Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has always vowed to build the most dominant, well-rounded and long-standing athletic department in the country. Considering the schools near across the board excellence – highlighted by capturing one football and two men's basketball titles in the past 14 months – he's delivered.
But now, perhaps, comes the hardest part.
Golden Boy Billy Donovan has skipped town, a potential $28.5 million, five-year deal with the Orlando Magic luring him to the NBA, which was an inevitable career move no matter how much Gator Nation wished he'd have stayed forever.
So now the Florida basketball program hits a crossroads with everything on the line.
Is this run of success the past 11 years – three Final Fours, two titles – the work mostly of Donovan's individual genius and over-the-top work ethic or has a foundation been built in Gainesville to not just survive coaching changes, but thrive in spite of them?
Is this Arkansas, which was just as hot in the early 1990s under Nolan Richardson but hasn't been much since, or is it a budding Kentucky, where through the years four different coaches have won national championships?
There is little doubt Florida basketball is different now than when Donovan took over in 1996. The Gators had made an unexpected Final Four appearance in 1994 under Lon Kruger, but for the most part this was a program that while occasionally good, was rarely great.
But Foley plucked Donovan out of Marshall, trusting his energy and ambition could overcome a lack of experience – just two years and no NCAA tournament appearances – as a head coach. Then he plied Donovan, just 30 at the time, with every resource imaginable; pouring money into the program until it became the first school to repeat as NCAA champions since Duke in 1991-92.
Florida became a national program – four of the five members of its iconic starting five the past two seasons hailed from out of state. The Gators overcame the recruiting handicap of UF being a "football school," built a raucous student fan base and became the darlings of television.
But so much of that was Donovan – hard-driving, unafraid of ruffling establishment feathers and with a natural ability to relate, recruit and motivate teenage players.
Even last season, coming off an NCAA title and en route to another, the Gators didn't sell out the 12,000-seat O’Connell Center for every game. A true hoop school, such as Kentucky, can get that many people on its fan message board at one time.
So where does that leave Florida? Can the Gators maintain the interest, the cache, the blue chip recruits after Donovan?
Foley's decision on a successor will be paramount in answering that.
He is expected to hire Anthony Grant, Donovan's long time assistant who left last spring to take over the head job at Virginia Commonwealth. There he went 28-7 and beat Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A Miami native, he shares so many of Donovan's personality traits – he even wears the starched white button down shirt on the sideline – and would bring a sense of continuity to the program.
But then again, Foley thought succeeding Steve Spurrier with his assistant, Ron Zook, was a good idea. And we know how that turned out.
So maybe he looks to a more established, veteran coach to keep this thing churning. This is now a very desirable job.
Regardless, the task for whoever takes over in Gainesville is both enticing and daunting. There is a stacked recruiting class – Donovan kept signing kids this spring even with his eye on the NBA – two championship banners hanging, and a lot of high school players near and far who see UF as a hoops destination.
But if you stumble – and no one, not even Donovan, can maintain the recent pace – how quickly does the luster fade? Can someone other than Donovan close the deal on the All-American recruits it takes to reach the Final Four?
Foley is as good as college athletics has at making this stuff work. He runs the finest athletic program in the nation. He doesn't just demand excellence, he supports it.
But he is going to need every bit of his skill and attention to make the right choice and ensure that Florida is a basketball school for the long haul and not just a Billy Donovan streak of success.
- Billy Donovan