GAINESVILLE, Florida. – We will hear Mike White rather early. Finally, he’ll explain why leaving Florida, a program he led to four of a possible six NCAA tournaments, to head coach rival Georgia was the best move for him and his family. White will give a thoughtful answer that will likely touch on his time at UF to take his course and the exciting opportunity for a fresh start.

He won’t, however, refer to the toxic social media treatment directed in recent years at a class act, a consummate family man and one of the most successful coaches in the program’s history. White will take the high road on this front. It’s who he is.

It was on May 7, 2015, however, that White took the toughest road by becoming the 18th coach in UF history, which meant replacing the 17th and greatest coach in UF history. UF; arguably one of the five or 10 greatest in college basketball history, in fact. The program was barely a year away from a Southeastern Conference championship and Final Four appearance. The Gators, however, were coming off their first losing season in 18 years when iconic Billy Donovan fled for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.

Mike White during its introductory press conference on May 11, 2015.

Enter White, who had won 101 games in four seasons at Louisiana Tech, to replace a living legend; a figure as beloved as any in Florida athletics history. The “Billy D” bar was so high – six SEC championships, four conference tournament crowns, four Final Fours, back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 – no one was going to bang their head on it, let alone jump over it. .

Have you ever heard of Phil Bengtson? I did not mean it. It was he who replaced Vince Lombardi. A ridiculous comparison, you say? OK fine. Stay local, how about following Ron Zook Steve Spurrier? Or will Muschamp replace Urban Meyer?

It’s hard to be the guy after the guy.

In fact, it’s safe to say (quite easily) that the person following Donovan had it harder – given the program something from scratch that he and he alone created – than either of these football heirs. The potential for football dominance in Florida was still there. Even Paul “Bear” Bryant talked about it. Spurrier had to finally realize that.

“Billy D”, however, built Florida basketball and became the face of the program. If Donovan, instead of scratching his NBA itch, had stayed and retired here, he would one day have received the parting treatment from Mike Krzyzewski.

Donovan averaged 24.6 wins over his 19 seasons, went to the NCAA Tournament 14 times and competed for championship titles just about every year. The Whites have averaged 20.3 wins, with a second-place SEC finish. Donovan’s teams made plenty of deep runs in the playoffs, which made his early outings easy to ignore. Under White, the Gators qualified for the Elite Eight in his first foray into the NCAA and picked up a win on each of his three subsequent trips.

It should be noted that over Donovan’s nearly two decades, the SEC has averaged just under five NCAA offers per season. Over Donovan’s last seven seasons, the league averaged 3.7 offers, including just two in 2013 and three in 2014 when the Gators won back-to-back league titles for the first time. Since White first guided the Gators to the NCAA (in 2017, his sophomore season), the SEC has averaged 6.7 tournament offers.

These numbers aren’t meant to diminish Donovan’s accomplishments, but rather to illustrate how much better, deeper and more competitive the league has become. Now add the fact that three SEC teams that have won league titles in the past three years have been embroiled in the infamous FBI recruiting scandal and either been on probation or soon will be.

Former UF coach Billy Donovan addresses the sold-out crowd during his emotional comeback for the ‘Billy Donovan Court’ autograph game on February 15, 2020.

White, of course, never waded into those seedy, cesspool recruiting waters, but still managed to punch tournament tickets and win games once there. Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Gators’ four straight NCAA appearances marked the longest active streak in the SEC. The Gators were one of six teams in the country to have won at least one game in each of the past four tournaments.

You can’t win if you’re not in it, the saying goes. Well, under White, the Gators were always in, sometimes despite calamitous circumstances (see Johnson, Keyontae).

And then, this year, they weren’t.

Then the noise got louder. Saturday, The Gainesville Sun, always a supporter of hometown teams and coaches, called in the Saturday editions for a coaching change after UF’s landslide and resounding exit from the SEC tournament against Texas A&M last week. White may never admit it, but he heard it all (as did those closest to him) and went looking for an exit strategy.

Billy Donovan (left) and Mike White share a post-game moment after the Gators defeated Vanderbilt on the night of the official court opening.

White was hired away from LA Tech because his teams played a fast-paced, high-pressure brand of basketball, but he strayed from that style and was constantly looking for the right system to fit into a revolving door of players as the game entered the all-different transfer portal phase. His critics will point to a lack of identity, an offense that too often struggled to score, maddening leads and losses, and SEC finishes in the middle of the pack as traits that defined the white era. Fair game, all that.

But White will walk away with a 142-88 record, making him the third most winning coach in UF history (Note: No. 2 on the roster, Norm Sloan, was fired for breaking the rules of the NCAA). White’s .581 SEC winning percentage currently ranks 19th in league history. His six NCAA tournaments rank him second on Florida’s all-time list. If White posts similar numbers in Georgia — with his five NCAA spots this century and just seven all-time wins — they’ll build statues of him outside the Stegeman Coliseum in Athens.

Hope a very good man finds the happiness he seeks.

Meanwhile, the UF search committee must determine who will be next to step on the sidelines for the Gators on “Billy Donovan Court.” The list will include big names, promising names, as well as surprising names.

However, anyone who steps onto the podium as a UF No. 19 coach will inherit the same towering expectations that White stepped into.

He just won’t have to replace the guy who put them down.