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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
The day before his team was to play Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March, South Alabama coach John Pelphrey was asked to assess the career of Billy Donovan, the man he coached alongside in Gainesville and played for when the latter was an assistant at Kentucky.
Pelphrey was well aware that Donovan, the former boy wonder of coaching, had received more than his share of criticism in recent seasons after Florida's puzzling five-year steak of early-round NCAA Tournament flameouts that followed an appearance in the 2000 national championship game.
"In the next 10 years, everybody will look at him in a totally different light," Pelphrey said of his close friend. "He'll have 500 or so wins, played in 20 straight NCAA Tournaments, won a lot more SEC championships and probably a national championship."
Pelphrey's words proved prophetic, but his time frame for Donovan's re-evaluation was way off. Ten years, he said, until Donovan would get his just due? It was closer to ten days.
To be precise, Donovan's ascension to the rarified air breathed by the Krzyzewskis, Williams, Olsons, Calhouns and Knights of the college hoops world occurred 19 days from the day the loyal Pelphrey made his proclamation, on the evening of April 3, 2006 in Indianapolis. That's when Florida manhandled UCLA to win its first national championship.
Could the Gators have played a more fitting opponent than the Bruins, who walk past 11 national championship trophies every day on their way to practice?
After the championship trophy was safely back in Gainesville and even the RCA Dome floor on which the Gators won the title purchased (for $70,000) and installed in Florida's O-Dome, Donovan had time to reflect on the accomplishment.
"It's very humbling," he said. "Look at a guy like Jim Calhoun, who for so long was trying to get into the Final Four. Now he's won it all twice. Roy Williams tried for so long to win a national championship and he finally did. Jim Boeheim, same thing. Gary Williams. Lute Olson. All these guys are great coaches who at one time in their careers had been criticized too harshly for lack of tournament success.
"I don't know that that's always fair. But it's the way of the world. We all have to accept it."
If those sound like the world-weary words of a veteran coach, well, Donovan is no longer Billy the Kid. He's 40, with 10 seasons at Florida behind him. That makes Donovan the dean of SEC coaches. In his 10 seasons in Gainesville, he's taken the program from one that enjoyed only a smattering of success on the national level to a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and now perhaps, a perennial national championship contender.
"That's the thing that's so rewarding," Donovan said. "Now we've increased the level of expectation. I'm not saying we have nearly as much tradition, but it's the same way at Duke, North Carolina or Kansas. To see those kind of expectations at a place like Florida, in the Southeast, where football is king … that means a lot."
If expectations were high before, they're off the charts now. The Gators -- unlike other national championship teams of recent vintage that were gutted by players leaving early for the NBA -- have a legitimate chance to repeat. That much was assured when Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green announced they would all return to school.
"It was the most unbelievable thing," Donovan said of the moment he learned the heart and soul of his team would be back for at least another year. "I had told the guys, 'We need to sit down and talk [about the future]. I'm concerned about all these outside influences getting to you and saying things that aren't necessarily true. How do you want to handle this?'
"They looked at each other and one of them said, 'Coach, we've already talked about this. We're coming back.' I couldn't believe it."
With that, preparations began for this season. The Gators don't plan on resting on their considerable accomplishments of a year ago.
"That's the great thing about these kids," Donovan said. "A week after we won the national championship, these kids were coming by my office, wanting to be worked out every day. I told them I couldn't [because of NCAA rules], I can't work you out every day. But they were in there on their own time, working hard, getting ready. These guys are still hungry. As a coach, it gets you fired up."