The last time a Florida coaching icon left for the pros, it came as a distinct shock… but it did happen.
Steve Spurrier, having coached the Gators on the gridiron for 12 seasons (1990-2001), bolted for the NFL’s Washington Redskins in January of 2002. Naturally, the move wasn’t hard to explain: Spurrier wanted to scratch that NFL itch and see what the pro game was all about. The element of surprise emerged from the idea that Spurrier just wasn’t the kind of person who fit the NFL’s culture.
Spurrier was a failed NFL quarterback as a player (though a decent punter), so perhaps there was something inside him which wanted to succeed as a coach in the NFL. At any rate, his brief stay with the Redskins never worked out, and he returned to South Carolina. He has failed to win the SEC title in Columbia, but he’s done almost everything else. Three straight seasons with bowl victories and 11 wins, plus a five-game winning streak over Clemson, will enable Spurrier to be remembered fondly by South Carolinians who are partial to the Gamecocks.
Spurrier’s cultural home was always college football. Yes, he explored the NFL… but he found it was not where he was supposed to be. This lack of a cultural fit is why his move to the pros was a curveball on the day it was announced 13 years ago.
Spurrier is Florida’s most famous football coach (though not necessarily its most accomplished if viewed solely through the lens of national titles — Urban Meyer would have something to say about that). Now, Florida’s most famous basketball coach has been thrown into the center of speculation surrounding his future.
It is not a secret in basketball circles that Sam Presti, the general manager of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, admires Billy Donovan. A source no less than Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports created a stir on Twitter (a Woj bomb, but not a huge one by his standards) when he filed a story which said that OKC’s higher-ups were going to re-evaluate head coach Scott Brooks. The general thrust of the story was that Brooks’s job was in danger, and that he was anything but a lock to come back for the 2015-2016 NBA season. A prime candidate to replace him? Donovan.
Of course, Brooks has to be fired before Donovan can even become a candidate. However, let’s say Brooks is canned. Just how realistic is a Donovan-to-OKC scenario?
A good primer on this situation was provided by Andy Hutchins of Florida’s SB Nation site, Alligator Army, a few weeks ago. The most relevant detail mentioned in that primer — which we’ll talk more about here — is the fact that after the 2015-2016 season, Kevin Durant’s contract expires. Oklahoma City must therefore weigh a number of competing tensions in this situation.
The Thunder need to win next season. They need to keep Durant happy so that he’ll want to stay with the team for the 2016-’17 season and beyond. They need to know that if they fire Brooks, they’ll have to hire a coach who gives them the best chance to win the championship in one year. Durant has publicly supported Brooks, a major plot complication which militates against the possibility that Brooks will be fired to begin with. However, playing along with this hypothetical, the decision to hand Brooks a pink slip would force the organization to thread the needle with its new hire.
The point-blank question flowing from that hypothetical: Is Billy Donovan the number one choice for OKC, the man best suited to win the 2016 title?
You could look at Steve Kerr and notice what he’s doing at Golden State and say that first-year coaches can work out. You can point to Jason Kidd a year ago in Brooklyn and claim with a degree of legitimacy that skilled coaches can immediately improve a pro ballclub. Yet, the NBA’s Western Conference produced seven 50-win teams this season, nine teams with at least 44 wins. Is a college coach — even one as great as Donovan — ready to win an NBA title in one season, without an allowance for an adjustment period?
Not only could Oklahoma City be stuck with Donovan if the Thunder fails to win the 2016 title (especially if the team fails to make the 2016 NBA Finals); Donovan could be stuck with the Thunder. Moreover, you can be sure that Billy D., in light of his flip-flop with the Orlando Magic (agreeing to coach the team but then backing out shortly thereafter), knows he’d be taking just as much of a risk in coaching OKC as the Thunder organization would be taking by hiring him.
If Durant had more years left on his contract and had not publicly supported Scott Brooks, this situation would look very different. If this was five years ago, with Oklahoma City in a much more flexible position and Florida struggling, Donovan might have felt that the timing was right for a move to the NBA.
Now, though, Donovan has just re-hired a friend and colleague, Anthony Grant, to be one of his assistant coaches in Gainesville. A few weeks ago, a lot of general chatter surfaced about Donovan’s supposed NBA aspirations, but the Grant hiring is the very kind of move which suggests that Donovan wants to stay at Florida. It’s not merely the hiring of an assistant coach which matters, either; the fact that Donovan hired both a friend and someone who built the Gators into national champions (in 2006) reinforces the idea that he wants to chase (more) greatness in the college game.
Skeptics might look at that last detail and say that this is all Donovan’s way of enabling Grant to become the next Florida head coach, smoothing the path for an NBA getaway.
Well… if you want to believe in that, there’s no stopping you.
I’m going to remain convinced that the timing just isn’t right for Billy Donovan to finally coach in the NBA. If the Chicago Bulls don’t put up a good fight against the Cleveland Cavaliers (should those teams meet) in the second round of the NBA playoffs, Tom Thibodeau would be a natural choice to coach Oklahoma City… assuming, one last time, that Scott Brooks is fired.
It’s been a part of many college basketball offseasons over the years. Billy Donovan to the NBA is the kind of chorus that never seems to go away.
Yet, like Jon Gruden to Tennessee or Nick Saban to the Browns, don’t expect it to happen anytime soon, and probably not ever.