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Edgar Thompson | The Orlando Sentinel | May 5, 2015

Billy Donovan bids farewell to Gators as search for his successor begins

  Billy Donovan led Florida to the Final Four four times, and won two national championships.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just days after a legendary coach and dear friend embarked on a new challenge, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley looked to sum up coach Billy Donovan's impact on him, the Gators and the Gainesville community.

Foley rarely is at a loss for words, but his silence Monday as he choked back tears spoke volumes.

"Basketball games come and go," Foley concluded. "Relationships like this are once in a generation."

Foley, 61, also knows change is the name of the game in college athletics.

Once Donovan made peace with his decision last Thursday to leave UF after 19 seasons for the NBA's Oklahoma City Thunder, Foley had no choice but to move on himself.

"We've been dealing with a lot of sadness around here," he said. "But at some point you have a job to do and you have to get beyond that."

Foley and his staff met Monday afternoon to map out a plan to hire Donovan's successor.

UF's search actually began weeks, if not months, ago while coach Scott Brooks' future in Oklahoma City was in doubt.

When the Thunder fired Brooks April 22, Donovan became the frontrunner based on his Hall-of-Fame resume, NBA itch and a relationship with Thunder general manager Sam Presti.

Donovan said he has a shared vision with Presti similar to his interactions with Foley.

"I was just not going to pick up and walk out of Florida unless it was something really unique and special in my mind," Donovan said during his farewell news conference Monday. "That's what I feel the situation is in Oklahoma."

Foley said UF also is a special place to coach basketball.

A big reason is the success of Donovan, who coached the Gators to two national titles, four Finals Fours and 14 trips to the NCAA tournament. Foley also pointed to UF's academics, SEC membership and commitment to basketball, including a planned $60 million renovation of the O'Connell Center.

"There are a lot of pieces here," Foley said. "Certainly the tradition piece that we were missing through the years, that's what Billy put on the table."

Finding someone to continue the tradition will be a formidable challenge.

Foley said he has not contacted any coaches, and will cast a wide net during a search that could last weeks.

"The key is to have something in place obviously sometime in June because July is a huge recruiting month," Foley said. "So, we have some time to do our due diligence."

Donovan made a strong pitch for longtime assistant coach John Pelphrey, a former head coach at South Alabama and Arkansas before he returned four years ago to UF. Anthony Grant, a longtime assistant re-hired last month, is the former head coach at VCU and Alabama but could join Donovan with the Thunder.

"Jeremy knows the way I feel about John Pelphrey and just the way he's been by my side," Donovan said. "He was a vital part to the success of the program. I'd put Anthony in the same category."

Chances are the Gators look outside for their next coach, with potential targets including Dayton's Archie Miller, Xavier's Chris Mack and Villanova's Jay Wright.

But Monday was about Donovan, not who will succeed him.

With the Gators' logo serving as a backdrop for a final time, Donovan reflected on his arrival in 1996 when UF was known only as a football school in the hey-day of Steve Spurrier.

Donovan quickly established the Gators in basketball, reaching the 2000 Final Four. During the years, he and his wife, Christine, raised four children in Gainesville and helped establish St. Francis Catholic High School.

With his 50th birthday four weeks away, Donovan's hopes he is remembered at UF as more than a coach.

"I just hope that I brought value," he said. "I hope I made Florida better. I'm not talking about from wins and losses. I hope I made Florida better as an institution.

"I cared deeply about Florida, and just wanted to leave a dent and to bring value."

Donovan clearly leaves a lasting mark. While out to dinner Sunday night, Foley said people approached him repeatedly to ask him to thank Donovan.

Foley now has to show Gator basketball is bigger than one man.

"We're not taking a step back," Foley said. "We want to keep this thing going in the right direction. I think there are a lot of people doubting that we can do that, and that fires us up because we have a good job here."

This article was written by Edgar Thompson from The Orlando Sentinel and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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