It started as a slow burn this past season. With every successive victory the chatter grew louder.
Billy Donovan is a good coach. Billy Donovan is a really good coach. Is Billy Donovan a top-five coach right now? Could Billy Donovan be the best coach in the game?
According to ESPN.com, Donovan is indeed the best college basketball coach in the country. He sits atop a list that includes 49 of his peers – one spot ahead of conference rival John Calipari. In rolling out its list of the top 50 coaches in America, ESPN used the following criteria.
Last week, we asked a panel of nearly 100 ESPN writers, editors, broadcasters and researchers to rate college basketball coaches on all aspects of running a program, on a scale of 1-10. (The crucial distinction here is that the prompt was not career-oriented. This isn’t about legacy. It’s all about the present.)
While Donovan’s ranking was sealed on the back of his team’s historic 2013-14 campaign, his stability (20 years and counting) and transcendence truly set him apart for the publication. He won two titles, dipped his toes in the NBA waters, took a two-year NIT swoon and then hit the thrusters. Florida has not missed the NCAA tournament in five seasons, nor has it missed the Elite 8 in the past four.
ESPN especially took note of Donovan’s ability to turn Florida – a football school – into a roundball powerhouse.
The most impressive thing about all this? The fact that Donovan has done it at Florida. Before Donovan, the Gators’ baskteball history was almost nonexistent. In 1932-33, the Gators fielded an SEC basketball team for the first time. For the next 47 years, they finished higher than fourth in the conference standings just four times. The Gators didn’t have a full-time coach until 1960, and their only sustained success (under Norm Sloan from 1980 to 1989) led to the Gators’ first postseason berths ever, and also a major NCAA scandal.
That was five years before Donovan arrived. Now, 19 years later, Florida is one of the nation’s elite college basketball programs. It is a perennial recruiting destination, a near-constant winner. Florida is, and always will be, a football school. Attendance hasn’t always been great. But Donovan has been so relentlessly good that even the most stubbornly disinterested alum can’t help but sit up and take notice.
It’s easy to say that Florida’s newfound boasts of being an “everything school” congealed with Donovan. Football was there. It was the yin. Donovan added the yang. He made the revenue cycle complete. Fans who used to check out in January now stick around through March and April.
Perhaps Donovan’s most amazing feat is the article itself. For the better part of the 2013-14 season ESPN seemed to give Florida short shrift. For them to finally recognize that UF not only has a basketball program, but that it’s led by a man midway through a great career is something special. It makes the next 20 years well worth looking forward to.