By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ The Thunder hired Florida’s Billy Donovan as their coach Thursday, hoping he will help the franchise win an NBA championship in Oklahoma City.
“We warmly welcome Billy and his family to Oklahoma City,” team chairman Clayton Bennett said. “He is the perfect fit for our organization and for our community and we look forward to a long and successful relationship.”
The 49-year-old Donovan led Florida to two national championships, four Final Fours, seven Elite Eights and 14 NCAA Tournament berths in 19 years. He signed a one-year contract extension with the Gators in December that would have paid him an average salary of $4 million through 2020.
But, eight years after leaving Florida to coach the Orlando Magic and then changing his mind the following day, Donovan is back in the NBA. It’s not likely he’ll head back to Gainesville this time _ he inherits 2013-14 MVP Kevin Durant and 2014-15 scoring champion Russell Westbrook.
“I am honored and humbled to be named the head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder,” Donovan said. “I knew that it would take a unique opportunity to leave the University of Florida, and that is clearly how I look at this situation.”
Donovan replaces Scott Brooks, who was fired last week.
The pressure will be on Donovan immediately in Oklahoma City. Brooks went 338-207 (.620) in seven seasons with the Thunder and was the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year. Starting in 2010-11, he led the team to the Western Conference finals three out of four years, and the franchise reached the NBA Finals in 2012.
This season, a broken right foot limited Durant to 27 games and right knee surgery kept Ibaka out for the final month of the season. Westbrook posted nine triple-doubles after the All-Star break while trying to salvage the season, but the Thunder were knocked out of the playoff race on the final night of the regular season. Durant, Westbrook and defensive stalwart Serge Ibaka spoke highly of Brooks during exit interviews.
Now, Donovan will have to prove he can coach at the NBA level, win over the fans and help Durant feel comfortable enough to re-sign instead of testing free agency. Presti believes Donovan has what it takes.
“His emotional intelligence, commitment to the concept of team and relentless approach to incremental improvement have allowed him to bring his players together and establish lasting relationships through competitive success,” general manager Sam Presti said.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said the school will miss Donovan.
“While we are certainly extremely sad to see Billy go, the primary feeling I have is one of gratitude for what he has done here at Florida,” Foley said in a statement. “Billy and Florida basketball have been synonymous for a long time now, and our program would not have reached the heights it has without him.”
Donovan already had strong ties to the Oklahoma City franchise. Former Florida assistant Mark Daigneault was hired as Oklahoma City’s D-League coach last year, while former Florida video coordinator Oliver Winterbone is a scout with the Thunder. Presti and Donovan have had a lasting relationship.
Donovan talked with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers about openings before last season, but decided to stay at Florida. Last season, the Gators finished 16-17 and missed the postseason for the first time since 1997. Three players have already left the program in what many believed was a house cleaning.