When Billy Donovan left Marshall to become the new head coach at Florida, he brought some staff with him. That included assistants Donnie Jones and Anthony Grant.
When Donovan and company arrived in Gainesville, they were taking over a basketball program at an ardent football school. The team had experienced just four 20-win seasons since 1967 when the new regime came to power. While Lon Kruger had the Gators in the Final Four three years prior to Donovan’s arrival, the Marshall mover inherited a 12-16 team that went 6-10 in SEC play in 1995-96.
“It took us a couple of years to establish ourselves, because we were new,” Jones explained. “We didn’t know what fit there, what won there. It took us a little bit of time to go through the process. It wasn’t a basketball school, so we didn’t walk in with a lot of talent. In going there, we had to develop people, and if you’re going to do it the right way, it takes time.
“There’s no overnight success.”
It took some years, countless hours of tireless work and a lot of talented players to turn it around, but anyone who paid attention at all to college basketball in the 2000s knows how it went: three SEC regular season titles, three SEC Tournament crowns, nine NCAA Tournament appearances, four Sweet 16s, three Final Fours and two national championships by 2007 tells the story.
How did the Gators manage to build such an incredible program?
Jones served under Donovan in Gainesville from 1996 to 2007, leaving to become the head coach at Marshall after Florida won its second of the back-to-back national championships. But he was there for the entire rise, then experienced the sustained high-level success. He said one of the biggest early victories was Jason Williams.
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“We had a guy sitting out who (Donovan) brought with us from Marshall named Jason Williams,” Jones said. “He was a no-name at the time, just a 6-foot-2, 155-pound guard from West Virginia that no one had heard of.”
After sitting out the 1996-97 season, Donovan and company’s first in town that ended with a 13-17 record and 5-11 mark in the SEC, he played in the 1997-98 campaign and blew up over the course of the year, leaving college after that season to pursue a professional career.
He was picked with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft by the Sacramento Kings, and that helped give Florida some legitimacy. Still, though, the Gators went 14-15 and 6-10 in conference play in their one season with him, and now he was gone. More had to be done.
Enter Mike Miller.
Miller was a top-20 player in the Class of 1998, hailing from Mitchell, South Dakota, nowhere near Florida’s recruiting footprint. But Donovan and his staff convinced him that the Gators were on the rise, and he decided to move across the country to Gainesville for his college career.
“We were able to get a national recruit in Mike Miller,” Jones said. “Mike chose us from South Dakota, chose to come all the way across the Midwest to Florida, and he had come to a program that had a losing record the year before. He passed up a lot of big schools, so with that, he validated us, and I think in validating us there, we were able to open the door and sign some other players to go along with him.”
In 1999, Florida fell victim to No. 10 seed Gonzaga’s Cinderella run in the Sweet 16, a now-famous tip-back with fewer than five seconds remaining giving the Zags the ultimate 73-72 lead and beginning their two-decade run as national contenders.
In 2000, Florida avoided a first-round heartbreak by giving No. 12 seed Butler a taste of what it endured the year before.
After a wild game that needed five more minutes to decide, Butler led, 68-65, with a little more than 10 seconds left in overtime. A quick score and a missed frontend of a one-and-one gave the Gators some life, and Miller capitalized with a wild runner in the lane as time expired.
“We were down the whole game, and Mike Miller had the ball, made a player at the buzzer, a running jumper to win by one,” Jones remembered. “That was a different emotion at the time. We went from thinking we were going home, we kind of blew it, to all of a sudden, the March Madness emotions took over, and we went all the way to the national championship game.”
With 10 freshmen and 10 sophomores, the 2000 Gators pushed forward with their first-round momentum and rode it all the way to the final game of the season, unable to finish the job against Michigan State, 89-76. But the runner from Miller and that team was the turning point for what was to come.
“Those guys laid the foundation to make it cool to come there,” Jones affirmed. “It could be done.”
For the next few years, Florida remained relevant, always appearing in the tournament and competing in the SEC. But the program stalled in the first or second round every year from 2001 to 2005. That changed in a major way in 2006, though.
Donovan, Jones and their team won the whole thing in 2006, the first time ever Florida was on the men’s basketball mountaintop. The team was brimming with talent that played so cohesively it felt like they had grown up together playing in the same backyard. Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Chris Richard and Walter Hodge made up most of the rotation, and perhaps most jarring, the team only had one senior: Adrian Moss.
If the country didn’t know Florida by 2006, it did by 2007. With almost the exact same group of players, the Gators completed the vaunted back-to-back, only the eighth time in Division I men’s basketball history multiple titles were won by the same team in a row. Five players from the 2005-06 team played in the NBA, and six from the 2006-07 did it as Marreese Speights was a freshman on that squad. Without question, the 2006-07 Florida team is among the best to have ever stepped onto the floor.
Jones is in his third different head coaching job since leaving his assistant post at Florida 13 years ago, having spent a six-year stint at UCF and now steering Stetson since 2019. But it was only last month that he truly reflected on those magical title runs.
In April, Jones and his son sat down in their home and “had their own March Madness” after the coronavirus crisis cut the season short. Together, they watched one of those national championship games, and it was the first time Jones had seen it since witnessing it live and in person.
“Life just required other stuff,” he said. “When it ended the first time in ’06, we were trying to figure out if everyone was coming back, and then we were recruiting. Never thought about watching the game. There was really no purpose for it, because we were on to the next thing, and then we were still fighting to win it again. The pressures were different.
“And then when that one ended, I took the job at Marshall three days later,” Jones continued. “Me watching the championship game the last thing on my mind when I was chasing a whole new program for the first time as a head coach. So, the situation never arrived for me to sit down and reflect like that.”
But when he did, he was hit with a wave of emotions, memories and more from when he was part of something historic.
“It brought a lot of memories back, a lot of emotions, because I knew all those kids’ stories from when you were recruiting them to how they developed,” Jones explained. “To see them have that stage, just knowing the relationships, the time, the grit, the brotherhood, the adversity, the highs and lows, the sacrifice, all those things that are involved, to see all that come together for that moment, it still brought back that emotion like it was yesterday.”