Mike White leaves Florida for Georgia. Wait. What?

Mike White would have been a great hire in 2015. He was among the hottest of mid-major coaches. He’d gone 101-40 at Louisiana Tech, winning three consecutive regular-season titles.

Fact is, Mike White was a great hire – or so everyone thought – in 2015. Needing someone to replace Billy Donovan, Florida believed it had landed the next Billy Donovan.

In his second season with the Gators, White appeared on track. His Gators went 27-9. They finished second to Kentucky in SEC play. They beat Virginia and Wisconsin – two of the harder teams to beat – in the NCAA Tournament. They crashed the East Regional final, which saw Florida and South Carolina, both SEC members, meet in Madison Square Garden. Frank Martin’s Gamecocks won 77-70 to make the Final Four.

That didn’t figure to be White’s last big moment. Even Donovan needed four seasons of manic recruiting to lift Florida to the Final Four. He would grace three more, winning consecutive titles with the Horford/Noah/Brewer/Humphrey/Green team. In March 2017, the basketball world saw White and the Gators as a team on track to battle Kentucky for SEC preeminence for a decade or so.

Five years later, White is leaving Florida to coach Georgia. Nobody saw that coming, but there’s only one way to read it: The Gators had seen enough of White, and he’d had enough of Florida.

He heads north having never finished first in the SEC. Over his final five Florida seasons, his teams won 21, 20, 19, 15 and 19 games. Those Gators didn’t win the SEC Tournament, didn’t even reach the finals. They didn’t last beyond the first weekend in three NCAA tournaments.

This season’s team was 16-8 on Feb. 11; it finished 19-13. It lost its first SEC tourney game to Texas A&M in overtime, this after rallying from a nine-point deficit with 62 seconds left in regulation. It didn’t make the NCAA field announced Sunday. Under White, the Gators became a middle-tier SEC team.

For the Bulldogs, reaching the middle tier would set off celebrations. The Bulldogs just finished last in the SEC, winning one league game. This was the worst Georgia season since Hugh Durham came to Athens in 1978. It might have been the worst ever. For reasons that may forever be unknown, Tom Crean’s four seasons yielded next to nothing. It will be almost impossible for White not to outdo Crean, who was 15-57 in SEC play.

If White wins as much at Georgia as he did at Florida, this move will be deemed an upgrade. At issue is the question we asked when South Carolina hired Will Muschamp, who’d been fired by the Gators, to coach its football team. If you can’t win big at Florida, which has every advantage including climate, why should you win big at a different SEC posting?

That Florida allowed White, who was under contract through 2027, to leave to coach its ancient rival is weirder than weird. Should White do great work at Georgia, some – if not much of it – will be at Florida’s expense. On the other hand, this prevents the Gators from having to buy him out.

In the second round of the 2014 NIT, White brought Louisiana Tech to Athens for a pre-noon start. His team assumed a 39-13 lead against a band of Bulldogs that might have been Mark Fox’s best. Georgia lost seven nonconference games, putting it off the NCAA bubble before it even formed. Georgia then went 12-6 in SEC play, tying Kentucky – which would play for the national championship – for second place.

La Tech won 79-71 that day. I made a mental note: “Mike White’s going to be somewhere bigger really soon.” That turned out to be Gainesville, Fla. He started well. Then returns diminished. We’ll never know what would have happened had Keyontae Johnson, one of the most gifted Gators ever, not collapsed in a game against Florida State on Dec. 12, 2020. We do know that, over the past few years, White stopped being buzz-worthy.

Now he’s coaching Georgia. He’s 45. He has plenty of time to hit the heights that once seemed his manifest destiny. Here’s the thing, though: I can’t imagine many Gators fans are crushed he’s leaving. I wouldn’t take that as the greatest of signs.

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