When Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville in spring 1996, the University of Florida was truly a basketball swampland.
The university established the hoops program in 1915. During the next eight decades, the Gators made the NCAA Tournament just five times. Florida had as many program-derailing scandals (one) as Final Four appearances.
But that all changed, quickly, when UF hired Donovan, the charismatic young coach with the basketball blueblood pedigree.
Eighteen years later, Donovan is on the verge of immortality. Two more wins, and he will reach legend status. Only five coaches have won three national titles. By Monday night, here at palatial AT&T Stadium, Donovan can become the sixth.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“No question, he’s a lock Hall of Famer,” said Dick Vitale, ESPN’s iconic analyst. “What he’s done is amazing. … He’s putting up numbers that are scary.”
First things first, of course.
Donovan’s Gators have to beat the the University of Connecticut in Saturday night’s national semifinal. Florida is a six-point favorite and for good reason.
The Gators are the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and riding a 30-game winning streak — by far the longest in program history.
In truth, however, most every basketball record at this traditional football school has already been broken by Donovan, every benchmark surpassed.
• At 48, Donovan is the winningest coach in Florida history. He has won six regular-season conference titles in Gainesville and is a three-time SEC tournament champion.
• The Gators have been ranked first nationally in five of his 18 seasons on campus.
• Donovan has filled Florida’s once-empty O’Connell Center, drawing an average of 11,471 fans this season. That’s up 79 percent from his first season on the bench and at 99 percent of the arena’s listed capacity.
• Once an unappealing destination for the nation’s top talent, Florida has become a recruiting hotbed. Donovan has persuaded 16 McDonald’s All-Americans to sign with the Gators.
• Nine of Donovan’s players have gone on to become first-round NBA draft picks. Not included in that list: a three-time NBA champion in Udonis Haslem, who has played his entire NBA career with the Miami Heat.
“Overall, [you’ve] got to respect the things that he has been able to do at a predominately football school over the years that he has been there,” Haslem said after Heat practice Thursday.
“He has kind of changed the overall perception of the University of Florida. He hasn’t been doing it as long as [Duke coach Mike] Krzyzewski, but if he wins a third championship in his fourth time being [in the Final Four], you’ve got to start mentioning him in the same conversations as those guys.”
The three-time-champion company Donovan would keep if his Gators cut down the nets Monday: John Wooden (10 titles); Krzyzewski (4); Adolph Rupp (4); Jim Calhoun (3), and Bob Knight (3). They are all Hall of Famers.
He also would have more than his mentor Rick Pitino, under whom Donovan both coached and played.
Pitino, Donovan was reminded this week, actually advised his protege against taking the UF job some two decades ago.
“He thought the team was a long way off,” Donovan said. “I think his main concern was just [athletic director] Jeremy Foley, what was his awareness of expectation of where the program was at.
“I think once I sat down with Jeremy, I obviously [heard] a long-term commitment, and he was very aware of where things were at that point in time and very supportive.”
The hire might have been Foley’s crowning moment in his 22 years on the job — and that includes bringing aboard Urban Meyer, who won two national titles in his six seasons as UF’s football coach.
“Billy Donovan does not need to win a third national title, in my opinion,” Foley said. “He wants to win a third title. We want to win a third title. Gator Nation wants to win a third title.
“But he’s going to go down in history as one of the greatest coaches if he wins a third one or not,” Foley said. “It would put him in some rarefied air. [But] his legacy has already been built by changing the culture at the University of Florida.”
And he’s done it without incurring the punitive wrath of college athletics’ governing body.
A lot of top-tier programs run afoul of NCAA rules at some point, but Donovan has gone 18 years without receiving any major penalties.
For Florida, it has been a welcome turn of events.
The Gators’ basketball program was hit with sanctions not long before Donovan came aboard, bottoming out with a 12-16 record in 1995-96 season — predecessor Lon Kruger’s last with the team.
Donovan replaced him a few weeks after that disastrous season. And he has been at UF since, except for a brief flirtation with the Orlando Magic in 2007.
He was even introduced as the Magic’s coach, only to back out of the job a day later and return to Gainesville.
The decision paid off. The Magic, bereft of talent, is one of the worst franchises in professional basketball, winning just 32 percent of its games the past three seasons. The Gators, meanwhile, are back on college basketball’s grandest stage.
And Donovan is the No. 1 reason, his players say. While the championship teams of 2006 and 2007 were loaded with NBA talent, this group likely won’t have a player drafted in the first round — if at all.
Now, this isn’t a Cinderella story.
The Gators were ranked 10th nationally when the season began.
But no one saw this year for the ages coming. Florida has lost to just two teams — Wisconsin and Connecticut — both of which are in the Final Four.
The Gators put together this unforgettable season despite a rash of injuries and a prolonged suspension of its best player, Scottie Wilbekin, whom Donovan at one point told to transfer because the coach thought he needed a fresh start.
Wilbekin proved him wrong.
His steady play has spurred the remarkable winning streak; in doing so, he became the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
When asked why he remained at Florida for his final season, Wilbekin said his relationship with Donovan was a major factor.
“He’s definitely had the biggest role [in the winning streak],” Wilbekin said of Donovan. “He sets the tone before every practice and every game. He never lets us get too full of ourselves, have a high opinion of ourselves.
“He keeps us grounded and lets us know that if we don’t work hard, we’re not very good.”
An example: After the Gators won the first 15 games of their SEC season, the realization sunk in that they might go through the conference schedule undefeated.
No team had gone 18-0 in the SEC. With three conference games remaining, Donovan summoned all UF’s seniors into his office to discuss that possibility.
“He reminded us that we had to win the first game of that three-game stretch to do it,” Wilbekin added.
They did, and they have won every game since.
Not surprisingly, Gators officials and fans would love to make him a lifer.
He recently signed a contract extension that runs through the 2019 season.
“It’s hard to predict the future,” Foley said. “I think he’s happy here, he enjoys coaching here. But at the same time, eight years into coach [Steve] Spurrier’s tenure you could have said that Spurrier would be a UF lifer.
“The world’s going to bring what it’s going to bring,” Foley continued. “We’re hopeful that he’s going to be our coach for a long, long time.”
For now, the Gators’ basketball program is focused on the next few days — not the next few decades.
And whether Foley agrees or not, Donovan’s place among the immortals hangs in the balance.
Miami Herald staff writer Joseph Goodman contributed to this report.