University of Florida

Joseph Goodman: Success at UF bodes well for Billy Donovan and Oklahoma City Thunder

Florida players celebrate as head coach Billy Donovan holds the trophy aloft after the Gators beat UCLA 73-57 in the national championship game in Indianapolis on April 3, 2006.
Florida players celebrate as head coach Billy Donovan holds the trophy aloft after the Gators beat UCLA 73-57 in the national championship game in Indianapolis on April 3, 2006. AP

Billy Donovan coached the last great college basketball team, the 2007 Florida Gators.

People drunk on Kentucky and its NBA lottery farm system will disagree, but Wildcats coach John Calipari hasn’t come close to matching what Donovan did in 2006 and 2007, and might never. The core of that 2007 team — Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard — is the closest thing the State of Florida has to modern-day college basketball royalty. Imagine if Calipari would have won the NCAA Tournament in March, and then convinced everyone to return to school, and then repeated as national champions.

That’s what Donovan did in 2006 and 2007 in Gainesville.

Before Donovan, the new coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, begins another chapter of his career, it’s worth taking a look one last time at his greatest achievement in Gainesville, and how keeping that team together in 2006 might project future success for Donovan in the NBA.

Will Donovan succeed at Oklahoma City? That depends on a lot of things, but most importantly he needs to play a role, no matter how small, in keeping the Thunder together beyond next season. If Kevin Durant stays in Oklahoma City, then it will be the second time in Donovan’s career he has coached a superstar who stayed with a team in the hopes of turning a great thing into something truly special.

Before Durant and Russell Westbrook, the biggest sell of Donovan’s career was in the spring of 2006 when he convinced Noah, Horford, Brewer and Green to stay in school after just winning a national championship as freshmen. At the time, all four players were projected draft picks and many outlets had Noah going No.1 overall and Horford in the lottery.

Think convincing Durant to stay in a place he loves (Oklahoma City) and play for max money is going to be a tough sell for Donovan and Thunder general manager Sam Presti? In the spring of 2006, Donovan got Noah, the kid who grew up in New York with an internationally famous pedigree, to forgo millions of dollars to stay in north-central Florida, and play for free after he already won a title.

What did Noah have left to prove? Nothing, of course. He just stayed put for the love of the game and won back-to-back titles.

And then he danced.

Remember Noah’s impromptu herky-jerk jig at center court after winning it all in 2007? Old Bill Rafferty, the CBS basketball analyst, was right there rolling his eyes as Noah broke it down on national television. Then to the right of Noah there was awkward Verne Lundquist, who kept repeating on national television, “Ladies and gentlemen, Joakim Noah.”

Meanwhile, Donovan was off to the side, just enjoying the show.

Noah’s celebratory dance remains Florida’s indelible “One Shining Moment.” Donovan knew then, as he knows now, when to get out of the way let the stars shine. That skill will serve him well in the NBA.

Donovan was always a pro coach in the college game. Even in a small college town such as Gainesville, where other coaches have tried to rule like kings of a fiefdom, Donovan deferred praise always and inspired future leaders. As legacies go, Donovan’s has held up much better than the other successful coach at UF during those golden years, Urban Meyer.

Directing from the back of the house instead of preening on center stage, that seems to be the biggest difference between the coaching styles of Donovan and those of Meyer and Donovan’s mentor, Rick Pitino. Pitino’s ego wasn’t a great fit for the NBA. Donovan deflects the spotlight.

It’s a coaching style that forces his players to take ownership of the team, and in that environment both Noah and Horford thrived in the college game before blossoming into the bedrock foundations of their professional teams.

When Noah showed up in Chicago as a rookie, he was stunned by the lack of passion and commitment to defense on that underperforming Bulls team. Noah helped change the culture of the team before being paired with coach Tom Thibodeau, who meshed well with Noah’s intensity.

For Horford, the biggest test of his professional career came last summer when racially insensitive language by team general manager Danny Ferry threatened the stability of the Hawks’ franchise. Behind the scenes, Horford was furious — and still is — over Ferry’s remarks about current Heat player Luol Deng, who was a free agent at the time. In the locker room, Horford galvanized the resolve of his teammates and challenged them to fully embrace coach Mike Budenholzer’s team-oriented system.

Noah and Horford will always be linked to Donovan, and with Donovan finally off to the pros, is it really any coincidence that his three best players on that 2007 NCAA Tournament championship team (Brewer of the Houston Rockets being the third) are playing important roles in these NBA playoffs eight years later? Heat coach Erik Spoelstra can answer that question. More than anyone, Spoelstra knows Donovan has the chops to succeed in the NBA.

In the summer of 2012, Spoelstra met with Donovan in Gainesville to talk basketball. The main subject of that summit was how to inspire players to win back-to-back championships. Of course, Xs and Os surely found their ways into the discussion as well. Two former grinders of the college game — Donovan a point guard at Providence and Spoelstra a point guard at Portland — don’t talk basketball for seven hours without scratching up a chalkboard.

The Gators’ mastery of the college game during the 2006-07 season was the launching point for that meeting of the minds, and Donovan coached that team of six future NBA Draft picks into a selfless, seamless, symphonic piece of basketball music. All five starters averaged double figures in scoring, yet no one had more than 13.3 points per game: Green, the point guard, 13.3 ppg; Brewer, the small forward, 13.2 ppg; Horford, the power forward, 13.2 ppg; Noah, the center, 12.0 ppg; Humphrey, the shooting guard, 10.3 ppg.

It was beautiful stuff, and with the pro game trending toward balanced offenses, a solid background from which Donovan can begin building trust with Durant and Westbrook. Of course, Westbrook should be plenty familiar with Donovan’s best work as a college coach. He was a reserve on that talented but overmatched UCLA team that lost 76-66 to the Gators in the 2007 Final Four.