Instead of John Fox Sports college basketball writer
At 36 years old, Todd Golden is one of the fastest rising coaches in college basketball.
He moved up from assistant coaching in San Francisco to take over the Dons program in 2019 as the head coaching job at Florida.
The quick exit to the SEC comes after it was announced on Election Sunday that former head coach Mike White would be leaving Gainesville to pursue a career at rival Georgia.
That set the wheels in motion on the head coaching search for athletic director Scott Stricklin, something that has not been the norm for Florida basketball in recent history, largely because of Billy Donovan. Donovan was just 31 years old when the Gators named him head coach in 1996, and after a two-decade run that featured back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, Florida’s program turned around.
White has never been able to match Donovan in leading the Gators to the NCAA Tournament in four of his six qualifying seasons, including a trip to the Elite Eight in 2017 (the 2020 NCAA Tournament has been canceled).
Expectations are similarly high for Golden, who made waves in March by leading San Francisco to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. , and his analytical thinking guides his decision-making, Golden has the makeup to be a leading man in the sport. He’s young, forward-thinking and has shown he can win in a tough spot.
[SEC basketball: Kentucky, Arkansas lead a rising league]
As one of six new head coaches in the Southeastern Conference, the Arizona native enters the league at an exciting time, when fast-growing programs like Arkansas and Alabama are turning athletic directors around to find their next turnaround leader.
This week we’ve got the Golden for FOX College Hoops Q&A.
What were your first days and weeks like on the job in Gainesville?
I came down here at the end of March and the first week or so [director of basketball strategy and analytics] Jonathan Safire came down here. and then, [assistant coach] Kevin Horde went down. We were all homesick. We wanted something a little more homey, a little more inviting. I worked with the management and asked if we could keep Airbnb safe. We found a house about a quarter of a mile from the practice area, and the three of us loaded up from the Residence Inn and headed home. It ended up being a very effective move.
Did you feel like you were back in college?
[Laughter.] To some degree. We were three dudes living in pizza. Our families were not here yet. It was a great time and reminded me of my youth at St. Mary’s (Golden Student). I had a nice firm full size bed.
Spend a day at work, then spend your evenings at home.
Basically, we spend a day in the office. Then we head back to the Airbnb and sort out some takeout options for dinner. We stay overnight as we pass through the transfer portal. Just looking up and down to see who’s there. Anyone who was interested we watched Synergy and watched a lot of film on them. It was basically a rinse and repeat of going through the portal, looking at KenPom and checking the Torvik pages. Trey Bonham (VMI transfer) is how we got on. We were watching Synergy at 11:30 one night. When I saw him on tape, I said, “Let’s get him on the phone first thing tomorrow.” Sure enough, those late-night sessions paid off in the living room. We lived in an Airbnb for about a month, then at the end of April I moved to Gainesville with my family.
So while Fortnite or NBA 2K video game sessions are taking place in the neighborhood bunkhouse, you guys are still active… but are you actively looking at analytics?
That’s right, here’s a really nice picture with the 12:13 time stamp! It’s a classic.
Florida assistant coach Kevin Hovde (on the couch) and director of basketball strategy and analytics Jonathan Safire will watch the film tonight on Airbnb. (Photo courtesy of Todd Golden)
So what was going on behind the scenes when you were doing this job?
I feel good about Florida’s chances with our first-round NCAA Tournament game against Murray State in Indianapolis. After the game on Thursday night and Friday morning, it was clear that we had lost Scott. [Stricklin] And I gathered together.
Was Stricklin in Indianapolis watching you coach the playoffs?
Yes, and he was completely understanding and respectful, and away from our San Francisco team. He was very accommodating throughout the process and understood that we had work to do to prepare our children.
What happened on Friday morning?
He gave me the job, and the first thing I did was call my parents. I let them know this was happening before they took their flight home to Phoenix [from Indianapolis]. They were shocked, but excited for me. I will also let some of my good friends know. All of this happened before the four-hour cross-country flight with the team back to San Francisco, so it was difficult to navigate. While the news was on the air, which was not surprising, I spoke to my team. Obviously, sometimes you can’t control how this news breaks. It was the same for us, so I was able to tell close people before the news broke.
Who sticks with you the most after you’ve finished the job?
