Donovan Wants To Send The Right Signal

Billy Donovan could have held the sword over the head of Jeremy Foley and Dr. Bernie Machen and he still could if he wanted to. He could demand a long term contract extension and a huge raise that would make him the highest paid basketball coach in the country. If he demanded do you think for one second that the athletic director and the president of the University of Florida would say no?

After winning the first NCAA basketball championship in Florida history, Billy Donovan could probably hand over a wish list as long as his leg and Foley and Machen would be hustling up whatever it takes to make all those dreams come true. When your coach is 41 years old, within a few wins of becoming the winningest coach in school history, working on a string of nine straight NCAA Tournament bids and has all his starters and two key reserves back from the team that won it all the year before not to mention one of the best four-man recruiting classes in the country enrolled in school and ready to rumble, you don’t say no. As long as the demands are within reason and financially do-able you say yes to every single one of them.

You say yes because the Billy Donovans of the coaching world don’t grow on trees. You say yes because you’ve got a guy that’s proven that you can do things the right way, work harder than anybody else and win the big prize even at a place where it’s never been done before. You say yes because if he left, you wouldn’t just be replacing a coach, you would be replacing someone whose values, character and integrity speak as much or more than any championship banner that could hang from the roof of the O-Dome. You say yes because you’ve got a coach that won a title because he never demanded more of his team than he was willing to give himself.

Billy Donovan got the best out of the Gators because he demanded the best out of himself and his personal example was good enough that 13 young men made a decision to follow him wherever he led and do whatever he asked. The end result was a national championship that puts Donovan in the unique position to make demands and get whatever he wants from the University of Florida.

So with that swell of popular momentum and the power of a championship to propel him wherever he wants to go, instead of making demands Billy Donovan has ground the contract extension process to a halt. Not because he wants more money or that the University of Florida has decided to draw a line that can’t be crossed in the dirt. Really, they’ll give him what he wants whatever it is. The reason the contract extension is jammed in neutral instead of slammed into power shift is because once again Billy Donovan is leading by example.

He asked his team to sacrifice for the good of the team last year. He asked them to put the team before self. He asked them to love and care for each other the way a family loves and cares for its own. Everything he asked, they did, and then they did something for him that he didn’t ask for.

They came back.

Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer would have been first rounders in the NBA draft. Noah probably would have been the very first player picked and Horford wouldn’t have dropped much further than six or seven in the pecking order. Brewer could have moved up into the top ten but we’ll never know that. We do know he would have gone before the clock started ticking down for the sixteenth pick.

To go meant they would have been instant millionaires, financially set for life. To come back meant they were risking everything. What happens if their games collectively go south this year? What happens if one or more of them has a serious injury? What if? What if? What if? You can think of dozens of scenarios that aren’t conducive to long term financial security and the good life that the NBA offers.

But they came back and one of the chief reasons they came back is they love the team so much they want to see if they can repeat as NCAA champs. They love the atmosphere on game day at the O-Dome. They love the camaraderie of a team that’s like a band of brothers, inseparable and totally committed to one another. They love the University of Florida. They love being college students. Most of all, they love Billy Donovan.

Billy’s too modest to take the credit, but at the foundation of why three of the Fab Four scorned the NBA to be the boys of old Florida for one more year is because they love Billy Donovan. And Donovan showed us all why that’s so when he met the media Monday afternoon.

Donovan said a long term contract is in the works but now isn’t the time to sign it. When it’s all typed up and ready for a signature, you can bet the farm that Billy Donovan will be locked up for a long, long run in Gainesville and if anyone is higher paid, you’ll be able to count him on one finger. But it isn’t about money. It isn’t about incentives to stay.

It’s about integrity. It’s about remembering that he never would ask his players to do something he wouldn’t do.

“I think the one thing that our basketball team did is they really sacrificed,” said Donovan, “and after we won a national championship one of the things I said was that it’s not about me. It’s about our program. It’s a lot bigger than me and really, I told Jeremy I wanted to wait and that is not at all a reflection on my feelings towards the University of Florida. I love this place. I’m totally committed to this place. I want to be here but there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel right when I see some of our players make sacrifices like they did financially to come back and to play here for me then for me to take advantage of what happened to our basketball team this year. So for me right now, I’m going to sign a long term contract but I’m going to do it at the right time.”

The right time will be in the future, probably a few months down the road. With some of the ego-driven personalities out there in the coaching ranks, this would be considered a publicity stunt to project a false sense of humility. With Donovan, it’s just the way he is. He really is about living in the moment and at this moment he’s not comfortable taking center stage while the luster of the 2006 championship hasn’t worn off yet.

He says he looks at the way his guys sacrificed financially to keep the team intact for one more year and sees a bad signal if he goes ahead and signs a lucrative new deal. The money’s nice. The security’s great. The signal’s not right, though. Not now.

“There’s a part of me that doesn’t feel right when I see some of our players make sacrifices like they did financially to come back and to play here for me to then take advantage of what happened to our basketball team this year,” he said. “So for me right now, I’m going to sign a long term contract but I’m going to do it at the right time.

“I have an opportunity as a coach to say that I have a group of guys that made a bunch of sacrifices and came back and wanted to play here together. It’s not about me making the sacrifice. It’s more about me letting those guys know that it’s not about me. They don’t need to see me signing a big long term contract and benefiting off our team success.”

He is well aware that there are columnists all over the country ready to state it as undeniable fact that Billy Donovan is either holding out for more dough or giving himself the opening he needs to take the Kentucky job in the event that Tubby bolts or the New York Knicks job when the powers that be at that NBA franchise admit what they knew all along, that Isaiah Thomas can’t coach a lick.

For all we know, Tubby could bolt. Unlikely, but it could happen. Tubby Smith is a fine coach and an even better man. If he leaves Kentucky, he’ll leave when he’s got the program in great shape for whoever replaces him. But Kentucky being Kentucky means you’re never all that far away from putting the pieces together for a run at a national title. There aren’t many jobs like that and it’s doubtful he leaves, but when he does, Billy Donovan’s name will be in the headlines and at least one “inside source” will claim the deal’s all but done for Billy D to leave Florida for a serious basketball school.

As for Isaiah, it’s only fair that he is forced to coach the mess that he created as the general manager. Of course, he can’t coach a lick and that means he’ll get canned at some point during or shortly after the next NBA season which means the moment he’s outta there, Billy Donovan’s name will be on the short list of every columnist and analyst.

At least one of those jobs will be open but that doesn’t mean Billy Donovan will be interested in the slightest. Flattered that he would be considered? Yes. But leave? No. He’ll be at Florida next year and for years to come. Bet on it.

“I am totally committed,” said Donovan. “I would love to be here at the University of Florida as long as this administration and Jeremy Foley and the school want me here.”

Just give it a little while. The contract will be there when he’s ready to sign and it will be long term and as lucrative as any contract in all of college basketball. The money will be nice but it’s not about the money nor has it ever been about the money. He’s happy here and one of the reasons he’s happy is because he can lead like he did last season and young men will follow. And probably, at some time in the future there will be others that want to stay another year just to play for Billy.

That’s respect. All the money in the world can’t buy that.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.