The playing floor at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center will have a new name come Saturday night, as the Gators will unveil “Billy Donovan Court” at halftime to honor their former legendary men’s coach.
Donovan spent 19 years as the head man of the Florida basketball program before departing for the NBA in 2015. For the last five years, Donovan has been the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and Saturday will be his first time back inside the O’Connell Center since taking the job.
During his tenure in Gainesville, Donovan led the Gators to a total of four Final Four appearances, including back-to-back titles in 2006-2007.
While Donovan saw tremendous success on the court, he was also able to meet and build a number of relationships with those in the athletic department. More specifically with former athletic director Jeremy Foley, and longtime voice of the Gators, Mick Hubert.
Where it All Began
Looking to get Florida Basketball back in the spotlight again, Foley was looking for a splash name. The Gators had made a Final Four appearance in 1994 with then head coach Lon Kruger, but Kruger opted to leave the Gators in 1996, leaving Foley trying to find that home run hire. That would lead him to Donovan.
Foley said some of the characteristics that he saw in Donovan when speaking to him about the job was his excitement, passion and energy. In addition, the experience Donovan had in the game of basketball already was another check mark for Foley.
In bringing on Donovan, Foley hoped this would catapult the basketball program into a consistent winner every year, including come NCAA Tournament time in March.
The idea to name the Gators’ playing court after Donovan has been in the works for the last several years. Foley said he originally presented the idea to University of Florida president Kent Fuchs back in 2015.
After stepping down as AD in 2016, Foley said he remained in communication with Fuchs and new athletic director Scott Strickland on still possibly following through with the idea. Eventually, Strickland said it was time to start acting on this thought.
Once all the plans were finally put in place, Foley, Stricklin and Fuchs flew out west to personally deliver the message to Donovan. Foley said he expects Saturday night to be “emotional” for the Gator community, Donovan and all of his former players in attendance.
Mick Hubert’s Memories
Donovan not only had close ties with Foley, he was also very close with Gator’s play-by-play radio announcer Mick Hubert. Hubert has been a part of Florida athletics for over 30 years and was a part of Donovan’s entire tenure in Gainesville.
Hubert said he and Donovan would always have great conversations. Some not even having to do with basketball, but just about life and faith. He also added that Donovan was always very informative on the game of basketball around him and other media, and that he had a real passion for the game.
Another memory Hubert reflected on was how good Donovan’s record was at Florida. More specifically his record at home. He said the Gators won over 85% of their games in the O’Dome, including putting together three perfect seasons. The environment was always special.
Hubert, like Foley, said he expects the night to be heartwarming for Donovan and everyone involved. He’s also curious to see how many of his former players from his time at Florida will be in attendance.
Donovan will be forever remembered for what he did in his 19 years as the Gators’ coach. Foley’s gamble to hire someone up-and-coming paid off, as the standard for Florida basketball will never be like it once was.
As Foley and Hubert mentioned, it should be a remarkable scene come Saturday night when all of Gator Nation, friends and family gather to celebrate a legendary coach. The game will tip-off at 8 p.m. on the SEC Network.