Donovan’s Choice Was To Go With His Heart

For the past two weeks we’ve heard all the stories that have flown fast and furious out of Lexington, Kentucky: Billy Donovan signed a multi-year, bazillion-dollar contract with the University of Kentucky; Christine Donovan was in Lexington, looking at mansions; Billy Donovan cured cancer; Billy could tell us who is the father of Ana Nicole Smith’s baby.

Why just Thursday morning, Kentucky fan sites were abuzz with stories that Billy Donovan to Kentucky as the new basketball coach was no longer a matter of if, but simply a matter of when and when was sooner, not later, probably Friday at the latest but more likely Thursday afternoon. Television stations said they had it confirmed by multiple sources within the Kentucky athletic department and “insiders” were accepting congratulations for their sleuthy efforts to get to the bottom of this story.

There was only one problem.

None of it was true.

Since it is Good Friday, a time when all of us should reflect on the life of one who never told a lie, we should remember his words in John 8:32: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Here is the truth: Billy Donovan was a Florida Gator, is a Florida Gator and intends to be a Florida Gator for a long, long time. Here are a few more nuggets of truth: (1) Billy Donovan never had to say no to Kentucky because he never gave Mitch Barnhardt a chance to offer him the job; (2) Billy Donovan’s first contact with Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhardt was Thursday morning and it was more of a courtesy call than anything else; and (3) over the past couple of weeks, while all the rumors were flying around that a Donovan to Kentucky deal was either done or imminent, Billy told his basketball team that he was staying in Gainesville.

Since we now that we know the truth, then the freest people on earth must reside in Lexington and wherever the Big Blue Nation gathers.

Two things happened Thursday morning. Billy Donovan accepted a phone call from Mitch Barnhardt, the Kentucky athletic director, and he had a conversation with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. The conversation with Barnhardt, who asked for and received permission to speak with Donovan on Wednesday, was pleasant but it never involved an actual job offer or any kind of talk about what it would take to get Billy to consider bolting Florida for Kentucky. The conversation with Foley was affirmation that he’s staying at Florida.

“When I did speak to Mitch, we never discussed the job being offered to me,” said Donovan at a Thursday afternoon press conference where he affirmed his plan to sign a lengthy contract with the University of Florida after he returns from vacation with his family in the Dominican Republic. “We never discussed a financial package. None of that stuff was ever discussed. I think Mitch’s main reason for the phone conversation was to find out where my interest level was.”

It didn’t take long for Barnhardt to find out where Donovan’s interest lies. That’s in Gainesville, the same place you’ll find his heart.

This wasn’t about money. It never was. He could have demanded a Star Wars contract out of Mitch Barnhardt and the Kentucky people would have ponied up as much cash as needed to satisfy Donovan’s demands.

He could ask for a record-breaking contact from Jeremy Foley and Dr. Bernie Machen, too. Considering two national championships in the last two years, do you think for a second that they won’t find the keys to the vault and open it up if that’s what it takes to make Billy happy? They know all too well that coaches of Billy Donovan’s caliber don’t grow on trees. When you’ve got one this good, you don’t haggle over money, you just ante up when the time comes.

But money wasn’t the issue and Billy wasn’t going to open the door for Florida and Kentucky to engage in some sort of bidding war. That wouldn’t work either.

“It never came down to dollars and cents,” said Donovan. “There’s never been any money discussed. I didn’t think it was right or appropriate to have both schools going back and forth. I felt like I needed to make a decision of what was going to make me happy. That’s how the whole process unfolded. Kentucky’s a great program with great tradition. I think Mitch is a terrific athletic director, and they have great fans. I just felt like at this time in my life the best thing for me was the University of Florida.”

What mattered most to Donovan was being happy and working with people that he trusts. He’s happy in Gainesville. He said that over and over again Thursday. He’s also happy at the University of Florida, where he’s been given free reign to build a basketball program in his own image. It’s taken him 11 years to take Florida from a wannabe to the program that everyone else wants to be.

At one point in time you could have said Kentucky or North Carolina or Duke or UCLA is the top of the mountain, but that’s ancient history. Look at what’s happened in the last seven years. Florida’s been in the NCAA championship game three times and the Gators have won the national championship the last two years.

The only time Kentucky ever won back to back championships was 1948-49. North Carolina’s never done it. Duke did it in 1991-92. The last time UCLA went back to back, Billy Donovan was seven years old.

