Florida head coach Billy Donovan has been named head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the team announced Thursday afternoon. The Gainesville Sun's Kevin Brockway was first to report that Donovan and the Thunder had agreed to terms; Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski subsequently confirmed the hire, and a five-year contract for Donovan, while ESPN's Jeff Goodman reported that Donovan informed Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley of his decision.
Thunder general manager Sam Presti and Donovan each made statements on the hiring in the Thunder's release.
"We are thrilled to welcome Billy and his family to the Oklahoma City Thunder organization. When we began the process of identifying the next head coach of the Thunder, we started with a vision and the identifiable qualities that we felt were necessary for our organization as well as the ever evolving role of the head coach in today's NBA. We wanted to identify a person with the traits associated with high achieving leaders in their respective fields; a continuous learning mentality, the ability to adapt, evolve and innovate, intrinsically motivated, humility, and great tactical competence," Presti said.
"While we created a comprehensive analysis regarding the qualities we were looking for, it became quite evident that Billy was the ideal fit for the Thunder as we look to transition our team into the future. Billy has achieved an incredible level of success and experience within his 21 years as a head coach and has shown the unique ability to not only create but sustain an elite program. His emotional intelligence, commitment to the concept of team, and relentless approach to incremental improvement have allowed him to bring his players together and establish lasting relationships through competitive success. Billy's core values and alignment with our culture and community, as well as his proven tactical abilities, make him an ideal addition to the Thunder organization."
"I am honored and humbled to be named the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder. 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," said Billy Donovan, Thunder Head Coach. "The Thunder represents so many of the values that I embrace as a head coach; the commitment to the team above oneself, the dedicated pursuit of excellence, the commitment to organizational culture, the identity they have established and the fact that the Thunder and the community are so intricately woven into the fabric of one another. To have the ability to work with such a talented and high character group of players is also rare, and I am excited to forge ahead creating those relationships.
"It is of course bittersweet as the University of Florida will always hold a very special place in my heart and in my family's. I've had the good fortune of working with the best athletic director in the country in Jeremy Foley over the last 19 years, and I'll be forever grateful and thankful for the opportunity and his friendship. Countless players, students, and other people in the administration were responsible for our success and for the meaningful connection we had with the Gainesville community. I have a deep appreciation for what the University of Florida will always mean to me and I'll forever be a Gator."
Donovan, Foley, and Florida president Dr. Kent Fuchs also issued statements on Donovan's departure in a Florida release.
"I want to thank Jeremy Foley, the players, coaches and staff I’ve had the chance to work with during my time at Florida," Donovan said. "The administrative support and stability has been unbelievable here, and it is an incredibly difficult decision to leave that. 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."
"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," Foley said. "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."
"Billy’s legacy at the University of Florida is nothing short of stellar, said UF President Dr. Fuchs. "The wins and championships were great, but perhaps even more important, he took a personal interest in his student-athletes and pushed them to be their best in the classroom and in life. The entire Gator Nation is grateful for his nearly 20 years of leadership, and we wish him the very best of luck in his new adventure."
Donovan had been connected to the Thunder head coaching position, if quietly, dating back to 2014, when Presti tipped his hand on the franchise's interest in Donovan by hiring Florida basketball staffers Mark Daigneault and Oliver Winterbone. Donovan was also connected to vacant head coaching positions with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014; though that interest was cast as mutually minor at the time, Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that Donovan had, in fact, "turned down offers to coach" both teams.
And Donovan's interest in the NBA had never really waned since he initially accepted a position as the Orlando Magic's head coach in 2007, before changing his mind and returning to Florida. He explained his position in 2014, after leading Florida to a fourth Final Four:
"I think when you start making guarantees about life and start making guarantees about where you're going to be, that's not good because if for some reason I ever change my mind and did something, I wouldn't want (people) saying, 'Well, he promised, he guaranteed, he said this on record,'" Donovan said. "I just think when you start doing that, that's a mistake.
"All I can say is I love Florida, I'm happy here ... the school's been great to me," he said. "But at the same point, some of the NBA stuff, as I've said before, is intriguing in a lot of ways -- the basketball part of it. That's not to say that I'm unhappy here; that's not the case at all.
"But when people start getting into forecasting where they're going to be or what they're going to do, and I've seen a lot of coaches over the years come out and say, 'No, no, no, no, I'm not going anywhere, I'm not going anywhere,' and then all of a sudden they go somewhere, and it's like, 'Well, this guy is a complete liar.' I don't want to get into that situation. There's been some teams that have called, but that's really it."
Donovan's interest in the NBA never really waned; he just had larger obstacles to eventually making a leap to the next level after 2007, most obviously a five-year non-compete agreement preventing him from leaving Florida for an NBA job that expired in 2013.
And he's never had an NBA opportunity nearly as good as this one with the Thunder, where he will become the head coach of a team with two of the world's top five basketball players — when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both healthy, anyway — and a savvy GM in Presti. Yes, the Thunder could lose Durant to free agency in 2016, and Westbrook the summer after that, but chances to become the head coach of an NBA team with this much talent already in place are vanishingly rare.
And Donovan is quite likely to have success at the NBA level.
Not only does he inherit the Thunder's top-tier talent, he has been one of college basketball's consistently inventive offensive minds for most of his tenure, and has had success with multiple kinds of defense, both a pressing, up-tempo style that was dubbed "Billyball" and helped fuel the Gators' sprint to the college basketball elite early in his tenure and a slower, more disciplined defense that has been Florida's hallmark in recent years.