Billy Donovan. He was very nice. I got the job on Friday morning, and Billie spoke with me on Saturday. He was awesome. I told him how much I loved his mentorship. He said, “Todd, I’ll help you as much or as little as you want. I don’t want you to feel like you have to listen to me.” We talked a lot, and a few weeks later he came down to Gainesville and we hung out for a couple of hours. It is very important that Billy is around our program. He is very willing to help us, and I want him to be comfortable around us when he can come in. He sets the standard here for us to try and follow.
Florida Gators’ Billy Donovan celebrates by cutting down the net after their SEC Championship on March 16, 2014 in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
What is the best advice Billy has given you?
You just have to be yourself. “Don’t try to be me, don’t try to be someone you weren’t in San Francisco,” he said. He said that I should continue to be the person I was on this path to get the opportunity. That stuck with me.
Obviously, it’s a big jump going from a WCC school that hasn’t had much success to Florida. What is the key to this transition?
Well, when I think about what we did in San Francisco, we had seven international kids and we put five kids through the transfer portal. While USF and Florida are completely different places, in San Francisco there was more to the process than to the outcome. I think we can bring the same processes to Florida and make them bigger and better with a grant program like this. Look, in the SEC, we know we have to go up against Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and others. At WCC, however, we competed with programs that had four to five times our budget. If we can win in that area, we believe it’s to our advantage now at the destination school. Florida kids want to play here. Kids on the east coast want to be here. We want to bring the best.
In terms of your roster construction, one of the biggest things you were able to do was keep two-time first overall pick Collin Castleton for a fifth season. How did this happen?
It’s just the story. After I got the job on Friday, I went out on Monday to talk to the team. I texted him that night and he was very respectful. We met in person in Orlando because he was seeing his old teammate. He said, “Coach, I appreciate your interest, but I’m not going back.” He was a man of guts. We were like “S–.” But we’re not done just talking to him like that. We continued our conversation, and I took a very supportive approach with him. I said, “If you’re prepared not to do this, I can help you find a good agent and work out with teams.” I wasn’t going to convince or trick him into coming back. He had to come to this realization by himself, which he did. The swing in the decision and keeping Colin gave us the confidence to be competitive in year one.
That’s a bit of history. You brought in four transfers, including former St. Bonaventure star Kyle Lofton. What does he bring to the program?
Kyle is a fantastic leader. He’s incredibly unique, one of the only guys I’ve ever met and you don’t have to say anything and guys respect him. Teammates can count on him. He really let us train him. Last year in San Francisco, I had our star guard talk to Jamari Bouye. Kyle talked a lot with Jamari to get a better feel for me and how I was doing. It takes a lot of pressure off our first-year staff to get someone like Kyle.
What are your expectations for your first season?
For us, the most important thing when we come down here is to look at the opportunity. It is to build a good foundation for the program. Now, we’re not happy with just getting along the first year. It’s about laying a solid foundation by being super-competitive in year one. Kyle [Lofton] and Colin [Castleton] Give us a higher floor. If other pieces can be put together, that will determine our ceiling. I think our winger is Alex [Fudge]Will [Richard] and Kowacie [Reeves] They all have the potential to be good players. Those are the types of guys that can impact the game in different ways for us. Our wings all have some NBA potential. We have to continue to get that out of them.
What would you do if you weren’t involved in basketball?
I played golf every day while selling stocks and bitcoin. I’ve always been drawn to numbers rather than language arts, English or reading comprehension. Mathematics is a more comforting place for me (laughs). I am now attracted to the stock market, and want to participate in day trading.
You can pick the brain of any current or past college hoops coach. who is it?
My favorite person to hang out with is Brad Stevens. For a program like Butler to have back-to-back national championship games (2010, 2011) is crazy. I loved what he did coaching the Celtics. (I) like to pick his brain.
Favorite basketball movie?
About the old UTEP team “Walk of Honor”. That’s what I love.
How do you build this new era of Florida basketball into the university community?
The great thing is there is already a great culture of support here in Gainesville. It makes a great place. Students, alumni and donors are extremely sensitive. I want to go out on campus and talk to our students. We also want to hit different spots in the community. When this opportunity arose, it was a no-brainer for me because of the history and tradition of this program. What I didn’t realize was that Florida was a top-five public institution of learning in the country. I knew about the high level of football and basketball, but I didn’t realize how much it translated to other sports. Our track program won both the boys and girls national championships last spring. Ben Shelton wins the men’s tennis national championship. And the success continues in all sports. It’s not just men’s basketball that’s winning. It’s what’s expected here, and it’s something I’m proud to be a part of.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to commentating on the 68 Media Network field. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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