Thursday, April 05, 2007

Where next for Billy – Kentucky better be your destination

The Florida Gators accomplished everything Billy Donovan could have expected from his program this year. The Gators entire starting five who won the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship decided winning a second NCAA title was more important than the millions of dollars they’d earn as NBA lottery picks. But what Donovan accomplished was much more than becoming the first coach to lead his school to back-to-back titles for the first time since Mike Krzyzewski led the Duke University Blue Devils to consecutive championships in 1991 and 1992. Duke is a basketball school and Florida is a football school. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in football mad Florida the Gators basketball program won not one, but two national championships, and back-to-back. It’s time Donovan packed his bags and took his coaching success to a university rich in basketball history – the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Kentucky is to college basketball what Florida is to college football.

A year ago Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey led Florida to their first NCAA Men’s basketball title. Monday night they became the first starting five in the 69-year history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament to win consecutive titles.

“Hopefully we'll be viewed as one of the greatest college basketball teams to ever play the game,” Brewer, who was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, said at a postgame news conference. “That's what we came back to do.”

Noah, Brewer and Horford were each projected as NBA lottery picks a year ago after winning their first NCAA title as sophomores. In an era where athletes are always “me-first” it was then what it is now, a stunning decision. If any member of the trio had suffered a serious career ending injury the financial security they would have enjoyed as NBA lottery picks would have been gone. Thankfully none of the players were injured this year and accomplished their goal, but it’s unreasonable to expect any of the players to consider returning to try and win a third straight title – it just won’t happen. With Humphrey set to graduate and the Gators destined to lose Noah, Brewer and Horford the cupboard won’t be bear for the Gators basketball program but the heights the program has reached in the last two years likely will never be duplicated again.

“For some of them that had a choice and made the choice to come back, you have to be pretty competitive to take on that challenge in today's day and age,” said the 40-year-old Donovan, who is the youngest coach to win two national titles.

After graduating from Providence and two forgettable years working on Wall Street, Donovan was fortunate enough to land a job with Rick Pitino, then head coach at the University of Kentucky. Donovan worked with Rick for the next five years. Then, in 1996 accepted the head coaching job at Marshall University.

Donovan, coming from a highly successful program at Marshall University in West Virginia, successful because Donovan made it so, after two years as head coach decided to take the University of Florida's struggling program and attempt to work similar magic for the Gators ailing basketball fortunes. Against the advice of his former coach and current mentor, Rick Pitino, in the spring of 1996 Donovan accepted the Florida job. Smart enough to know the Gator resurrection was not a one-man job he brought with him his three assistant coaches from Marshall University.

According to the UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley; “We had a lot of work to do at the University of Florida, we were coming off a 12-win season, at that moment in time we had people saying you guys can’t get better at Florida.” It was obvious Billy and the boys had there work cut out for them. Time, however would show that Donovan and his coaching team were more than equal to the task.

Prior to accepting Florida's offer Donovan was at Marshall University in West Virginia as head coach for two years. It is here at Marshall he began to apply what he had learned at the side of Rick Pitino while being an assistant at the University of Kentucky. All Donovan did at Marshall was he was named 1994 National Rookie Coach of the Year, WV College Coach of the Year and Southern Conference Coach of the Year. He and his coaching team were able to transform a lackluster Marshall basketball program into a mid-majors basketball force to be reckoned with.

“His commitment has been relentless,” Florida AD Foley said. Continuing on the Gator's Foley says; “His work ethic has been spectacular. That guy has made some huge inroads here, and this is where he needs to be.”

Donovan who made it clear to everyone at the Final Four he hasn’t been contacted by anyone associated with the Kentucky basketball program reportedly will be offered at seven-year contract worth at least $2.8 million a year by Kentucky in the coming days, a contract worth at least $19.6 million.

According to The Gainesville Sun, Donovan just completed the fourth year of a six-year contract worth $1.7 million annually. Last fall, Donovan declined to sign an extension worth a reported $2 million per season, saying he did not want to make it appear he was cashing in on the success of his players.

Thursday, Donovan is scheduled to meet with Florida AD Florida Jeremy Foley. And after a national championship celebration Friday night at the O'Connell Center, Donovan will leave for a week-long family vacation to the Dominican Republic to celebrate his father Bill's 70th birthday.

That aside, Donovan made it clear to The Gainesville Sun, Kentucky where he began his college coaching career holds a special place.

"There's a great feeling in my heart for Kentucky because that's where I started my career and I have great respect for the tradition there," Donovan said. "But you know what, that was 13 years ago, it's not like it was one or two years removed."

"If I was contacted by them, that would be something that I would have to think about," said Donovan, a former Kentucky assistant under Rick Pitino. "But I think because I've been going so crazy, haven't dealt with my phone, haven't dealt with that stuff."

Soon after Donovan enjoyed listening to One Shinning Moment, Donovan was asked about the Gators place in history, Donovan’s place in history and the legacy he’s created at Florida?

“Well, the program's very, very important. I've always said this. The program's bigger than anybody. I've never, ever got into coaching or looked at my legacy or how it would impact me, and I said this last year. It's more about the program.

