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Who is Billy Donovan's equivalent in college football?

The NCAA Tournament starts tomorrow - don't get me started on this First Four malarkey - and Billy Donovan's Florida Gators are the odds on favorites to win it. Dubbed the No. 1 overall seed by the tournament's selection committee, Florida is the safest bet to win the title, given 11-to-2 odds by Bovada. Nate Silver gives the Gators a 14 percent chance of winning it all, the highest in the tournament. 

Should Donovan ultimately cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium on April 7, it would be his third national championship in 18 seasons in Gainesville - one shy of the number of seasons in which he's missed the tournament entirely. Donovan's near two decades of yo-yoing between greatness and mediocrity left me wondering whether a similar career arc would be possible in the do-or-die, every-week-a-season nature of college football and, if so, who his football doppelgänger would be. 

First, let's start at the beginning of Donovan's career, before he became a Gator. Donovan played at Providence under Rick Pitino, then spent two years playing point guard for the New York Knicks under Pitino, and then worked as an assistant at Kentucky under Pitino from 1989-94. At this point of his career, Donovan feels like the hardwood version of Rhett Lashlee, who was taken under the wing of Gus Malzahn at an early age and has followed his mentor through multiple stops. 

Next, Dononvan took his first head job at Marshall, leading the Thundering Herd to a solid yet unspectacular 35-20 mark in two seasons with no postseason berths before landing the Florida job in 1996. In football terms, that'd be like posting back-to-back 6-6 seasons at a MAC school and turning that into a job at an SEC slumbering giant. But still, Donovan was barely 30 years old and had the reputation of Pitino's boy wonder assistant. 

Jumping to Gainesville, Donovan missed the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons, then reached the Sweet 16 in Year 3 and the national title game in Year 4. The next five seasons saw Florida win at least 20 games and reach the Big Dance in each, but the Gators never made it past the opening weekend in any of them. Then, in 2006-07, Florida became the best program in college basketball, becoming the first team to win back-to-back national championships since 1991-92 Duke. Then Florida swung to the other side of the pendulum, missing the tournament in 2008 and 2009, and getting bounced in the first round of the tournament in 2010.

But then, rebirth. Florida has reached the Elite Eight three consecutive seasons now, and are widely expected to return to the Final Four in 2014. 

This leads to my question of the day: how would the football world handle such an up-and-down career arc? How would the coach? In an attempt to answer the unanswerable, I've translated Donovan's year-by-year record into football terms and broken his career into sections. 

Year

Record

Postseason

1996 

4-7

no bowl

1997

5-6

no bowl

1999

7-5

minor bowl

1999

11-2

national runner-up

2000

8-4

minor bowl

2001

7-5

minor bowl

2002

9-3

minor bowl

2003

7-5

minor bowl

2004

8-4

minor bowl

 At this point, the national media and football-consuming public would write the run to the national title game off as an aberration (the real-life Gators were a five seed when they met Michigan State for the 2000 national championship). The fan base is tired of running on the pre-New Year's Day bowl treadmill, and the local media is pressuring the athletics director into giving the coach a win-loss ultimatum.

Year

Record

Postseason

2005

13-1

national champions

2006

14-0

national champions

The so-called struggles of the previous five seasons, and the coach is hailed as a genius and the tops of his profession. The local media praises the athletics director for his unwavering faith in his head coach, and the fan base clamors for a statue on campus. The school makes coach the highest-paid in college football to swipe away interest from the NFL. 

Year

Record

Postseason

2007

6-6

no bowl

2008

6-6

no bowl

2009

7-5

minor bowl

Coach should have taken the NFL job, the national media writes, and the fan base believes them. Rumblings emerge that coach's wife isn't happy living in a college town, and the coach may have his eye on the NFL job back in his hometown. When asked, he denies these rumors vehemently. The narrative emerges that credit for previous national title appearances should be laid solely at the feet of his players and the coach only looks like a genius when he has the best players, as if this isn't also true of every coach in the history of football. 

Year

Record

Postseason

2010

10-3 

BCS bowl 

2011 

11-2 

BCS bowl 

2012

12-1

BCS bowl 

2013

13-0

No. 1 BCS ranking

Coach rediscovered his mojo right about the same time his wife decided she loved living in a college town after all. Athletic director is praised for his loyalty to the coach, and coach praised for his loyalty to the school. New contract signed the day after the regular season ends.

While the swings between up and down aren't as violent, the closest equivalent to Donovan in college football appears to be Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, who took over a sleeping mammoth at a young age without much experience, succeeded almost immediately and then again a few years later, then went into a so-called down swing before his current renaissance.

Stoops is my best guess, who is yours?