ATLANTA, GA — Less than an hour after he had cut down the nets and held them high above his head, a national champion for a second straight year, Billy Donovan was still caught up in the euphoria. When his five starters were dismissed from the podium to go to the locker room, leaving Donovan alone on the podium to face the media he was asked THE question.
You know the one. The one about Kentucky. The questioner made it a point to cleverly re-word it so it at least sounded different, but still, it was the same question that’s been asked Billy Donovan on an almost daily basis since Tubby Smith bolted from the Big Blue Nation two weeks ago for the definitely newer and un-plowed pastures of Minnesota.
“I recognize that everybody always wants to take you in the past or take you in the future, so I’ll bite the bullet and ask it: where is the future?”
Donovan broke into a grin and then let out a little laugh.
“I just got off the court!” he said. “I mean, right here at the University of Florida. I’m going to enjoy this moment right now. Right now it’s this game. I think all that stuff will be addressed but you know, now’s not the time to address it, as it wasn’t when it got asked over the last week. It’s all about these kids, our program and what happened. It was a good try, though.”
When he answered the question, part of that whooshing sound you heard was three million Wildcat fans holding their collective breaths. By deferring yet again to another time to definitively answer the question of questions, they took that as a “yes, I’m coming to Kentucky.”
The other half of that whooshing sound you heard was the entire Gator Nation holding their collective breaths. By deferring yet again to another time to definitively answer the question of questions, they took that as a “yes, I’m going to Kentucky” or “I don’t know what I’m going to do yet” or “I’m staying at Florida but you’ll have to wait for the answer.”
No matter what you think — that Billy should be telling Kentucky a flat out “no way, no how” or “it’s been a great gig but I’ve got to give this one a try” — this is not a question that should have been answered on the podium after he had just led his team to a repeat national championship, something no team had done since Duke (1991-92) and just the second time it had been done since UCLA’s unthinkable seven in a row (1967-73).
This was a night to celebrate a remarkable achievement. Anything other than talk about what his basketball team had accomplished by beating Ohio State, 84-75, was uncalled for.
Had Donovan met the question head on and given the answer that Kentucky fans or Florida fans want to hear, it would have dwarfed what his team had just done. What do you honestly think the headlines would have read Tuesday morning?
Billy Stays. Gator fans would have loved that one.
Billy Goes. Kentucky fans would have loved that one.
How about this one instead? Gators Make It A Repeat! That’s the one Donovan wanted to read Tuesday morning and that’s the one he got.
There will be a time this week when he answers the question once and for all, but Monday night right after winning the championship was not the appropriate time.
The question will be answered this week, too, and if you’re one who’s occasionally wagered a soda pop — or perhaps a dollar or two — then put your money on Billy stays right where he is with a contract that borders on a lifetime deal.
Worth it? You bet.
It will take a Star Wars deal to keep Billy Donovan where he should be but given what he’s accomplished in 11 years and given what coaches of his caliber are getting paid these days and times, who could argue that he isn’t worth every cent? And that’s just if you go by the numbers which are pretty gaudy when you think about them: 261 wins at Florida (school record), nine straight seasons with at least 20 wins, two straight seasons with at least 30 wins, three Southeastern Conference championships including an outright championship in 2007, three straight SEC Tournament championships, nine straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, three Final Fours including the last two in a row, thee trips to the championship game including the last two, and two straight NCAA championships.
As gaudy as those numbers are, the better stories are the ones that don’t get the big headlines. They are the ones about how Billy and Christine Donovan spearheaded the financial commitment to build St. Francis Catholic High School in Gainesville. They are the ones about the multiple charities that Billy gives time and money to.
They are the ones about how he never once turned his back on Major Parker, who made the mistake of a lifetime when he got involved in a drug deal. Major Parker is on probation now and he’s rebuilding his life the hard way down in his home town of Fort Lauderdale. He’s got a job and he’s making a success of it. He’s also got Billy Donovan’s support.
Billy Donovan could have chosen to wipe his hands clean and walk away, but he saw a good kid that made a tragic mistake. Instead of condemning him for making a really bad choice, Donovan stood by Major Parker through the tough times when a Federal judge could have sentenced him to years and years of hard time. Parker got off with house arrest and probation, a light sentence that probably would have been longer except that Billy Donovan spoke up for his former player and vouched that this is not a criminal that society should be protected from but someone that still has plenty of good left in him if only given a chance.
The judge believed Billy, gave Major probation, and now there is a reclamation project of the heart and soul going on down in Fort Lauderdale that will one day have a much happier ending. Major Parker knows he screwed up and screwed up badly, but he also knows that given a second chance in life, he can make his life a fine example of what happens when you get a little help from your friends.
More than the wins and losses, the investment in the lives of others is why Billy Donovan is worth the big bucks. Kentucky fans only see Donovan as a coach that can get them back to winning championships. They haven’t seen first hand what Florida fans have seen these last 11 years. Florida fans have gotten the championships but also they’ve gotten the investment in the lives of the young men Donovan coaches as well as the investment into the community.
While you can be sure that if he were to leave Gainesville for Kentucky, he would invest in the lives of his players and the people in the Lexington community, put your money on Gainesville. Put your money on that marker that says Billy will stay.
We’ll know the details of the deal and the answer to the question before Saturday. Billy and his family are going on a 10-day vacation to the Dominican Republic Saturday. He is not the kind of person to leave the University of Florida and the University of Kentucky hanging for 10 days. He is also not the kind of person that would enjoy the vacation for five minutes if he was still mulling over this decision.
If you’re a Gator, this bodes well.
It bodes well because for Billy to bolt, it would mean he’s had Kentucky on his mind all along. Every time he’s been asked the question about Kentucky, he’s said his focus is totally on the next game and that he hasn’t given Kentucky a thought. Considering Donovan’s always been as straightforward and honest as they come, that’s believable.
So figure he hasn’t been thinking about Kentucky and four days isn’t a long time to make the kind of monumental decision it would take to leave Florida.
And think about this. He didn’t want to sign a new contract when Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer walked away from guaranteed NBA millions to play one more year of basketball for him. They gave up the big bucks to come back and win another championship so Billy deferred on an extension of his contract and a big pay raise, figuring it wouldn’t be the right thing for him to benefit while his players were sacrificing.
The contract has been in the works for a year now. Jeremy Foley’s been working on it and Dr. Bernie Machen has gotten personally involved in it. They have made no attempt to hide their wishes to keep Billy where he belongs, which is in Gainesville where he has a history of success, a community that loves him and a university that gave him his chance to build a basketball program in his own image. At Kentucky, Billy Donovan would be just another coach until he won four national championships. At Florida Billy Donovan IS basketball because Foley gave him the chance to mold and shape the program 11 years ago.
And one last thought to ponder: When you have won the last two national championships, you are indeed at the top of the mountain. Kentucky or any other school you can name is a step down from the top of the mountain. If you haven’t won the last two, there’s no way you’re at the top. You might be pretty darn good, but the top? That’s Florida.
The Gators will celebrate their national championship at the O’Connell Center Friday night. The 0-Fours will hear the chant “one more year! One more year!” Billy Donovan will hear similar chants.
The 0-Fours could shock us and stay. They did it last year so nothing should surprise us now.
Billy Donovan? He’ll announce he’s staying and the crowd will just about blow the roof off the O-Dome. If I were a gambling man, that’s what I would bet on.