Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Billy “the Kidder” Donovan

In an Insider written in the days following the Florida’s Gators second straight NCAA’s men’s basketball title it was suggested Gators coach Billy Donovan (known as the Kid) leave the Gators to coach the Kentucky University Wildcats basketball team – one of the most honored basketball programs. Having just turned 40 with four of his starters having decided to move onto the NBA it seemed like the perfect time for Donovan to move on.

A Readers Digest of the April 5 Insider: 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 didn’t take SBN’s advice choosing to stay at Florida keeping his family happy. For some inexplicable reason Donovan last week decided he loves the Sunshine State but was ready to leave the Gators after all. Friday, the Orlando Magic announced Donovan had agreed to a five-year $27.5 million for the 40-year old Donovan to coach the Magic. In a matter of days, Billy the Kidder changed his mind – Donovan wants out of his Magic contract. Once again Billy the Kidder wants to coach the Gators.

Donovan is the latest coach to change his mind after making a binding commitment that included not only the man giving his word but signing a contract. After the Magical announcement Friday there was an instant impact on the Magic’s bottom line with the organization selling hundreds of new season tickets Friday and Saturday. In Orlando where the Magic are the only game in town the signing of Donovan was seen as a tremendous coup for the Magic. While the Magic made the playoffs this year (losing to the Pistons in the first round) the man who had seemingly done the impossible in leading a school known for its football program to college basketball’s Promised Land.

There are a number of questions that need answering, staring with the statement Donovan made Friday when the Magic announced his hiring.

“Thank you very much. First, I would like to thank Mr. (Rich) DeVos, who is obviously not here. I would like to thank Bob, Otis and Alex Martins, who is not here as well. I am very, very excited about this opportunity and to be part of this Orlando Magic family. For me personally, it was difficult because my 11 years at Florida were 11 great years with some very, very fond memories.

“But I really looked at myself in a couple aspects. One, I think that the easy decision for me personally could have really been to stay at Florida and just try to continue to move on, or the next step could be to try to do something that would really challenge me as a person, as a coach and help me grow and help me get better. And I’ve always been intrigued by the NBA. I’ve been intrigued by the just 24 hours of basketball and I believe I’ve said that publicly many times. But in the process for me to leave the University of Florida, it was going to take something that had to be very, very special in my opinion. And when I got a chance to find out about the ownership and leadership here and how close it is, when I had a chance to look at the team, its potential and what the opportunities could be in the free agency market.

“Looking at Florida and how we tried to build it and everyone moving towards the same direction, the goal is obviously to win a championship. People can talk about winning championships, but really what you want to do when it really comes down to it is you want to give yourself a chance. There are no guarantees and there is a lot of luck that plays into it and there is a lot of timing that plays into it. But I know that you can’t win championships unless you have everybody on the same page and everybody is moving in the same direction at the same time and you are all sharing the same vision. And I really believe here in Orlando they have a chance to do that, with the young pieces that are here on this team and also the pieces that through free agency and through the draft that can potentially be added. It is an exciting time, and it was a time for me that I said ‘you know what – I want to try to take on this challenge at this point in my life.’ And obviously it is always unsettling when you make change because I go from something that I was very, very comfortable, something that I have great security at and something that was easy, to putting myself in the position where I am going to be challenged in so many different ways. ”But I am excited about that challenge, because I am going to be doing it with people that I have a great respect for. And, I feel that there area lot of similarities with the leadership at Florida with Jeremy Foley as there is here at the professional level with Bob and Otis. I am really excited about it.”

Needless to say the Magic are very concerned about how they’re going to handle fallout from Donovan’s dramatic about face. At press time (early Wednesday morning) the two sides were reportedly close to reaching an agreement where Donovan would be free to return to Florida. Monday the Magic (at least officially) offered little.

“While Central Florida, the Orlando Magic and Billy were energized with the announcement of his contract signing on Friday, we know there was a different feeling in Gainesville and people have been tugging at him since that time.

“Billy is conflicted with those emotions and the opportunity he has ahead in Orlando and in the NBA.

“We've had numerous conversations and a personal visit in Gainesville with Billy over the last 48 hours and we have a commitment from him that the dialogue between us will continue.”

