It’s that time of year again when we make up stories because we have little else to talk about. Sure there’s recruiting and the NFL Draft coming up and other sports, but in terms of the “important” games, they’re all over. So like the other day, it’s “what if?” time.
What if Billy Donovan had stuck with his plans to go to the Orlando Magic?
After the 2006-2007 season, Donovan ever so briefly left Florida to head to Orlando and the NBA. The Gators were coming off their second-straight National Championship and Donovan was the hottest coach in the country. He could have had almost any job he wanted at the time. Over the years there had been numerous rumors of Kentucky being his eventual destination, but Donovan was going to try his hand at the NBA instead.
Almost immediately after announcing his intentions, Donovan was the Florida head coach once again. In the end, he couldn’t leave what he had built in Gainesville and wanted to remain with the Gators. Then came the real turbulence. Following two-straight titles were two-straight NIT appearances. The first wasn’t a shock even if it was a disappointment as the Gators were expected to take a step back after the 04s left. The second was unacceptable.
At that time, plenty were calling for Donovan’s head. Many thought he had lost control of his team and his program. Team ball had been replaced by a “me first” player or two. The future was unsure and we all wondered if Donovan was second guessing his decision to stay at Florida.
The following two seasons, Donovan started to turn things around again. Back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances and a trip to the Elite 8 has no one calling for his dismissal. Fans still wonder if Kentucky is his dream job, but for now they are content with where Donovan will take the program and still very happy with what he turned it into. The future isn’t in as much of a question as it was even a couple of years ago and we’re all looking forward to next season.
But it all could have been very different…
One year prior to what could have been Donovan’s last year with the Gators, Florida assistant Anthony Grant left to become the head coach at VCU. Grant had been an assistant under Donovan from 1994 until 2006 and the guess is he would have only spent one year with the Rams. With Donovan gone, Grant would have been one of the prime candidates to replace him and probably would have topped the list.
Grant wouldn’t have liked leaving VCU after only one season, but the opportunity (and money) to coach Florida would have been too tempting. He had been in Gainesville for 10 years as an assistant and ultimately would have become the next Gator head coach. But I’m not sure he could have had more success than Donovan had over the past four seasons.
Grant is a good coach and one of the upcoming names in the sport, but the NIT years weren’t just due to coaching. He could have turned things around though. Grant has proven that he has what it takes to lead multiple programs. Today, he would still be around, gearing up for his fifth season at Florida. The Gators would be a solid program and probably be in very good shape under Grant’s leadership.
Moving on to Donovan, guess is he wouldn’t have succeeded in the NBA. Donovan’s best teams are just that – teams. Over the years, the Gators made runs when they went 10-deep, when they had five starters all of which could take over a game on any given night, and most recently when they had senior leadership supported by solid guard play. They struggled (back to those NIT years) when they didn’t have a team identity, when they had one player who tried to control a game on his terms. Sound a little like half of the teams in the NBA? Donovan would have given it everything he could, but like Steve Spurrier, his time in the pros wouldn’t be long.
It’s doubtful Donovan would have been fired after only two seasons with the Magic. The team had a good young core at the time and was positioned to do good things. But Donovan may not have had as much success as expected and more importantly would have missed the college game too much. After year number two, he would have stepped down as the head man in Orlando for many reasons, but for one in particular…
After the 2008-2009 season, Kentucky fired Billy Gillespie.
That’s right, had Donovan left for Orlando in 2007, he would be the head coach of the Wildcats today. It’s hard having a legendary coach leave your school for a rival. It’s harder seeing them resurface at not only a conference rival, but a divisional rival (see Spurrier again). And Donovan has been linked to Kentucky…a lot…so there he would be. Twice a season and maybe more, the Gators would be looking down the court at their old coach. The one that made their basketball program relevant. It didn’t happen, but what if?