How do we put Billy Donovan’s career into words now, when he has so much more to do in basketball?
He’s already left his mark here at Florida — and then some. He is perhaps the greatest coach in school history. And now he's gone. On Thursday, the Oklahoma City Thunder hired him away from Florida, ending one of the most storied tenures for any coach that has ever stood on a sideline in orange and blue.
So we're left to write a legacy with chapters left to go.
You know the achievements, the things that he did to take the program from decent to elite: Two national championships, won consecutively; four Final Fours, spread over 15 seasons; seven Elite Eights, four of them in a row; eight Sweet Sixteens, four times as many as Florida had made before him; four SEC Tournament championships, which the Gators had never grasped before him, and six SEC regular season championships, or six times more than the program had earned.
Combined with his days at Marshall, Donovan accrued 502 victories before his 50th birthday, and became the second-youngest coach in Division 1 history to eclipse the 500 mark.
Billy Donovan is Florida basketball. You will never think of one without the other, and that's thanks to his skills on the bench — but also thanks to his tireless efforts, in the living rooms of 17-year-olds, and on the practice court with wayward sophomores, and in huddles with battle-tested seniors, devoted to developing and teaching those young men as they try to grow into mature adults, on the court and off.
No number of banners in the O'Connell Center capture what he means to this program; not even his signature, which will one day be emblazoned upon the O'Dome floor, could do that. The brilliance of Billy Donovan lies not what his teams have done on the hardwood, but how he gets them ready to do their jobs.
Donovan mentioned not sacrificing winning for the culture of the program multiple times in a trying 2014-15 season — and it would have been easy to do so multiple times last year. Practically everything went wrong: Injuries, players forcing his hand to deliver suspensions, miraculous last-second shots — by both the Gators and their foes. The lost season produced more losses (17) than in any season since his first in Gainesville back in 1996-1997.
But Donovan stayed the course. The process has always been more important to the man than the results — that is what I've learned about him, more than anything else, over the last two years covering his teams.
This disciplined approach to upholding that journey over the destination and using the adversity on the court to teach lessons about life wasn’t something he learned at Florida, either, it was something he brought here.
Donovan was inclusive and warm from the beginning of his coaching career. There was a fear within the Marshall program that he inherited in 1994 that his lofty basketball background — coming straight from Kentucky as an assistant, and a member of a Big East Final Four team as a player — would give him a holier-than-thou attitude toward little Huntington, West Virginia.
After he was introduced and took the job, he proved nothing could be further from the truth. He included communications staffers in early morning pickup basketball games, and when he first hit the road, even the first recruit he signed felt Donovan’s wish to take him under his wing.
When he left Marshall, those who stayed behind knew he would do great things at Florida — and he did reach mountaintops with the Gators. But it wasn’t easy.
First he had to get a University community obsessed with football to get and stay behind that sports’ little brother just across North-South Drive. He did it the way you’re supposed to: He won.
By his fourth season at Florida, Donovan had his Gators in the national championship game as a No. 5 seed. The Gators fell to Michigan State, but the program had shown it could sustain success after reaching the Sweet Sixteen officially for only the second time in school history the year before under Donovan. (A 1987 appearance in the Sweet Sixteen was vacated, thanks to Vernon Maxwell.) And the presumption was that higher highs were coming soon.
Instead, Donovan's Gators would not be back in the Final Four for another six seasons. His teams traded disappointing first and second round exits from the NCAA Tournament for the next five years, failing to reach even the Sweet Sixteen. But when the program returned to where college basketball’s road ends, Donovan's Gators shattered their glass ceiling, winning back-to-back national championships with the school's most beloved quartet of athletes ever — the Oh-Fours Donovan carefully selected in his 2004 recruiting class.
It would get hard again. Donovan had so effectively ratcheted up the expectation of winning within the culture of the program that he almost became a victim of his own success: After two NITs following the championships disgruntled people began to grumble at the prospect of a third.
Yet Donovan rebounded again, and proceeded to take the Gators on their most recent run of postseason success, leading Florida back to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, then to four straight Elite Eights, and a Final Four in 2014.
The 2014-2015 season was in many ways a disaster for Florida, and for Donovan. While it may be how the Gainesville chapter of his ongoing basketball legacy ends, though, it is most certainly not what defines him or it.
There’s no telling what Donovan will do at the NBA level. He could flame out like his mentor Rick Pitino, or he could excel, especially given the fact that he’s inheriting two of the top-five basketball players walking around on Earth right now.
But no matter how Donovan fares, what will be more important to him and more evident to those that pay attention, is how he goes about doing what he does. He will do so with integrity and dignity no matter his team's level of success, and he will always be there to remind those around him the process matters even more than the results — no matter how lofty or transformative those results may be.
For my money, Donovan's imprint on college basketball is so noteworthy because of how he got there. I try to divorce process and results, but end up coming to the realization that they need not stand alone; intertwined, and placed together in context, they reflect the full measure of an accomplishment.
List the things Billy Donovan did as a coach, and know how he did them as a man, never losing himself along the way.
And remember the road taken to the top as well as you remember the destination.