If the Magic are upset an ESPN report late Tuesday suggested the NBA is going to send Billy the Kidder and every other coach who makes a commitment to coach an NBA team and then changes their mind better think twice. ESPN’s Andy Katz reported Tuesday one of the conditions the Magic want included in any release they work out with Donovan would prevent Donovan from coaching any other NBA franchise for the next five years, the length of the contract Donovan signed with the Magic Friday. There also appears to be strong support from the NBA that Donovan not be allowed to coach an NBA team for the five year period. And legally the Magic are going to be able to force Donovan to sign any release with that clause according to Thomas Ramsberger, adjunct professor of sports law at Stetson College of Law in St. Petersburg
“From straight contract law theory, I think that’s enforceable,’’ Ramsberger told The St. Petersburg Times. In the case of a breached contract, he added, the Magic can say, “Well, I can’t force you through the courts to be my coach but what I can do is file an injunction against other teams to prevent you from being able to be employed by them because you’re under contract to me.”

Ramsberger believes one of the complicating factors would be that Orlando sold several hundred season tickets in the wake of Donovan’s hiring, and now those customers may want their money back.

“That’s part of the reason the Magic is saying, 'This isn’t as easy as 'Oh, let’s have a mulligan and let’s tee it up again and act like it didn’t happen.’''

Clearly the legal implications relating to Donavan’s decision are far ranging. Who would have imagined a coach walking away from a contract’s impact on ticket sales could become a legal issue? And if so, would that extend to teams’ not signing free agents or teams’ not signing coaches fans wanted to see their teams’ hire?

The million dollar question – what could have led Donovan to change his mind?

"What it comes down to is that Billy thought he knew what he wanted and that's why he said yes," said a source in an ESPN report. "But he realized [Saturday] that he didn't want to be any place but at Florida, but unfortunately he is now entangled in contractual issues."

The price the Magic are going to pay begins with the coverage and reports in The Orlando Sentinel. When you’re the only big league team in town, the only daily in town is going to take you to town when a public relations disaster lands on your doorstep. One gem the Sentinel offered Tuesday, a list of not so Magical missteps.

SHAQ LEAVES TOWN -- With bright lights and big money of the Lakers luring him as a free agent, center Shaquille O'Neal leaves in 1996.

REVOLT! -- Led by an unhappy Penny Hardaway, several players force then-coach Brian Hill out the door.

THE BAD ANKLE -- When the Magic signed Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill in 2000, the high hopes never materialized thanks in part to Hill's ankle. He played in just 18 games his first two years here.

WHERE IS FRAN? -- They draft Fran Vazquez in the 1st round of '05, but he remained in Spain.

The Magic hired Donovan believing he was the right person and their head coaching job was the right opportunity for him. A bigger issue then the damage done to the Magic’s reputation, what about Billy the Kidder and the damage to his reputation?

"I don't think this hurts his image," CBS analyst Seth Davis told The Gainesville Sun. "I'm sure he's embarrassed. But this is still America and he's entitled to be happy, he's entitled to do what he thinks is best for himself and his family.

"I think this is a reflection of how good Billy has it at Florida and how happy he is there. It's hard to mess with happiness."

"Those things happen," ESPN’s Dick Vitale said of Donovan's change of heart. "It's an emotional time for him and his family and everyone involved. The only way it might hurt Billy is if he decides to go the NBA later.

"The statement he's making is that he's a lifer in college basketball, and college basketball is going to be better off because of it. I think Billy and his wife are really entrenched where they are. The love the community and love raising their family in Gainesville. He's telling people where he wants to be and it's Gainesville."’

Not everyone agrees with Davis and Vitale that Donovan’s flip flop won’t hurt his image.

"First of all, I think the world of Billy. I like him very much; he's a wonderful person," ESPN’s Jay Bilas said in a Gainesville Sun report. "But I've never seen anything this unprofessional. Is it going to hurt him? Absolutely. It goes right to the very heart of his ability to make an important decision.

