Donovan to leave UF for NBA riches


Florida Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan answers questions during a news conference for the Final Four in March.

DOUG FINGER/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 12:28 a.m.

As it turns out, the hottest coach in college basketball was too hot for college basketball.

Fresh off back-to-back national titles, Billy Donovan decided Thursday to leave the University of Florida and take the head coaching job with the Orlando Magic.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley confirmed Thursday night that Donovan had informed him of the decision to take a job that reports say will pay him about $5.5 million a year.

"He's always been interested in the NBA," Foley said, "and his star has never been brighter."

Donovan was Florida's coach for 11 years, coming to UF from Marshall as someone with more of a reputation as a player at Providence than a coach. But Billy The Kid quickly turned Florida into a consistent national power, leading the Gators to the Sweet 16 in his third season and the national title game in 2000.

After being unable to get out of the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament the next five years, Donovan turned a group of selfless players into national champs in 2006 and again in 2007.

Florida, which had never won an SEC Tournament, won the last three under Donovan.

"Billy did what we hired him to do," Foley said. "It's a sad day, but we will always love Billy. Who would have thought when we hired him 11 years ago we would win back-to-back national championships?

"I knew he was talking to them, and I talked to him about it Tuesday in Destin. I wanted to talk to him about some things to think about, some things he was already thinking about. It's a lifestyle change, not a coaching change. It's a different lifestyle in that league and I wanted to talk to him about that.

"But I just think he wanted a different challenge."

It would have been quite a challenge to try to for a three-peat without the top six players from the 2007 champions. Donovan, who turned 42 this week, signed one of the nation's top recruiting classes, but the status of those recruits is now in question.

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Foley said Thursday night that the recruits will not be released to go to other schools until they meet Florida's new coach.

Foley wants to move quickly to hire a new coach. "We want to get it done as soon as we can," Foley said.

Donovan did not return calls seeking comment. By Thursday night, the voice mail for his cell phone was full.

He will be introduced to the Orlando media today at 11 a.m. and will have a farewell news conference in Gainesville at 4 p.m.

During 11 seasons at Florida, the Gators won 20 or more games nine times and made the NCAA Tournament each of those years. He became UF's winningest coach in 2007 and finished his career at Florida with a 261-103 record.

Donovan flew to Orlando to meet with Magic officials Wednesday night after spending time in Destin at the SEC meetings with Foley and Florida football coach Urban Meyer.

"We had dinner Tuesday night but he didn't talk about it," Meyer said Thursday night. "I don't look at him as a basketball coach but as a neighbor and a great friend. He has done so much for this university. We'll always be friends.

"I'm just glad I had two years with him. He made me a better coach."

Donovan turned down an overture from the Memphis NBA team several weeks ago as well as a chance to talk to Kentucky, where he started his coaching career as an assistant. After turning down Kentucky's advances, Donovan said, "It came down to one thing -- I'm happy. My family is happy. I have a great job. You can't buy happiness, and the school has always taken care of me."

Florida was prepared to take care of Donovan again, working with him on a seven-year extension worth a reported $3 million a year that was waiting for approval from the compensation committee.

"It's done. It's been done," said Florida president Bernie Machen, who was still in Destin on Thursday night. "You know Florida."

Foley returned to Gainesville on Thursday after receiving a call from Donovan. But his return was not to try to talk Donovan out of anything.

"By the time I got back, the die had been cast," Foley said. "We just talked as friends. We talked about all of the accomplishments. We talked about the great ride we had together. And that's what it has been, us together on a great ride."

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

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