although athletic director Jeremy Foley said Monday he would sit down with his search team later in the day and discuss potential candidates, he made it clear that school officials have been planning for Donovan’s departure for some time.
Foley said the process only intensified when the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder fired coach Scott Brooks on April 22.
“We heard some undercurrents that this (was) a possibility, so we began looking at coaches probably several weeks ago,” Foley said.
The Thunder hired Donovan on Thursday, prying him away from Florida after a 19-year college career that included two national championships, four trips to the Final Four and 14 appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
Donovan was formally introduced at his new job Friday. He returned to Gainesville over the weekend and formally and tearfully said goodbye to the football-first program he essentially put on the college basketball map during a news conference Monday.
Foley choked back tears while talking about his relationship with Donovan, saying “what we really didn’t know 19 years ago was the type of person we were getting. One of the best, you know?”
Donovan, meanwhile, showed some emotion when asked about what he would miss about Gainesville, the college town in which he buried a child, raised a family and made basketball matter.
“I think that people will always look at wins and losses and those kinds of things,” said Donovan, who finished 467-186 at Florida. “I hope that I’m able to leave a big, gaping hole here. And I don’t mean that from an arrogant standpoint. I mean that I was able to make an impact, that I was able to impact people’s lives, that I was able to bring value to people, that I was able to help people grow from staff to players to the administration.
“I just hope that I brought value. I hope I made Florida better. I’m not talking about from wins and losses. I hope I made Florida better as an institution. ... I hope I really left and brought value here and maybe changed the perception of the culture here. Just that I worked as hard as I could. I did everything I could. I cared deeply about the program. I cared deeply about Florida, and just wanted to leave a dent and to bring value. And I hope that by my presence for 19 years that the place is better for having me here.”
There’s no doubting Donovan’s legacy.
Before jumping to the NBA, he became just the second coach in Division I history to 500 career wins before reaching his 50th birthday. The other was Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight.
So replacing the former Providence standout nicknamed “Billy the Kid” will be no easy task.
Although Donovan declined to say whether he expects to take anyone from his Florida staff with him, many believe former Alabama coach Anthony Grant — who has yet to make it to Gainesville after being hired as an assistant last month — will join Donovan in Oklahoma City.
Donovan made a case for Foley to hire former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, who has spent the last four years on Donovan’s staff. Pelphrey also spent six years on Donovan’s staff before leaving to take the head coaching jobs at South Alabama and then Arkansas.
“I think Jeremy knows the way I feel about John Pelphrey and just the way he’s been by my side all the way along his whole entire career,” Donovan said. “He was a vital part to the success of the program since I’ve been here. ... Jeremy is the best athletic director in the country, and he’s done this before. I just basically told him that I’m here in any way to help and support and assist in any way. I’m not going to try to inject myself in anything going forward from here, but I do want to see this program do extremely well.”
Given what Donovan has built, it’s more likely Foley will look to hire a more proven head coach, like maybe Dayton’s Archie Miller, Xavier’s Chris Mack or maybe Villanova’s Jay Wright.
When asked what he’s looking for in Donovan’s replacement, Foley jokingly rattled off Donovan’s resume before getting serious.
“We’re not taking a step back,” Foley said. “We want to keep this thing going in the right direction. I think there are a lot of people doubting that we can do that, and that fires us up because we have a good job here.”