University of Florida

Billy Donovan leaves Florida Gators to coach Oklahoma City Thunder

Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan at a press conference during media day in Gainesville, Fla., on Oct. 15, 2014.
Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan at a press conference during media day in Gainesville, Fla., on Oct. 15, 2014. AP

The NBA pursued Billy Donovan for years. He rebuffed the league’s advances at nearly every turn, but finally, Florida’s two-time national champion coach was thunderstruck.

Donovan bolted the Gators after 19 seasons, officially accepting Oklahoma City’s opening Thursday.

Donovan agreed to a five-year contract worth close to $6 million a year, according to Yahoo! Sports.

“It is an incredibly difficult decision to leave,” Donovan said. “I want to thank Jeremy Foley, the players, coaches and staff I’ve had the chance to work with during my time at Florida.

“The administrative support and stability has been unbelievable here. I knew that it would take a unique opportunity to leave the University of Florida and that is clearly how I look at this situation.”

Donovan, who turns 50 on May 30, transformed UF into a national powerhouse.

As a relentless recruiter and offensive mastermind, he led the Gators to four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights, six SEC Championships, 14 NCAA Tournament appearances and 16 straight 20-win seasons.

He’s the second-youngest coach in D-1 history to win 500 games.

“While we are certainly extremely sad to see Billy go, the primary feeling I have is one of gratitude for what he has done here at Florida,” said Foley, the Gators’ athletic director.

“Billy and Florida basketball have been synonymous for a long time now, and our program would not have reached the heights it has without him. The legacy he leaves here is one of personal and professional excellence, and we wish him, Christine and the Donovan family continued success and happiness as they make this move. There is no better person than Billy Donovan. He will truly be missed.”

Donovan inherits an OKC team with tons of talent (stars Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka) but inherent risks with Durant and Westbrook as looming free agents.

Still, his strong ties to the organization ‒ including a close relationship with Thunder GM Sam Presti ‒ precipitated the move. Presti flew to Florida on Tuesday to officially offer the job.

Last year, UF assistant Mark Daigneault was hired as the Thunder’s D-League coach, and at the same time, Florida video coordinator Oliver Winterbone left to become a scout/data analyst for OKC.

Donovan recently signed an amended, one-year contract extension through the 2020 season with Florida, pushing his annual salary just north of $4 million. His buyout ($500,000) remained unchanged though and he was no longer tied to a non-compete clause.

Now, Florida basketball is suddenly at a crossroads, in need of a coach for the first time in 20 years.

The Gators are fresh of a disappointing 2014-15 season, finishing with a 16-17 record and missing the postseason for the first time since Donovan’s inaugural year. Turmoil has continued into the offseason, as Donovan has dealt tirelessly with persistent rumors and player and coach attrition. The Gators lost guard Michael Frazer II and forward Chris Walker to the NBA Draft and swingman Eli Carter recently announced his intention to transfer.

Meanwhile, assistant coach Matt McCall accepted the head-coaching job at Tennessee-Chattanooga and Donovan pegged former UF assistant (and longtime friend) Anthony Grant for the opening.

Foley must oversee a second major hire in the last six months. Dayton coach Archie Miller, Villanova coach Jay Wright, Louisiana Tech coach Michael White and UF assistant and former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey are all potential candidates.

“We will have an internal working group that will identify candidates to be our next head coach,” Foley said. “I don’t intend to put a timeline on our hire, but we will work hard to have the right person in place over the coming weeks.”

Florida will have a new football and basketball coach in the same year for the first time since 1990-91, and will be the only Power 5 school in the country with such a duo.

Replacing Donovan stands as an unenviable task, as the future Hall of Fame coach leaves a legacy nearly unmatched in college basketball.

Foley hired Donovan in 1996. He was only 31. The former Wall Street wiz had just two years of head-coaching experience, but Donovan was charged with building a competitive program ‒ one that had just five NCAA Tournament appearances in school history.

Within three seasons, Donovan took Florida to the Sweet Sixteen and the foundation for the future was established.

Donovan has never been shy about his NBA interests, openly admitting last March he was still “intrigued.” In 2007, Donovan infamously accepted the Orlando Magic job before a change of heart brought him back to UF less than a week later.

Ultimately, the timing was finally right, but hardly easy.

Donovan’s roots are firmly entrenched in Gainesville. His father, Bill Sr., has a house in town and has been a fixture at Gators games for years. Donovan and his wife Christine have been major philanthropists for local children’s charities and also were vital to the development and creation of St. Francis Catholic School.