TL; DR: Two #sauces indicate that Billy Donovan misses the college game and may be in play for the Alabama opening if/when the OKC Thunder are eliminated. While this caliber of coach seems a long shot for the Tide, his candidacy may not be as far-fetched as you’d have imagined a week ago.
Let’s meet Billy Donovan
Assume you are Greg Byrne and are drawing up a list of candidates, and enumerating their common skills; ones you require in your next hire. If you have one candidate that meets all the items on your wish-list, then that man would be Billy Donovan.
For fans, he represents a chance to win big. For Greg Byrne, there is that, but he also meets the other items on the AD’s bucket list of “doing things the right way.” Graduates players? Check. Squeaky clean NCAA history? Check. Relentless recruiter? Check. Ability to make Alabama competitive nationally? Check. Unspoken, but crucial: move the needle to generate buzz and revenue? Check.
Billy D has all the big-school, big-game background you want, and doubly so if you can’t or won’t hire Rick Pitino: He played for Pitino’s 1986 Providence team that ripped the heart out of ‘Bama fans. When he graduated, he spent five seasons as an understudy to CRP at Kentucky. Alongside Pitino and Herb Sendek, he helped to quickly rebuild a Wildcats team that had been hammered following Eddie Sutton’s NCAA violations. In just his second season as an assistant at UK, the Wildcats advanced to the Final Four (after having been heartbroken the year before by Christian Laettner’s timeless shot).
Donovan finally got a chance to run his own program, and he spent the next two seasons as the head coach at Marshall. He posted a respectable 35-20 record, and managed to flip the commitment of Jason Williams to the Thundering Herd away from Providence. Marshall did not make the postseason; however, Donovan was named the 1995 SoCon Coach of the year.
Having played a part in rebuilding one program, Donovan was tapped to be the next coach of the Florida Gators; a team with little sustained success before his arrival — just four 20+ win seasons, and one Final Four appearance in their history. Donovan inherited a roster with almost no talent and spent his first two seasons “relentlessly recruiting” (gee, wonder where Byrne got that language from?). By his third year in Gainesville, the Gators were in the NIT. Then, they were off and running, rattling off a string of sixteen seasons where UF won 20-plus games. During that golden era, Florida won six SEC regular season titles, four SEC tournament titles, made four Final Four appearances, three other Elite 8 runs, appeared in the NCAA tournament all-but two years, when the Gators were rebuilding in the late 90s.) And, of course, that run in the mid-Aughts where his Florida team won back-to-back national titles.
Here’s the kicker: he’s still just 53-years old. There is a lot of excellent tread on those tires. For any program serious about winning, Billy D has to be your first call.
It’s understandable how a person who thrives on recruiting would hate the pro game — inheriting rosters, not having the ability to develop multi-year stability, answering to others about how to run your program, the headcases and prima donna — all have to grate on someone who was at the top of his profession for the better part of two decades. But, that money is awfully hard to beat. And, he is under contract for one more year: $4 million a year guaranteed.
Would Alabama be willing to buy him out and then meet or exceed $4M to entice him back to the college game? Then, would the administration be willing to give him all the support that it has traditionally accorded football: autonomy, personnel decisions, facilities, and a budget to hire his people?
Since at least two sources have hinted that Billy Donovan may be at play for Greg Byrne, the answers to those questions may not be as far-fetched as you’d have thought a week ago.
There are two other considerations, however.
The first is that the Thunder are presently the 7th seed in the Western Conference. OKC is a game-and-a-half up on the Spurs. And, with the 9th-place Kings a full 5.5 games back with 8 games left, it is almost impossible for Oklahoma City to not be in the playoffs. That significantly affects recruiting: Basketball has an early signing period of Nov. 14-21. The regular its regular period is April 17-to-May 15. Any kind of decent run by the Thunder — and Donovan still under contract — is a killer, unless Watford et al are willing to take Pelphrey and the other staff at their word that the cavalry is coming. (FTR: The Avery Johnson hiring was announced on April 6, 2015. Anthony Grant was hired on March 27, 2009.)
The second issue is that ‘Bama fans would have to reconcile themselves to the fact that Billy Donovan will not retire in Tuscaloosa. He, in fact, would merely be a rental until Duke’s Coach K steps aside. And, at 72, Krzyzewski has few years left in his career. It’s no secret that Duke is Billy D’s dream job, and conversely he is their dream candidate. Is the Tide willing to overpay for a chance at national relevance, knowing that its coach is merely on-loan?
Still, if you have a coaching vacancy, and you think that Billy D would at all listen, you have to call him, right? The worst he can say is no.
And there is always a chance, however narrow that may be, that he might just say yes.