Why Billy Donovan's departure to the NBA is another big blow to college basketball

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

For the past several years, Billy Donovan's jump to the NBA has seemed inevitable. But anticipating it happening doesn't lessen the blow to college basketball.

Donovan on Thursday agreed to a five-year deal to become the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, league sources told Yahoo Sports. This is a huge loss to a fragile game. It's an understandable move for the man, but a detrimental outcome for the wobbly sport he's leaving behind.

Donovan is on the very short list of the best coaches in college hoops – has been for a while, and could have been for another 15-20 years if he had chosen to stay at Florida. Every bit as significant is what he means to his peer group and his conference.

Billy Donovan took the Gators to four Final Fours. (AP)
Billy Donovan took the Gators to four Final Fours. (AP)

In former Butler coach Brad Stevens and Donovan, college basketball has lost its last two coaches under 50 who have made multiple Final Four appearances. Donovan is barely under that wire, turning 50 in late May, but the point remains that the top of the college coaching profession is not getting any younger.

Since Donovan won his second consecutive – and last – national title in 2007, five of the coaches who cut down the Final Four nets have been 58 or older: Roy Williams in 2009; Mike Krzyzewski in 2010 and '15; Jim Calhoun in '11; and Rick Pitino in '13. Average age of the championship coach since '07 is 58 years old. This year's national championship game pitted 68-year-old Mike Krzyzewski against 67-year-old Bo Ryan, and the average age of the 2015 Final Four coaches was 63.

There are some bright lights among the younger generation, notably 42-year-old 2014 national title winner Kevin Ollie of Connecticut and 38-year-old new Texas coach (and former Donovan assistant) Shaka Smart. But in a sport where there is concern about having enough up-and-coming quality coaches, losing two superstars like Stevens and Donovan hurts.

Stevens' success in two seasons coaching the Boston Celtics has only helped clear the way for Donovan – and perhaps others in the future. Ollie was a reported secondary candidate at Oklahoma City if the Donovan deal did not work out. Kentucky coach John Calipari took a long look at the Cleveland job last year, and those who know him have long said that he has an interest in returning to the league where he failed in the 1990s.

Brain drain in a sport that is struggling to identify its next generation of star coaches is a significant issue.

Donovan is one of the most important figures in the modern era of college basketball. As a player on the Final Four Providence team of 1987, Donovan helped usher in the 3-point shot as a major strategic weapon. As a coach he had huge accomplishments at a young age: taking over his first program (Marshall) at 28; moving to Florida at 30; winning his first title at 40; his second a year later; and chalking up 502 victories before age 50.

The other negative impact of Donovan's departure is on the Southeastern Conference. A strong case can be made that Donovan is the second-greatest coach in SEC history, behind only Adolph Rupp.

Rupp won four national titles. Donovan won two. Nobody else in the history of the league has won more than one.

Donovan's four Final Fours also is surpassed by only Rupp, who had six. Calipari also has made it to four as coach at Kentucky. Nobody else has made more than three as an SEC coach.

Donovan nearly left Florida to coach the Magic in 2007. (Getty Images)
Donovan nearly left Florida to coach the Magic in 2007. (Getty Images)

Donovan's 19-year tenure was longer than Nolan Richardson's at Arkansas, longer than Wimp Sanderson's at Alabama, longer than Joe B. Hall, Pitino, Tubby Smith or Calipari (to date) at Kentucky.

In a league that can divide its basketball homestead into the Kentucky Wing and the Everyone Else Wing, Donovan did a lot to gussy up that side of the house. In a league that thinks of football first, football recruiting second and spring football third, Donovan showed that a gridiron school can succeed – and have staying power – on the hardwood.

In fact, his excellence in Gainesville made Florida the leading two-sport school in the nation. The list of colleges that have won national titles in both football and men's basketball in the last 25 years is exactly one. And the Gators have won multiples in each during that time: three in football and two in hoops.

Donovan's departure does not doom Florida to perennial second-tier status – he built the program into one of the best in the nation, and that shouldn't disappear without him. But athletic director Jeremy Foley needs to get this hire right.

Donovan is likely to endorse assistants Anthony Grant and John Pelphrey as his successor – but both already have been fired from an SEC job (Grant at Alabama this year, Pelphrey at Arkansas in 2011). Expect Minnesota coach and former Donovan assistant Richard Pitino to make a push for the position. Smart would have been a slam-dunk candidate, but he cast his lot with Texas.

So Foley's search could well widen beyond the Donovan family tree. If it does, Archie Miller of Dayton would certainly merit strong consideration.

The 36-year-old Miller, whose Flyers teams have won five games in the past two NCAA tournaments despite being seeded 11th both times, is America's leading college coach under 40. It would be fitting for Florida to replace a departing star of the modern era with a guy who could be the next great.

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