Mike Bianchi: Foley’s discovery of Donovan is greatest coaching hire of this generation

Considering where Donovan was 18 years ago as a 30-year-old coach with no track record and where he is now — on the precipice of a third national championship — it’s hard to imagine a greater hire in this generation (last 30 years) of college sports.
Apr 4, 2014

 

DALLAS — Like many athletic directors, the University of Florida’s Jeremy Foley has made some great hires (see Urban Meyer) and some questionable hires (see Will Muschamp), but I’m here to tell you today that he stands alone as the man who made the greatest college coaching hire of this generation.

Billy Donovan.

Billy Legend.

Billy Basketball.

Considering where Donovan was 18 years ago as a 30-year-old coach with no track record and where he is now — on the precipice of a third national championship — it’s hard to imagine a greater hire in this generation (last 30 years) of college sports. I’m not counting Mike Krzyzewski because he was hired at Duke in 1980, which is more than a generation ago. I’m also not counting Nick Saban, who was already an established national-title-winning coach when Alabama hired him.

Do you realize if Donovan’s No. 1-ranked Gators win the national championship, he’ll be one of just six coaches in history to have won three or more titles? The other five: John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (4), Krzyzewski (4), Bobby Knight (3) and Jim Calhoun (3).

Not only that, but Donovan, at 48 years old, has more wins at his age than Wooden, Rupp, Coach K, Rick Pitino, Calhoun, Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo. And what makes Donovan even greater is that he is the only iconic coach in basketball history who has built and sustained an elite basketball program while winning titles at what had been a football school.

“We wanted to do something different and something bold to try and change the culture of Florida basketball,” Foley remembers now about the hiring of Donovan.

Mission accomplished.

In the past, Florida had always gone after established basketball coaches — Norm Sloan, who came to UF after winning a national title at North Carolina State, and Lon Kruger, who built a reputable program at Kansas State. Both Sloan and Kruger had their moments but eventually failed to sustain their success. Sloan was fired amid an ugly NCAA investigation in 1989. Kruger coached the Gators to the Final Four in 1994 but bolted for Illinois two years later after a dismal 12-16 season.

Kruger’s departure took Foley by surprise, and his parting shots left Foley determined. Kruger let it be known that Florida was simply a football school and couldn’t compete in recruiting with basketball powerhouses such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke.

“We didn’t believe that,” Foley says now. “We wanted to change that mindset and change our history.”

And so Foley decided to target a young go-getter who would mix it up with the big boys of college-basketball recruiting. He targeted successful assistant coaches or young head coaches with championship bloodlines. He flew to Durham, N.C., and interviewed Duke assistant coach Tommy Amaker (now the head coach at Harvard).

“He blew me away,” Foley said. “He was really, really good.”

But later that day, Foley flew to Huntington, W.Va., where Donovan had just completed his second year as the head coach at Marshall. After that interview, Foley said, he was “blown away in a different way.”

“Once I interviewed Billy, it was over,” Foley remembers. “I loved his passion; the way he sat on the edge of his chair and discussed his plan to build the program. I talked to Billy for 10 minutes and felt like I’d known him forever. I thought the way he communicated would obviously help him on the recruiting trail.”

Foley flew back to Gainesville, drove over to then-UF President John Lombardi’s house and told his boss that Donovan was the coach he wanted — even though he was just 30. Lombardi’s response: “I don’t care how old he is. If he’s what you think we need, then go get him.”

But first Foley had another obstacle to overcome: Pitino, Donovan’s mentor, advised Donovan not to take the job. Pitino knew Donovan would be inheriting a program that had just been to the Final Four two years earlier but, in Pitino’s words, was “bankrupt of talent.” Pitino felt the expectations would be too high, and the Gators wouldn’t give Donovan enough time to turn the program around.

“I think his (Pitino’s) main concern was Jeremy Foley and what his awareness and expectation of where the program was at,” Donovan says.

Foley quickly persuaded Donovan (and Pitino) of his commitment by coming out of the box with an extended six-year contract offer that would make Donovan one of the highest-paid coaches in the SEC. From that point on, Donovan had little doubt he would get the time and resources needed to build the program the right way.

Foley made a conscious effort and instructed his athletic department staff to “treat basketball exactly like we treat football.” And that’s exactly what UF did — from coaching salaries (Donovan made more than Meyer and makes more than Muschamp) to marketing budgets, all the way down to the media meals during football and basketball games.

Within a couple of years after Donovan took over, UF was breaking ground on a state-of-the-art basketball practice facility that became the model for other elite programs across the country. And coming soon: A new $50 million renovation to the O’Connell Center that will include new seating, club suites and added shopping and concession options

All because of what happened 18 years ago when I referred to Foley in a column as “Jackin’ Jeremy” because his decision to hire the unproven Donovan was like taking a “3-pointer from way, way beyond the arc.”

“In four years,” I wrote, “Donovan will either be known as Foley’s Folly or Foley’s Find.”

Eighteen years later, Jeremy Foley will go down as the man who made the greatest college coaching hire of a generation.

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