Cool subplot to Florida vs. UCLA’s Sweet Sixteen game tonight: in the 1987 Final Four, Providence lost by 14 to Syracuse — Derrick Coleman with 12 boards, eh? — and Indiana beat UNLV by four. Had Providence pulled out that ‘Cuse game, the two stars of the 1987 NCAA Championship game would have been Steve Alford and Billy Donovan — who are now coaching against each other in the 2014 Sweet Sixteen. Odd, no? (Interestingly too, the true hero of the 1987 NCAA Title Game — Keith Smart — was an NBA coach until last spring.)
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s discuss Billy Donovan for a second. Will Muschamp basically zinged his mentor (Nick Saban) by saying Donovan was “the best college coach regardless of sport” recently. Interesting. First off, it’s impossible to compare football and basketball coaches, so let’s not do that. Rather, let’s look at the ol’ Donovan resume.
He’s been at Florida for about 18 years — since the 1996-1997 season — and had two losing seasons (the first two), meaning the last 16 years, Florida has been over .500 (and often very over it). He’s led them to the NCAA Tournament 13 times in those 18 years, winning two national championships and having been to the Elite Eight the last three years (’11-’13). If they win tonight, that’ll be four straight trips to a Regional Final — and those four teams aren’t stocked with the NBA talent that the two national championship teams had.
If you asked people to list the best college basketball head coaches, you’d probably get some mix of Coach K, Pitino (Donovan’s “mentor”), Roy Williams, John Beilein, Shaka Smart, Gregg Marshall, Bill Self, Thad Matta, Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, etc. I didn’t even mention Calipari, which is funny. Donovan would certainly be listed ahead of those guys — and there’s probably more elite basketball coaches than football coaches, where it’s almost like Saban/Miles/possibly Spurrier + Meyer/others — but he doesn’t get a massive amount of credit. You hear more about Pitino — and yes, he won a championship just last year, which is more relevant for people — almost consistently.
In the same time span as Donovan has been at Florida, compare him to Coach K. They both have two championships in that run — K has ’01 and ’10 — and while K has no losing seasons in that time (and the ACC is likely harder than the SEC), he’s been to six Elite Eights but never four in a row (he actually went from 2004 to 2010 without reaching the Elite Eight). Similarly, Pitino’s had a solid run at Louisville since 2001, but also bowed out in the first round two straight years (’10/’11).
Obviously this is all contextual — Donovan is clearly a great coach, and how much credit he receives is a factor of geography, fan allegiance beforehand, belief in the role of a college coach (to win championships? to mold young men? to develop NBA players?) and more. If he wins tonight over UCLA, though — and then goes on to beat the Stanford/Dayton winner — we’d be talking about four Final Four appearances in 18 years and (potentially, a long way off) three national championships. That’s a nice mantle, no? Donovan did just sign a three-year extension, but don’t discount the notion that he may be “intrigued” by the NBA. (Would be a weird world if Tom Izzo and Donovan were prowling NBA sidelines in 1-3 years.)