One coach, and the tale of two cities


Published: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 8:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 8:28 p.m.

The news conferences in two cities just 115 miles apart were as different as Orlando and Gainesville are different, as different as the NBA and the SEC are different.

The Magic introduced Billy Donovan as their coach with fans cheering from bleachers in the RDC Sportsplex, the team's practice facility. Christine Donovan was presented a bouquet of flowers by the team's president Bob Vander Weide. Everyone was happy. He's their Billy now.

About four hours after that news conference concluded, Donovan and UF athletic director Jeremy Foley held their own news conference here, a bye-bye to Billy. Emotions dripped on the podium. Fans waited outside the Women's Center, where Donovan has held a hundred news conferences waiting for a glimpse and maybe an autograph.

It was a great day in Orlando. It was a sad day in Gainesville.

In Orlando, Donovan wore a suit and a smile. He talked about his new friend Otis Smith, the former Magic player turned general manager. He talked about the future.

In Gainesville, Donovan went casual and melancholy. He talked of his old friend, Foley. He talked about the past.

Make no mistake about it, this wasn't one of those situations where a coach gets tired of coaching at a place or gets fed up with the administration or gets bored.

This was the perfect storm.

Donovan made it clear that the fact that his contract situation at Florida had nothing to do with his leaving. There were other things that conspired to rob Florida of its most successful basketball coach and one of the icons of the Gator Nation.

There was the intrigue with the NBA. Even when Donovan and Foley sat down to discuss the new contract in April, Donovan made it clear to Foley he would listen if an NBA team called. When the right one called, the one with a young and talented playoff bubble team only two hours away, and when they said the right things and when nobody whom Donovan respected screamed, “Don't do it!” ...

Well, Florida was looking for a new coach.

Among those Donovan talked to were Rick Pitino and Steve Spurrier. Both of them had been through the college-to-NBA ordeal. They both told him to check it out.

“Not one of them told me, 'Billy, don't do it,' ” Donovan said.

He asked Spurrier, a longtime friend, if he regretted his move. Spurrier told him he didn't regret jumping, just where he jumped.

Put it all together and the Magic tugged at Donovan's ambition. And there was also this — Donovan has always had great vision. And when he looked into the future, he wasn't sure if he saw a happy Billy Donovan at 47, 48, 50 years old coaching in college.

It wasn't that the recruiting trail was getting weary, but he could see how it could happen.

And then Orlando came along just when it looked like there was no way Donovan would leave. He had just completed his signing class, just completed his staff. That he hired assistant Rob Lanier last week “gives you an idea where my intentions were.”

But timing is everything. And in this case, the timing was bad for

Florida.

“We don't control timing of how things come our way,” Donovan said.

He didn't know if this perfect storm would regenerate in four years, five years. It was here right now with his star burning white hot.

So he surprised his athletic director, his president and a lot of us by jumping.

What followed was a difficult afternoon and evening for Donovan because he had to tell so many people he was leaving. The emotion Donovan showed Friday afternoon made it obvious that the most difficult call was to Foley, who not only gave him a chance to coach at a major program but stuck by him when Donovan was getting hammered for all of those early exits from the NCAA Tournament.

“The last 24 hours have not been fun,” Donovan said, pausing as the emotion overtook him from the neck up, “because of this guy to my left and the people here.”

This wasn't easy for Donovan. The easy thing would have been not to go to Orlando.

But in the end, the perfect storm means that Billy Donovan wakes up today a hero in two cities.

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