Donovan's pro move has familiar smell


Published: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

That heavy thud of a sound you heard Thursday evening was the extended Year of the Gator coming to an end.

After so much celebration, so much chomping and so many smiles and hugs, the sobering news of Billy Donovan's departure is devastating for the Gator Nation and crippling to all of that momentum that has been built over the last two basketball seasons.

But guess what, Gators?

You'll get over it.

You survived it before. When Steve Spurrier left, the sky smacked all of you in orange and blue right in the head. Now Donovan has decided that it's time for a new challenge and it smells like deja vu.

Right down to a friend's first words as I picked up my cell Thursday.

"Say it ain't so."

There is definitely a correlation between Donovan and Steve Spurrier. Both of them left for the pro ranks after double-digit years at Florida during which they had unparalleled success. In both cases, we always knew it was a possibility, but were still surprised.

And I have a feeling that the reaction in the Gator Nation will be similar. There will be those who resent Donovan for the timing of this departure, who never forgive him for leaving. But the majority of Gator fans will thank him for all of the wonderful things he did at UF and root for his new team.

I guess to make it come full circle, Donovan will leave the Magic after two unsuccessful seasons, sit out a year and then coach at South Carolina.

The truth is we don't know how Donovan will do at the next level. His biggest strength was his recruiting and there is no recruiting in the NBA which we all believe is one of the reasons he was ready to make the jump. The grind of recruiting gets old, even when you're only 42.

But Donovan has also learned how to be an excellent sideline coach, a motivator, a teacher, a guy who can turn around a game plan in a short period of time.

We also know that the track record for college coaches going to the NBA (or NFL) is not good. But it's obvious to those of us who misjudged Donovan that his intrigue in the pro ranks was more than that. It was an itch that he couldn't scratch hard enough.

Because while the money is great, I don't think he left for the money. He could have received $5 million a year from Kentucky. Clearly, Donovan wanted to try the NBA and not just any NBA team but one where he thought he could have a chance to win.

He told me once that when the NBA comes calling, "it's usually a bad job." Orlando is not a bad job. It's not a great job, but neither was Florida when he came here.

We wish Billy good luck and know that the NBA will never be as interesting as it will be next season with the influx of Florida's best basketball coach ever and the Oh-Fours at the same time (Spurrier can tell you, Billy, be careful about having too many Gators on your team.)

But the biggest thing on the minds of Florida fans is not the future of the Magic, who hope to be relevant outside of Orlando for the first time since the Shaq and Penny years, but the future of the Gators.

As it turns out, the worst thing that could have happened to the 2007-08 Florida basketball team was back in April when Donovan turned down a chance to talk to Kentucky. Then, it was a reason to celebrate. In hindsight, not so much.

Had Donovan taken the job with the Wildcats, Florida would have had time to get a new coach, finish off its recruiting class and move on. Instead, Florida basketball 2007-08 has a chance to be as big a mess as the last two years have been glorious.

But Florida will survive.

It's still the home of one of the toughest places to play in the country. It still has a tremendous practice facility and a campus that helped keep one of the greatest teams to ever play the game around for another year.

It's still Gainesville.

Donovan built Florida basketball into what it is. There is no doubt in my mind it will take a dip.

So did football. And five seasons after Spurrier's stunning departure, the Gator Nation was celebrating a national title.

This time, Foley hopes to do it without the three years of turmoil that preceded Urban Meyer's arrival in Gainesville. But it will take the right fit.

This is not the same job that Donovan took 11 years ago.

It's a better one.

And that's why you'll survive.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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