Flourishing Five No. 1: Florida lifted to unimaginable heights by Donovan

Aug 5th, 2010 | By sportsnews | Category: Sports

(Last of five in a series. Some schools have great football teams. Some have great basketball teams. But a select few have the best of both worlds. CBSSports.com ranks and profiles the schools who’ve positioned themselves for success now and into the future in both sports. Today, No. 1 Florida.)

It was the summer after Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee all exited Florida together, the summer after the Gators had just lost in the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive season, and Billy Donovan was on the road recruiting, trying to secure a commitment from a prospect whose AAU coach wasn’t all that excited about the immediate future of the SEC program.

“I’ll never forget this,” Donovan said before launching into the story. “I’m talking to this AAU coach, and I don’t want to name him, but I’m talking to him and he’s telling me, ‘You guys are going to be awful. You’re going to be terrible.’ We were recruiting one of his kids, and he was like, ‘Geez. Who’s my kid going to play with? Joakim Noah? That guy is a role player. Al Horford? He’s a project. Taurean Green is not an SEC guard, and Lee Humphrey is a mid-major catch-and-shoot guy …’

“So he’s telling me all this and I’m listening,” Donovan continued. “But the whole time I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know. I kinda like these guys. I think we’ve got a chance to be pretty good.’”

You know what happened next, right? That role player, project, non-SEC guard and mid-major catch-and-shoot guy teamed with Corey Brewer — the Gators’ top returning scorer with an average of 7.5 points per game — and led Florida to the 2006 and 2007 national championships.

The Gators began the 2005-06 season unranked.

And they won it all.

The Gators began the 2006-07 season as everybody’s pick to repeat.

And they won it all.

In other words, Florida attacked two seasons from two different places and still ended up in the exact same spot — on top. They’re the two seasons that serve as the highlight of Donovan’s sure-bet Hall of Fame career, the main reason the Gators finished first on the CBSSports.com list of the nation’s best football/basketball schools.

“I’ve been a Gators fan my whole life, and I was a junior and senior [in high school] when I was recruited by them, right when they were winning back-to-back national championships,” said Chandler Parsons, now a senior wing at Florida who averaged 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds last season. “When I committed, it was pretty cool to know I was going to the school that had just won back-to-back championships, and it just showed what Coach Donovan is capable of doing. He’s a great coach. He’s really done a lot of things for this program.”

The fact that Donovan has led the Gators to 10 NCAA tournaments, three Final Fours and two national championships over the past 12 years makes it easy to forget that Florida wasn’t always great, or even good, at basketball. The Gators had made just five NCAA tournaments in history before athletic director Jeremy Foley hired a 31-year-old coach from a Southern Conference school, and Donovan went just 11-21 in the SEC through his first two seasons at Florida.

So, yes, he was losing on the court.

But he was building relationships and winning off of it.

“That was back when you could legitimately work in recruiting — get out in July, watch the kids play, go spend time with the AAU coaches, go see the high school coaches, fly here, fly there,” Donovan said. “We don’t work anymore like we used to work [because of NCAA rules that limit coaches and their access to prospects]. But back then we worked. And we really worked hard to develop a relationship and a bond, and Mike and I hit it off pretty well.”

Mike is Mike Miller, of course.

He was an elite prospect from South Dakota, a McDonald’s All-American living more than 1,500 miles from the Florida campus who Donovan targeted early, worked hard, and lured to the SEC. It was the type of recruiting victory that proved Donovan would be a presence on the national stage, the kind of recruiting accomplishment that was so big it eventually garnered criticism (both publicly and privately) from more established coaches at more established programs, among them Kansas’ Roy Williams and Stanford’s Mike Montgomery.

Predictably, the NCAA investigated Miller’s decision to attend Florida.

But no serious recruiting violations were ever uncovered.

So a soon-to-be-elite program was ignited.

“Mike gave us a McDonald’s All-American from outside of the state of Florida,” Donovan said. “And not only does he come here, but we get all the way to the national championship game with him.”

Miller’s second (and last) year at Florida did indeed culminate with a trip to the national title game. The Gators lost to Michigan State there, sure. But the run through March Madness was more than enough to show Donovan was a proven commodity on and off the court, the sport’s hottest young coach and on his way to what would turn into a string of nine consecutive NCAA tournaments — the final two of which resulted in back-to-back national championships thanks in large part to a quartet of prospects that an AAU coach once told Donovan consisted of a role player (Noah), a project (Horford), a non-SEC guard (Green), and a mid-major catch-and-shoot guy (Humphrey).

Was the AAU coach wrong?

Yes, obviously.

But what he said was, at the time, closer to the majority opinion than not. The Green-Humphrey-Brewer-Noah-Horford core was a core nobody ever anticipated competing for national titles, much less winning consecutive national titles, so it’s still stunning, three years later, to look back and recognize what that group accomplished. Also stunning is what Donovan has built in general. Again, he’s at a school that made only five NCAA tournaments before his arrival, and he has now taken that school to 10 of the past 12 NCAA tournaments while collecting just as many national championships as the current Florida football coach.

“I felt like Florida had great potential [when I took the job], and I think we were very, very hopeful that we’d be able to get to the level we got to, but you never really know,” Donovan said. “I don’t want to sit here and tell you, ‘We knew it was going to be great’ and ‘There was no doubt in my mind’ because you just never really know. But I did feel like there was great potential and that it was a great opportunity, and things just kinda fell our way.”

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