When it comes to trust, Donovan has an unparalleled relationship with Foley that goes well beyond your typical AD-coach relationship. Foley saw something in Donovan 11 years ago that led him to take a chance on a 30-year-old with just two years of head coaching experience. Foley has never wavered in his support for Donovan and Donovan has never once betrayed Foley’s trust.

Here’s a cold, hard fact for you. Billy Donovan has NEVER once expressed an interest in another job nor has he ever accepted an interview for another job and that includes Kentucky, 2007. That’s what you call loyalty.

Loyalty is the reason that Billy Donovan let Mitch Barnhardt know he isn’t interested Thursday morning and it’s the reason he hasn’t given his boss a list of outrageous demands. In this play me or trade me world of big time sports, this is unheard of.

“Jeremy (Foley) and I met this morning, and before he and I talked about contracts or anything, I told him that I wanted to be at Florida,” said Donovan. “This is where I wanted to be. I am committed to being here. We had talked some parameters about the contract and I didn’t make a decision to come back here based on the contract. I made the decision to come back here based on relationships and the way I feel about this school.”

He went on to say that he trusts Foley and Dr. Machen and that he’s not the least bit worried about what will be in that finalized contract that he will sign at some point in the near future.

“I have no doubt that Jeremy is going to get something done that I will be very happy with,” said Donovan. “I feel good abut that. I trust Jeremy, I trust Dr. Machen and I trust the school. I feel I have always been treated very fairly here, I’ve always been treated very well here and I know that Jeremy will get to work and do what he needs to do. I am very comfortable with where things are right now, and I need to wait for when things are comfortable with Jeremy. It’s on him. It’s not on me and when all is said and done, I will be pleased.”

* * *

Things got emotional when Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah announced that they’ll go to the NBA Thursday afternoon instead of staying for their senior year at Florida. Noah never cried but he darn near bit a hole in his lip. Brewer looked to the ceiling as he tried to fight back the tears. Green kept taking deep breaths, hoping to delay the inevitable. Horford didn’t try to fight. He just let the tears flow.

Donovan almost choked up watching his players fight off the emotions. He was moved that they hurt to leave Florida even though they knew in their hearts that it was time.

“I think if you want to know why we won, you can see the commitment on their faces,” said Donovan. “That’s why we won the last two years. It’s because of their love for one another, their love for the school, their love for their teammates. They’re emotional up here for each other but they’re emotional with the rest of the team, too. It’s not just these four guys, it’s the rest of the team. They’re going to miss Chris Richard and Lee Humphrey and Dan Werner and Walter (Hodge). It’s the whole team, but the reason these guys have won so big is because of the emotions they’re sharing right now. They’re being real and they’re expressing their emotions as a team. How many kids do you see that make an announcement to go to the NBA just break down and cry? Most kids are happy and joyful. That shows you the type of character I’ve had the opportunity to coach the last three years. They’re different kids, and I think that’s why we’ve won. We’ve been a team and it’s been all about team, and we’ve helped foster the team.”

Their three year record at Florida is 91-19 and it includes three Southeastern Conference Tournament championships, one SEC regular season championship, two NCAA regional championships and two NCAA titles. Florida won its last 18 games in the postseason with these four forming the backbone of the team.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime group of kids and it’s been a time to treasure for Gator fans. Selfishly, we would all love to see them come back to try for three in a row. UCLA (1967-73) is the only team to ever win more than two straight and if the 0-Fours came back, there’s every good chance Florida won make it three straight.

But what if they didn’t? What if they lost early in the NCAA Tournament?

We’ve all seen what happens in the tournament and we all know that great teams can get knocked off when they least expect it. If these guys came back and failed to win a third straight, there would always be detractors claiming that a truly GREAT team would have won three straight. In the eyes of far too many critics, if they came back and didn’t win, the legacy of the 0-Fours would forever be tarnished.

Maybe some of you can relate to this little remembrance that I’ll share with you.

I grew up thinking there was no greater player than Willie Mays but as he got older and his skills diminished he refused to leave baseball. He spent his last year with the Mets, a shell of the ball player he once was. The lasting memory that too many have of the Say Hey Kid is the old man kneeling at home plate in the ‘73 World Series, begging the umpire to call him safe on a play he would have scored on standing up five years before. I remembered the great Willie Mays but my final memory is him kneeling at home plate. He should have left the game when he was still on top.

If the 0-Fours stayed at Florida and they didn’t win, it would be like Willie at the World Series. I prefer it like this. They’re leaving when they’re on top. The lasting memory will be of those guys swaying to “One Shining Moment” at the Georgia Dome after they won their second straight national championship.

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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.