Billy Donovan’s new contract hung up in political ‘process’

Jeremy Foley isn’t returning calls from the media this week about coaches’ contracts. And I can’t say as I blame him, because there really isn’t anything he can say.

In gambling parlance, the price of poker has gone up on Florida coaches and, even though Foley has the chips, some people at the table are slow-playing the Florida athletic director.

Apparently the issue isn’t over money, at least between Foley and Billy Donovan.

There is a hang-up somewhere in the politics of the state university system. Since Foley won’t talk about it, this may only be an uneducated guess, but I’d be willing to wager that this all has something to do with the raising of tuition to state schools and the flow of money into athletics vs. education.

By now it would seem that Donovan would have his name affixed to a new contract as Gator basketball coach, but the truth is that there has been a hiccup at the statewide level that has become a bit of an embarrassment to those UF people who felt that the re-signing of Donovan should be celebrated as a bit of a championship, itself. Because of the Sunshine Law, every detail of Donovan’s contract will become public and that’s going to create angst in some quarters.

“There are some people who are mad about the fact that we’re only paying English professors $78,000 or so and they’re just getting a three-percent raise,” a source close to the process said. “The problem is in Tallahassee and how it (Donovan’s new contract) is going to fly. At a time of budget cuts and restraints, we are trying to negotiate the biggest contract for a basketball coach in America. So we are going to Tallahassee with our hat in our hand.”

The problem may also be championship envy. Success comes with a price. Not everybody wants to sign off on that tab.

It’s not the UF can’t afford to pay Donovan $3 million a year, or whatever that figure turns out to be. Donovan’s raise isn’t even coming out of state monies. The irony is that the University Athletic Association is flush with cash these days, although they don’t like to talk about it. A reported $81 million will be generated this year by Gator athletics and to give you an idea of how that’s grown, the entire projected budget a year ago, for 2006, was $66 million.

“Some people who feel that Florida gets more than its fair share and that the other 10 state universities deserve more,” the source said.

When Donovan decided to turn down Kentucky, the source said, he walked into the AD’s office and said, “I’m your coach.” Reportedly, the digits next to the dollar sign didn’t come into play. ESPN reported last week that Donovan’s contract was a seven-year deal at $3.5 million per season. Both Donovan and Foley denied that.

Meanwhile, we continue to see Donovan’s name associated with NBA openings in Orlando, Houston and, if there was a franchise there, Zimbabwe.

You remember Billy Donovan, right? The guy who just won his second straight national championship? The guy who in his 11 seasons at Florida has a coaching record of 261-103, nine straight 20-win seasons and nine-straight NCAA Tournament appearances?

Let’s do a rewind, here: Don’t we recall this same Billy Donovan, at the beginning of the 2006-07 season, deferring a raise because he didn’t want to seem like The Material Man to his players, who had turned down NBA fortunes for a chance at repeating as national champions? And this is his reward?

The last time we saw him on camera, Donovan was taking a confetti bath and hoisting a crystal trophy. And then came more good news: He was turning down Kentucky, the mother of all basketball schools. There were simultaneous celebrations last month when the Gators bagged the second of the back-to-back championships and found out that their coach wasn’t leaving.

That was more than a month ago. The contract should have been a reward for loyalty and a job well done. Somehow we were led to believe that the document was drawn up and all Billy D. had to do was sign it. Sorry, that was premature.

“Jeremy and I have not reached an agreement,” Donovan told the media last week. “The school and I have no agreement. I understand there’s a process this needs to go through, and I respect that process.”

We’re just now finding out that the “process” evidently includes negotiations outside the realm of Bernie Machen’s province. There are some uninvited guests at Foley’s poker table and they don’t necessarily have the best interests of UF at heart.

How does Donovan feel about this so-called “process”?

“I’m fine with how that is going,” Donovan said.

Well, sorry, but some of us are not fine with it. Here’s a message to those state bureaucrats: Make the deal happen before somebody offers him half an NBA franchise and agrees to nickname the team “The Donovans.” Don’t leave anything to chance and don’t allow Donovan to think that he’s being taken for granted.

Give the guy the money, for cripes sake! Close the deal! Show a little love!

And if you don’t like any of those reasons, then just simply make a smart business decision.

And while you’re at it, name the basketball floor at the O’Connell Center after arguably the greatest coach in University of Florida history.

Until the contract is signed, Billy Donovan remains a free agent. That is not a good thing for the University of Florida — or the state university system. Period.

(Buddy Martin’s revised championship edition of “The Boys From Old Florida: Inside Gator Nation” can be pre-ordered at Watch for the announcement on the release of the book.)