University of Florida

Billy Donovan says emotional farewell to UF as task begins to hire replacement

Florida coach Billy Donovan reacts during an NCAA Final Four game against Connecticut in Arlington, Texas on April 5, 2014. Florida has the tough task of replacing Donovan, who left to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Florida coach Billy Donovan reacts during an NCAA Final Four game against Connecticut in Arlington, Texas on April 5, 2014. Florida has the tough task of replacing Donovan, who left to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. AP

Billy Donovan will miss a lot about Florida.

His premium parking spot. His Haile Plantation neighborhood. Cedar Key and Crescent Beach.

But most of all, UF’s legendary basketball coach will miss the relationships he built over nearly 20 years with the Gators.

Donovan, who was hired last Thursday by the Oklahoma City Thunder, said goodbye Monday in an emotional farewell news conference.

He thanked everyone — from Tracy Pffaf, his secretary for all 19 years, to athletics director Jeremy Foley — for his time at UF, where he experienced unprecedented success with six SEC championships and two national titles.

“This has been a really, really special place,” Donovan said.

“[Foley] changed my life in a lot of ways, and I’ll always be grateful for him and for Florida.

Foley fawned over Donovan, too, choking back tears while describing their synergy, mutual admiration and accomplishments.

“We had a heck of a ride,” Foley said.

“The basketball piece, he delivered in spades. … But what makes this so hard is basketball games come and go. Relationships like this are once in a generation.

“He cared about people. He did things the right way. We love him. … He’ll be our friend forever.”

Florida’s sadness is just now slowly dissipating, but reality is forging fast. Foley is now charged with finding a replacement for a future Hall of Fame coach.

He outlined UF’s upcoming search and planned to meet with his administrative staff Monday afternoon to kick-start the process.

Foley emphatically denied rumors he has already begun contacting candidates, saying, “I haven’t talked to one coach.”

But UF has been quietly preparing for Donovan’s exit for some time. Behind the scenes, Foley said the vetting process started “several weeks ago.”

“We’ve been collecting information on a number of coaches,” he said. “We pay attention too.”

Florida is the only Division I school with an opening and will hire a coach before the July 1 recruiting period starts. Foley avoided any specific time lines though, saying, “We have some time. We will do our due diligence. … The slate is wide open.”

Dayton’s Archie Miller and Xavier’s Chris Mack are rumored as the two top targets, but Donovan, who refuses to “inject himself” into the search, tacitly endorsed Florida assistant head coach and close confidant John Pelphrey.

“Jeremy knows the way I feel about John Pelphrey,” Donovan said. “He’s been by my side all the way along his whole entire career. I coached John. He was here for a while. He came back. I think he was a vital part to the success of the program since I’ve been here.”

Pelphrey was on Donovan’s staff two different times (1994-2002 at Marshall and UF and 2011 to present at UF), serving as the head coach at South Alabama and Arkansas during the interim. But the former Kentucky forward experienced middling success as a head coach and is considered a fallback option for UF.

Foley’s principal challenge is hiring a coach who can maintain Florida’s status as a recent basketball power. He scoffed at the notion UF isn’t an elite job without Donovan, saying he’s motivated by the doubters.

“We have resources, a great fan base, we play in a great league. Again, why people would say this is not a good job is beyond me,” Foley said.

“There are a lot of pieces here. Certainly the tradition piece that we were missing through the years, that’s what Billy put on the table. You go down to our practice facility and see Final Four floors down there, we have five of them. How many schools in America can say that? How many schools in this league can say that? The one up in Lexington can. But there is a lot to sell here for a new coach.”

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