By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
At 37, Todd Golden is one of the fastest-rising coaches in college basketball.
He went from assistant coach at San Francisco to taking over the Dons program in 2019, to the head coaching job at Florida.
His rapid ascent to the SEC came after it was announced on Selection Sunday that previous head coach Mike White was leaving Gainesville to take the job at rival Georgia.
That got the wheels rolling on a head coaching search for athletic director Scott Stricklin, something that hasn’t been common practice for Florida basketball in recent history, due mostly to Billy Donovan. Donovan was just 31 when the Gators named him the head coach in 1996, and after a two-decade run that featured national titles in 2006 and 2007, Florida’s program was transformed.
While White led the Gators to NCAA Tournament wins in four of six eligible seasons (the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled), including an Elite Eight trip in 2017, he could never match Donovan.
That same high expectation level is in place for Golden, who made waves in March by leading San Francisco to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1998. Between the success at a school that does not have the resources of league foes Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s or BYU , and an analytically driven mindset that guides his decision-making, Golden has the makeup to be a premier figure in the sport. He’s young, forward-thinking and has proved he can win at a difficult place.
[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 during a fascinating time, in which the fast rise of programs like Arkansas and Alabama has swung athletic directors into action to find their next transformative leader.
We caught up with Golden this week for a FOX College Hoops Q&A.
What were your first days and weeks like on the job in Gainesville?
I got down here in late March and after the first week or so, [director of basketball strategy and analytics] Jonathan Safir got down here. Then, [assistant coach] Kevin Horde came down. We were all at a Residence Inn. We wanted something a little more homely, a little more inviting. I worked it out with the administration and asked if we could secure an Airbnb. We found a house that was just a quarter-mile away from the practice facility, so we packed up from the Residence Inn and the three of us headed to the house. It ended up being a very productive move.
Did you feel like you were back in college?
[Laughter.] To a degree. We were three dudes living on pizza. Our families weren’t out here yet. It was a great time, and reminded me of my younger days at Saint Mary’s (Golden’s alma mater). I did have a solid full-sized bed which was good.
Take me through a day at work, then your nights at the house.
Basically, we would get through a day in the office. Then, we’d head back to the Airbnb and figure out some sort of takeout option for dinner. We spend nights going through the transfer portal. Just looking at it from top to bottom to see who’s out there. Anyone we were interested in, we would look at Synergy and watch a ton of film on them. It was basically a rinse-and-repeat of going through the portal, looking at KenPom and checking out Torvik pages. It’s actually how we recruited Trey Bonham (VMI transfer). 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 in the living room paid off. We lived in the Airbnb for about a month, then I moved in with my family in Gainesville at the end of April.
So while Fortnite or NBA 2K video game sessions were happening at a frat house in the neighborhood, you guys were still awake … but looking hard at analytics?
That’s exactly right, in fact here’s a good picture with a 12:13 am time stamp! It’s classic.
Florida assistant coach Kevin Hovde (on the couch) and Director of Basketball Strategy and Analytics Jonathan Safir watch film late at night at their Airbnb. (Photo courtesy of Todd Golden)
So what was happening behind the scenes as you landed this job?
I felt pretty good about the opportunity at Florida heading into our first-round NCAA Tournament game against Murray State in Indianapolis. Obviously, we lost on Thursday night, and Friday morning after the game, Scott [Stricklin] and I got together.
Stricklin was in Indianapolis watching you coach the tournament game?
Yes, and he was totally understanding and respectful, and kept his distance from our San Francisco team. He was awesome to deal with throughout the process and understood we had a job to do to get our kids ready.
What happened on Friday morning?
He offered me the job, and the first thing I did was reach out to my parents. I let them know this was happening before they got back on their flight home to Phoenix [from Indianapolis]. They were caught off guard and in shock, but they were so happy for me. I let some of my good buddies know as well. It was tricky to navigate, because all of it was happening before a four-hour cross-country flight back to San Francisco with the team. The news broke while we were in the air, which was not surprising, and I talked to my team. Obviously, you can’t control things sometimes with how this news breaks. That’s how it went for us, and I was able to tell the people closest to me the news before it did.
Once you got the job, who’s someone that reached out to you that sticks out a lot?
Billy Donovan. He’s been so great. I got the job on Friday morning, and Billy talked with me on Saturday. He was awesome. I told him how much I would love 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 he came down to Gainesville a few weeks later and we sat down for a couple hours. It’s really important that Billy is around our program. He’s so willing to help us, and I want him to be comfortable with being around us when he can drop in. He set a standard here that we want to try and follow.
Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators celebrates by cutting down the net after their SEC championship on March 16, 2014 in Atlanta. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
What’s the best advice Billy gave you?
You just gotta be yourself. He told me, “Don’t try to be me. Don’t try to be someone you weren’t at San Francisco.” He said I just needed to continue to be the person that I’ve been on this road to getting the opportunity. That stuck with me.
Obviously, it’s a big leap going from a WCC school that had not been through much success in Florida. What’s the key to this transition?
Well, when I think about what we did at San Francisco, we had seven international kids and brought in five kids via the transfer portal. While USF and Florida are totally different places, it was more of a process-to-results thing at San Francisco. I think we can bring over similar processes to Florida and just make them bigger and better at such a supportive program. Look, in the SEC, we know we’ve got to go up against Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and others. But in the WCC, we competed against programs with four to five times more budget than we had. We believe if we could win in that environment, it’s an advantage for us now at a destination school. Kids from Florida want to play here. Kids on the East Coast want to be here. We want to bring in the best.
In terms of your roster construction, one of the big things you were able to do was keep two-time All-SEC selection Colin Castleton for a fifth season. How did that happen?
That’s quite the story. After getting the job on Friday, I got out here on Monday to address the team. I texted him that night and he was super respectful. We actually put in-person down in Orlando because he was watching a former teammate. He said, “Coach, I appreciate your interest, but I’m not coming back.” He was a gut punch man. We were like, “S—.” But we weren’t just done talking with him like that. We kept up conversations, and I just took a very supportive approach with him. I told him, “If you’re set on not doing that then let me help you on finding a good agent and getting workouts with teams.” I was not going to convince or trick him into coming back. He had to come to this realization on his own, which he did. That swing in his decision and retaining Colin gave us the confidence that we could be competitive in year one.
That’s some story. You also brought in four transfers, including former St. Bonaventure star Kyle Lofton. What does he bring to the program?
Kyle is a phenomenal leader. He’s incredibly unique, one of the only guys I’ve ever been around and you didn’t have to say anything and guys just respected him. Teammates can count on him. He’s really let us coach him up. I also had him talk with Jamari Bouyea, our star guard at San Francisco this past year. Kyle’s talked a lot with Jamari to get a better feel for me and how I operate. To have somebody like Kyle, it takes a lot of pressure off our staff in year one.
What are your expectations for your first season?
For us, the most important thing when we got down here was to keep perspective of the opportunity. It’s about building a good foundation for the program. Now, we’re not just happy getting along in year one. It’s about laying a solid foundation while being super-competitive in year one. Kyle [Lofton] and Colin [Castleton] give us a high floor. If other pieces can put it together, that will determine our ceiling. I think our wing players, Alex [Fudge]Will [Richard] and Kowacie [Reeves] all have the ability to be really good players. They’re the types of guys that can really impact the game in a variety of ways for us. Our wings all have some NBA potential. We have to continue to get that out of them.
If you weren’t involved in basketball, what would you do?
I would be golfing every day while trading stocks and bitcoin. I’ve always been way more drawn to numbers than language arts, English or reading comprehension. Math is a more comforting area for me (laughter). I’m just drawn to the stock market, and would want to get involved in day trading.
You can pick the brain of any current or past college hoops coach. Who is it?
The guy I would love to hang with is Brad Stevens. Getting a program like Butler to back-to-back national championship games (2010, 2011) is insane. I loved what he did coaching the Celtics, too. (I) would love to pick his brain.
Favorite basketball movie?
The one about the old UTEP team, “Glory Road.” That’s my favourite.
How do you build up this new era of Florida basketball in the university community?
The great thing is there already is a great culture of support down here in Gainesville. It makes it a great spot. Students, alumni and donors are super-passionate. I want to get out to campus and talk with our students. We’ll look to hit different spots in the community as well. When this opportunity became available, it was not even a thought for me because of the history and tradition of this program. What I did not realize is that Florida was a top-five public academic institution in the country. I knew about the high standard for football and basketball, but I didn’t realize how much it translates to other sports. Our track program won both the men’s and women’s national championships this past spring. Ben Shelton won the individual men’s tennis national title. And the success carries on and on across all sports. It’s not just men’s basketball that wins. It’s the expectation here, and it’s something that I’m proud to be a part of.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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