"There's no question this was an unprofessional way to handle this. There's no reasonable excuse. It's understandable if you can't make up your mind in a certain time frame. To take the step to agree to a contract and be introduced at a press conference and put people through this without having thought this through, there's no excuse.

"I understand nobody likes to move or pick kids up and change schools and leave a great job. But this is big-boy school now. Most people think this stuff through before hand to make sure. That's why they call it a contract."

Davis told The Gainesville Sun he believes Donovan was pushed into his decision and Vitale believes the Legend of Billy the Kid will only group with his decision to change his mind.

"When the story was breaking, I think the Magic and Billy said we need an answer. They did it real quick," Davis said. "I'm sure Billy wished he had more time to think about what he really wanted to do.

"It's not an issue of credibility. I'm sure he feels personally very badly about all this. I don't think there's going to be any high school players less reluctant to play for him after this. It could actually work in Billy's favor."

"This is a great day for Florida Gator athletics," Vitale aid. "Billy Donovan is synonymous with Gator basketball. Eventually, they'll name the court after him. Billy coming back almost seals that deal.

"He's eventually going to have the same kind of college coaching legacy as Joe Paterno or Bobby Bowden. I know the people in Gainesville are going to give Billy a big hug and squeeze for staying."

What Davis and Vitale are suggesting is nothing short of preposterous. If as Davis suggests Donovan was forced into his decision what does that say about Donovan’s ability to make a tough decision? Leaders take their time, look at all the variables and then make important decisions. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski weighed all of his options several years ago when the Los Angeles Lakers offered Coach K the Lakers head coaching opportunity but decided to stay at Duke.

One of Vitale’s weaknesses is his undying belief that life begins and ends with college basketball. To Dick Vitale as long as you’re involved with college basketball you’re a winner. How much of Vitale’s views on coaching an NBA franchise are impacted by the year and bit Vitale coached the Detroit Pistons? He then coached the Detroit Pistons of the National Basketball Association for the 1978-79 season, leading them to a 30-52 record. Vitale was fired from the Pistons near the beginning of the 1979-80 season, after the Pistons started 4-8. If Vitale wanted to allude to the pitfalls of coaching an NBA team that would have been fair, but to suggest Donovan’s decision to change his mind is what legends are made of – is Vitale being Dick Vitale, silly and at times a complete waste of time.

And what about the Florida Gators? Of course they’ll forever be indebted to Donovan for bringing back-to-back National Championships to Gainesville. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley flew to Richmond, Va., on Saturday to meet with Donovan's former assistant, VCU head coach Anthony Grant, about the Gators opening. But multiple sources confirmed to ESPN that the plane was on the ground for less than an hour. Foley left without Grant aboard. Grant who has to be torn by the opportunity coaching the Gators would have represented and his loyalty to Donovan was forced to release the following statement Sunday evening:

"Due to the amount of media speculation regarding my involvement with the University of Florida coaching vacancy, I felt it necessary to address the situation," Grant said in the statement. "I have been contacted by the University of Florida regarding the coaching vacancy.

"I have not had any in-person contact with any Florida representative, nor have I been offered the job," Grant continued. "At this point, I will have no further comment on the situation. All my focus is on my responsibilities at VCU."

How is this going to end: Donovan will never coach a game for the Magic. They’ll release him (that may have happened by the time you’ve read this) and force Donovan to agree to a clause that prevents him from coaching an NBA team for at least five years.

The Gators will keep their man, but whatever Florida AD Jeremy Foley says about how happy he’s feeling that Billy the Kidder is still his basketball coach – will Foley ever be able to look at Billy the Kidder the same way? Of course not, Donovan signed a long-term contract extension with the Gators after turning his back on the Kentucky job last month. Foley has to know sooner or later – will he or won’t he Billy the Kidder is going to leave the Gators high and dry.

If Dick Vitale believes sitting on the fence is what legendary coaches are made of, Dick Vitale better reexamine the criteria for what he believes makes a coaching legend. It takes a lot more than winning; it takes a person of integrity where a person(s) word and their signature on a contract are as good as gold, qualities that Billy Donovan clearly lacks.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Orlando Sentinel, The Gainesville Sun, The St. Petersburg Times and ESPN.

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