“There are a lot of great, great coaches that probably don't get the opportunity that I've been afforded, that never get to this point, that probably deserve a lot more attention and credit than I do.

“I've never really worried about what my legacy's going to be. My legacy to me is I hope I work as hard as I can to do the very, very best that I can. I hope I do it in a way that you can walk away from things or enjoy things where you say, You know, I did my very, very best. I'm a big believer for me personally what gives me peace is where I walk away from something where I have no regret.

“We worked as hard as we possibly could as a basketball team this year. You know what, if we
would have come up short I wouldn't have had any regret, and they shouldn't have either because I felt like we did the very, very best we can.

“You know, I think place in history or legacy for me is much, much more about what do these kids say it was like playing for me, and was I able to help in way their growth and development. I know this sounds kind of corny and crazy and everything else, but I really mean that. There's a lot bigger things to me that are important to me than, you know, how I'm remembered, my legacy.

“I hope that my legacy is, A, a good person, good father, you know, good husband, try to do the right things. I know we all make mistakes. But that's how I treat these guys, how I coached these guys.”

Reading between the lines, it sounds like Donovan realizes he’s at the beginning of the end of his coaching career with the Gators. And what an opportunity Kentucky would represent to Billy Donovan, an opportunity he’d be silly to turn down. Just consider how much tradition is associated with Kentucky basketball.

The basketball team is the winningest program in Division I college basketball with over 1,974 victories, seven NCAA national championships (1948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998) -- which is second all-time to UCLA's 11 -- two NIT national championships (1946, 1976), one Helms national title (1933), forty-eight NCAA tournament appearances, runner-up three times, 13 Final Fours, and 28 Elite Eight appearances.

Basketball is much more than just a game, much more than just a sport to the Bluegrass State, it’s a way of life.

"I don't think there's much to think about, but that's going to be up to him," Bill Donovan (Billy’s father) told The St. Petersburg Times. "I always tell him as a son of mine to go with his heart. Do what makes you happy. Everyone is going to say, go, don't go. That's got no bearing on it. What's going to keep you happy? Do what's in your heart, that's what I always say. Florida is at the top of the mountain right now. He's got a great situation."

Appearing at Marshall (where he first served as a head coach) Wednesday, Donovan again said all the right things to ESPN.

"I think [it's time] to take a deep breath, take a step back and do some thinking and some soul searching," he said. "People want things to happen quickly, but I need some time to decompress and take a deep breath."

"I know I'm getting asked a lot of questions, I think eventually I'm going to have to give some answers for everybody to do their job and what they need to do," he said.

Maybe what Kentucky basketball stands for can be summed up by the gem that appeared in Tuesday’s Lexington Herald Leader: Dan Wann, professor of psychology at Murray State University, teaches a course on the psychology of sport fandom. He notes that being a fan is a social bonding tool; you can't really be a fan by yourself. And Wann is often surprised when studying UK fans to see that the allegiance to UK basketball is so strong that people will sometimes identify themselves as UK fans before they remember to note their religious affiliation. Or even their gender.

Wann says that several other circumstances in Kentucky unite to produce the phenomenon known as the UK men's basketball fan: Socialization, as UK basketball memories are passed down from generation to generation. A history of dramatic, fan-pleasing performances. A lack of nearby major-league sports. (You can call the Cincinnati Reds kind of nearby, and kind of major league, but many seasons that's a lot of effort for not a lot of team.)

"Decade after decade, you end up with the sort of larger-than-life entity that is the UK basketball program," Wann says. "None of this is a bad thing. Our research is clear."

But even being a fan in a social setting gives little personal power: Fans don't really control squat when it comes to a team's performance.

Still, for those bleeding blue, mere win-loss records aren't going to compel anybody to change their allegiance away from the Cats to, say, increased funding for local arts programs -- especially when the former allows them to yammer on about their winning coach not being a fierce enough warrior-king to live up to state standards.

"This is not about people feeling Papa John's is better than Domino's," Wann says. "This is who they are."

The experience that Wann is talking about and teaches – sounds a great deal like what football means to the fans in the Sunshine State when it comes to the Florida Gators. As many national titles as Billy Donovan might win with the Gators, if anyone asked 10 Florida University fans if they’d rather win five NCAA football titles or five NCAA basketball championships it’s a safe bet all 10 people would choose a football title. If you asked the same question but in reverse order to 10 supporters of the Kentucky Wildcats, all ten would want NCAA basketball championships. There is nothing Billy Donovan or anyone will ever be able to change the football culture in Florida and the devotion to basketball in Kentucky.

Billy Donovan can fool himself if he’d like but when all is said and done if he ever intends to be the coach he believes he can be, if he really wants to take that next logical step forward in what is destined to be a Hall of Fame career, in the next few weeks Billy Donovan will become the head basketball coach for the Kentucky Wildcats. If he doesn’t than he’s not the coach he appears destined and most believe he will be some day.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Gainesville Sun and The Lexington Herald Leader

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