In 1980, after a successful stint at NC State, Sloan returned to Gainesville. His nine seasons were Florida's most successful, and also its most scandalous: After 70 years without an NCAA tournament bid, Sloan's teams earned three. (His three NIT bids in 1984, 1985 and 1986 were the second, third, and fourth postseason appearances in school history.) Then, in 1989, star guard Vernon Maxwell admitted he took cash payments from coaches and used cocaine before games. Sloan was fired, and the program was placed on probation.
Florida's next coach, Don DeVoe, promised a "no-nonsense" approach. He was fired nine months into his first year. In 1990-91, Florida hired Lon Kruger, and Kruger lifted the Gators into a surprise Final Four run in 1994. But after two down seasons, Kruger left for greener pastures at Illinois in 1996.
Enter Donovan. By 30 years old, the former Providence star and Long Island local hero (legend has it Donovan once cut the gym's padlock at St. Agnes High School and replaced it with his own for unrestricted access) had spent a year in the NBA, a few miserable months cold-calling stocks on Wall Street and five seasons under former coach and mentor Rick Pitino at Kentucky before earning his first head-coaching job at Marshall at age 28 as the youngest coach in Division I. He went 35-20 in two seasons. He had name cachet, the Pitino blessing and a very short track record.
It was a risk, but Florida was Florida. Athletic director Jeremy Foley could afford to take a shot.
Gators basketball hasn't been the same since.
The only two losing seasons of Donovan's career were his first two. By his third season, his team was in the Sweet 16. In 1999-2000, his fourth season, he led a suddenly stacked, blue-chip roster to a national runner-up run. At 34, he was the youngest coach since Pitino to get there. Between 1999 and 2008, Florida didn't miss an NCAA tournament. In 2006 and 2007, Donovan became the first coach since Mike Krzyzewski to win back-to-back titles.
Before Donovan, Florida won one SEC title and went to five NCAA tournaments in 81 years. Since then, Florida has won six SEC titles and been to 14 NCAA tournaments in 18 seasons. This year's Elite Eight trip was Donovan's fourth straight. If UF wins the 2014 national title, he will become just the sixth coach in history to win three NCAA titles.
Examining his legacy relative to his own school does Donovan a disservice. At 48, he's already one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time.
"I think, for me, I've been very, very blessed, one, to be at a place for 18 years," Donovan said. "Two, I've been very, very blessed that I've had a chance to coach some good players and some great kids. As a coach, you're only as good as your players are. There's a lot of great coaches out there that have never had a chance to get to a Final Four."
Sure, sure, but does he ever think about that? Does he ever take a step back to appreciate just how good Florida basketball is now and how respected he has become? Probably. Just not publicly.
"How do I even answer that?" Donovan said.
In 2013, Florida football averaged 87,440 fans per home game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, 10th-most in all of college football. And that's not counting the other out-of-towners who converge upon Gainesville on a Saturday.