Furthermore, Donovan, while certainly demanding of his players, has been hailed time and again by current and former charges as a player-friendly coach who builds strong individual relationships. Donovan, a former point guard, is notoriously tough on his own point guards, and his relationship with Westbrook, who is almost definitionally mercurial, will be fascinating to watch — but it would be folly to think that Donovan won't be able to have success at the NBA level because of personality conflicts, given that his career at Florida included developing players as diverse as Jason Williams, Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, and Scottie Wilbekin.
Donovan's departure leaves Florida at a crossroads, and comes at a time — with the Gators coming off just the second losing season of his tenure, and an exasperating plummet from the Final Four to declining a CBI invitation — when some (myself included) thought his pride in what he has built in Gainesville might lead him to choose to stay in hopes of leaving on a better note.
Florida fans will also surely linger on the delay in renovating the O'Connell Center, the Gators' aging basketball arena, as a potential factor in Donovan's departure. The project has been postponed to 2016, after being announced in 2014 for a 2015 completion — but it took seven years after Donovan's second consecutive national championship for a full-scale renovation to be announced in the first place. Florida has made other capital improvements for its basketball program, most notably a gleaming practice facility, but the O'Dome's relative age and lack of amenities has likely been a signficant drawback for its program.
I suspect that is a much smaller factor in Donovan's decision to leave than the opportunity before him — and I think it might be less important as a source of dissatisfaction than Donovan's frustration with the state of college basketball recruiting.
Reports linking Donovan to the Thunder consistently suggested he is "tired" of recruiting, and that's certainly true in the abstract, because no coach about to turn 50 (as Donovan will in May) with more than 20 years of college basketball recruiting on his résumé could not be "tired" of it. More specifically, though, Donovan's job on the recruiting trail has gotten far more difficult in recent years, especially with John Calipari's arrival at Kentucky and the ramping up of other elite programs' recruiting to keep pace.
Donovan has had more success with winning games and titles in the college ranks than Calipari, and was, after Jim Calhoun's retirement, one of just four active coaches (Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Louisville's Rick Pitino, and North Carolina's Roy Williams being the others) with multiple national titles in the sport. But Florida has struggled to land top-tier talent of late, with Calipari's pitches of glitz and instant success helping to pull players like Brandon Knight and Dakari Johnson from the Sunshine State, and Krzyzewski's legacy (and recent fame as the head coach of USA Basketball, a position Donovan was angling for, as the organization's U18 coach, before Krzyzewski decided to remain in his role) helping Duke land Florida-grown stars like Austin Rivers and Grayson Allen.
Donovan's prestige and Florida's program were enough to get a Gators hat on the table, so to speak, for players as diverse as Kyle Anderson and Jabari Parker. However, Donovan's three consensus top-10 recruits since 2008, the cycle in which he could first wear two rings to a meeting with a prospect, are Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal, and Chris Walker — a mixed bag, at best. Kentucky (seven) and Duke (three) both have at least as many in their last two recruiting classes, and all 10 of the top-10 players from those programs' classes will be in the NBA next year.
To be clear, Donovan choosing to bolt to the Thunder is likely mostly about the Thunder's advantages, rather than Florida's disadvantages: The NBA presents a different challenge for Donovan, and a unique opportunity to have success in the short and long terms. But keeping Florida among the nation's elite programs was always a difficult task for Donovan, and it will now become a job for the next guy.
The identity of that next guy is difficult to scry. Donovan's longtime presumed successor, former assistant Shaka Smart, is already off the market, having left VCU for Texas earlier this month. What Foley will do to replace Donovan, with Smart no longer available, will be the subject of intense scrutiny, not least because Florida now has the only vacant head coaching position in Division I.
While Donovan would likely have preferred an assistant from his coaching tree — Smart, perhaps, or even current Florida assistants Anthony Grant and John Pelphrey — to be the next Florida coach, his somewhat abrupt departure gives Foley full control to choose the Gators' next head man. (Had Donovan remained at Florida until a retirement from coaching, he would almost certainly have been afforded some leeway in crafting a succession plan.)
And given Foley's penchant for plucking promising younger coaches for the top jobs at Florida, Dayton's Archie Miller stands out from the pack as a potential hire, despite a lack of ties to the Gators.
But he — or anyone — will have massive shoes to fill. Donovan is Florida basketball to many (though the was is sadly imminent), and his role in making Florida athletics a powerhouse has inarguably been greater than that of any coach in the school's history other than Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer.
Donovan leaves Florida with a 502-206 record as a college basketball coach, and as just the second coach to reach 500 wins before the age of 50. Just 22 programs in the history of the sport have more NCAA Tournament wins than Donovan's 35, and one of those programs is Florida — do the math, and Donovan quintupled his program's previous total. Donovan is the only coach this century to win consecutive national championships, and one of two (Duke's Krzyzewski the other) to do so since UCLA's John Wooden.
When the O'Connell Center is reopened after that renovation, its floor may very well bear Donovan's name — and it absolutely should. That Florida won't have him on the sideline as a coach for that game is a sad realization.
But his signature on the court, especially if it's still the floor from the 2006 Final Four that Florida purchased to use as its own, would be an appropriate legacy. No one has done more to author the story of Florida basketball than Billy Donovan.
And as he goes to write a new chapter in his own story, we wish him the best of luck.