Billy Donovan looks on during the first half against Ole Miss. (Credit: USA Today Sports)
ARLINGTON, Texas – The Florida bus was idling in the early morning hours Saturday, set to take the victorious Gators back to the City Center Marriott in Dallas after their Sweet 16 triumph over Florida Gulf Coast.
Sunday's matchup with Michigan will be the program's third consecutive regional final, the longest such streak in the nation. Still possible is a fourth Final Four and third national title under coach Billy Donovan. This is the picture of a powerhouse.
There was rest to be had and work to be done, but Donovan stopped and talked about the new trend in college basketball, one he acknowledges was unfathomable five, let alone ten years ago.
At that moment, UCLA was still scrambling in search of a coach nearly a week after firing Ben Howland. Boosters were fuming. The athletic director was scrambling.
The Bruins would hire New Mexico's Steve Alford on Saturday morning, but only after one of the sport's unquestioned Cadillac programs, with 10 national titles and located in one of the most talent-rich and beautiful areas of the country was turned down by a couple of 30-somethings who decided they'd rather stay at Butler and VCU.
Seriously, two men said no to Westwood to stay at Butler and VCU.
The answer why, however, may begin with Billy Donovan, a pioneer of the not-going-anywhere trend in college coaching, plus the fact that another bus headed to the Elite Eight was once again waiting for him.
Donovan got to Gainesville in 1996 and for nearly his entire first decade on the job he was rumored to be leaving for somewhere said to be better – most notably, and repeatedly, the University of Kentucky. Even during the 2006 Final Four, the first of his consecutive NCAA championships, much of the talk was about Billy D taking over the Big Blue – a program where success was supposedly easier to attain.
He never went, of course. In 2007, he did take a job with the Orlando Magic for a couple days only to reverse course and return to UF. Few bother speculating he'll leave anymore.
And with another deep run in the tournament, no one claims he could win bigger anywhere else.
"I don't know if I was a trendsetter doing it," Donovan said. "But I do think if you are happy with the AD, if you are happy with your president, if you are happy with the people you work with and you believe you can be successful, the [chatter] might be, 'How can he turn that down? He can't turn that down? That's crazy.' But they don't factor everything into it."
Donovan acknowledges the idea when he got into college coaching was to climb and climb and climb. His AD, Jeremy Foley, says it was just the way of college sports, an accepted part of the profession. Now though, both say it's no longer true, not just for a SEC school like Florida, but nearly everywhere.
"I think there was a day when it was a different world, but I think that world has changed," Foley said. "Obviously Billy had a lot of opportunities and for a brief moment there he took one at the NBA, but he'll ask you, 'What's wrong with being happy?'
"And at the end of the day he woke up and said, 'We're happy at Florida. We don't have to do anything different.'"
More schools today take success in basketball seriously, pouring resources into not just coaching salaries, but staff compensation, facilities and other items. The gap between a UCLA and a VCU, while still there, isn't the chasm it once was.
What Donovan has proven is that it's not just schools with great histories that can have great presents or futures. Florida still fights for big crowds at home games and its tradition remains fairly humble. Since Donovan's arrival, however, only Connecticut has won more national titles (three).
These Gators are deep, experienced and very capable of getting that third title. It shows the strength of the program. This is Donovan's 15th consecutive 20-win season. Two top-10 national recruits are headed to campus next season. The machine shows no sign of slowing down.
The 47-year-old coach says he's content, happy, excited and not one bit regretting his decision to stay and build rather than leave and (supposedly) climb.
While he doesn't see other coaches following his lead, per say, he does believe more of them are realizing what he did, that happiness is paramount. That's especially true as salaries have risen across the board. Both VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens are believed to make over a million dollars a year, unheard of sums just five years ago.
"I say this a lot, if you are at a place and you believe you can be successful, financially you're always going to be OK," Donovan said. "I think a long time ago guys were saying, 'OK, I'm coaching at VCU and I've got a chance to triple my salary.' But it's not like that anymore."
Donovan seems pleased to be mostly out of the coaching rumor mill. Back in 2006, however, it seemed half the stories about the soon-to-be-national-champion Gators were whether he would leave for UK or not. This despite the fact he never really considered leaving.
"I've never said this publicly, but these were the two things I was concerned about [at that time]," Donovan said. "One, I had never had any contact with Kentucky and I thought it would've been disrespectful to act like, 'I'm not interested.' Then someone back in the Kentucky administration could've been like, 'You know what, we're not interested in you.' Just because the speculation is out there doesn't mean I had heard from them.
"And I think the other thing is I think coaches get put into a situation where people call them liars. And that is wrong. You know, 'I'm not going anywhere.' And then a week later they are going somewhere or something happens. And then it is, 'Well, that guy lied.'
"So for me, the best thing is, 'I have no comment. I'm not going to talk about it.' If you say you're staying and you go, it's bad. And if you say, 'Well, I'm going to look at this job,' you create all this media and it's, 'Ah, he was just trying to draw attention, he was just trying to get a better salary, a better situation where he's at.'
"So the coach is in a no-win situation. So I don't like commenting on any of that."
[Also: Florida disposes of upstart FGCU]
It was, essentially, the same tactics employed by Smart and Stevens this year. Stevens refused any public comment and merely tweeted about his love of walking through Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse in the morning as a sign of his intentions to remain in Indianapolis.
There's more to it, too, Donovan said. Namely, emotions, which outsiders often dismiss.
"I'll tell you this, the hardest thing to do for me was, when you're at a place and you start building something and you have a personal investment in the school and the community, it's hard to walk away from all that work you put in," Donovan said. "I think Shaka has put a lot of work in, Brad's put a lot of work in. You know what, you want to see it [through].
"The speculation is, 'OK, it's clear cut, this job, that job, that's a better job," Donovan said. "But what about his wife? What about his kids? What about his relationships in the community? There was a lot of stuff going on [back when the Kentucky and Orlando Magic jobs were swirling]. I was trying to help build a Catholic high school [in Gainesville].
"I think if there is a job that someone says, 'Wow, that makes sense for me. That's good.' But I think for someone like Shaka or Brad Stevens, it has to be something they know is significantly better than where they're at.
"And if its not …"
These days, more than ever it seems, coaches are accepting that what looks good on paper, may not be best in life. They can win where they are. They can get rich where they are. They can be happy where they are.
Not even UCLA is UCLA anymore.
Billy Donovan stayed in Gainesville, turned down the true top-line jobs, turned down the NBA, stayed in the supposed shadow of football and continued building a program that currently takes a backseat to no one, anywhere.
Sunday could bring another Final Four, another shot at a title, another moment of professional accomplishment to go with the personal satisfaction of building rather than chasing.
For Billy Donovan, the greenest grass turned out to be right there next to the Swamp.
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