The Martin Chronicles: Say it Aint so, Billy

Posted at 1:51 pm on 06/25/2015 by Buddy Martin

By Buddy Martin May 02, 2015

Of all the coaches I’ve come to know at Florida over the past 50 years, Billy Donovan makes my short list of the three greatest.

Dim the lights at the O’Connell Center. Stop traffic for a moment of silence at University and 13th. Lift your glasses and bid adieu to one of the finest coaches and finest people ever to grace the halls of dear Ol’ UF. There will be a little more gray than Gator blue in the sky tomorrow.

It feels like Gator Nation has lost a chunk of its Century Tower.

Billy Donovan is taking a piece of their hearts to Oklahoma City.

While you’re at it, Jeremy Foley, reserve space for another statue next to Spurrier, Wuerffel and Tebow. If fact, reserve two. Both Billy Donovan and his former neighbor Urban Meyer brought more bling home to Florida over a four-year period than Tiffany has in its warehouse.

Donovan and Meyer lived only a few houses apart in what I once nicknamed “The Cul de sac of Champions”:

Basketball national champions in 2005-06 and 2006-07.

Football national champions in 2006 and 2008.

Butch left first and now Sundance has gone.

“Real happy for my neighbor,” Urban Meyer texted me. “Changed Fla Bball forever.”

And what a neighborhood it was!

They didn’t get to spend much time together socially, but Billy once told me he’d drive by the Meyer house late at night and note that Urban’s car wasn’t in the driveway yet. Working late again, crafting that national championship team. When things came unraveled those first two seasons, Urban marveled that he could walk a short distance, sit down in a chair and get some of the greatest coaching advice anybody would want from Billy, totally free. “Most people would have to get on an airplane and spend thousands of dollars to get that (kind of counseling),” Urban once said.

Of all the coaches I’ve come to know at Florida over the past 50 years, Donovan makes my short list of the three greatest. It wasn’t just that he built the program from scratch and took it to the top. The most endearing quality of Billy is his genuine humility, followed by sincerity and loyalty.

I saw him grow from a 31-year-old Billy The Kid to a 49-year-old Billy The Man. I watched him grieve over the loss of a child with his wife Christine and grieve over the loss of our mutual great friend Augie Greiner.

He and Augie were pals and they teamed up for a special dinner with the Ocala Gator Tipoff club from the very start. Billy stayed true to his commitment of coming to my hometown every year for that special night for 18 years. “For as long as the Greiner family wants to do this,” Billy told me after Augie’s death, “I will do it.”

A month ago I texted Billy and requested his appearance on my radio show, which he always does once or twice a season. “Buddy: Been running around. Have to go on the road. When things settle down, would love to catch up,” he wrote back. “Feel free to call me in a couple of weeks.”

Meanwhile, some of his friends knew something was up. “He was all over the place,” said one.

The magnitude of this loss for Florida won’t really be visible until decades later when historians look back to measure the greatness of the era. You don’t replace Billy Donovans. They are like 200-year-old oak trees that get blown over in a hurricane. You can rebuild buildings. Not the oaks.

It’s not just simply a loss for Florida. College basketball has taken a big hit, as noted by Yahoo columnist Pat Forde:

“The list of colleges that have won national titles in both football and men's basketball in the last 25 years is exactly one. And the Gators have won multiples in each during that time: three in football and two in hoops.

“Brain drain in a sport that is struggling to identify its next generation of star coaches is a significant issue.

Donovan is one of the most important figures in the modern era of college basketball. The other negative impact of Donovan's departure is on the Southeastern Conference. A strong case can be made that Donovan is the second-greatest coach in SEC history, behind only Adolph Rupp.

Personally, I feel the golden age has come to a close. A true champion and a true gentleman has come and gone.

I keep hoping to get a text from Steve McClain or somebody in the Florida Sports Information Department, informing me of a press conference tomorrow in which Billy Donovan will say he’s changed his mind.

You know, like last time.

Now Donovan makes jokes about it. He told his new team, the Oklahoma City Thunder: “"I've been an NBA coach before ... it was only for a day."

But he wasn’t joking the day he announced he was leaving the Gators for the Magic. And he spoke with a frog in his throat a day later while announcing he was coming back.

The man who won two national championships and made it to four Final Fours in 19 seasons, with an overall record of 467-186, has left the building.

This time there won’t be a U-Turn on I-75.

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