ST. LOUIS, MO — The Florida band is blaring away, the Gators are celebrating and Dr. Bernie Machen is soaking it all in, savoring yet another championship. He’s gotten used to this in the last couple of years and the University of Florida president looks like he’s grown rather accustomed to watching the Gators celebrate after championship games.
Surrounded by reporters, Machen answers questions with a grin on his face as he watches the Gators hoist the Midwest Region championship trophy. It’s obvious that Coach Billy Donovan’s basketball team is one of his favorites.
It’s also obvious that Donovan is his kind of guy. Machen likes Billy because he represents the university the way it’s supposed to be represented. He likes it that Billy’s players go to class, make good grades and graduate.
He also likes the way they have come back from a national championship to put themselves in contention for a repeat. It hasn’t been easy for the Gators, not with all the hype and unrealistic expectations, but they’ve fought through all the adversity to get to the Final Four a second straight year.
“As far as I can tell, and I’m not right on top of it, they’ve never succumbed to pressure, even during the three-game losing streak,” said Machen. “There was never any back and forth. They were all in it together and they just worked their way through it. You have to believe that the tougher it gets, the better our chances are.”
The team is so good because it’s a reflection of Donovan and all that he stands for. That translates into a model basketball program and it translates into winning — try nine straight 20-plus win seasons, two straight 30-plus win seasons, three straight SEC Tournament titles, three SEC titles, nine straight NCAA Tournaments, three Final Fours, two championship games and one NCAA title. That kind of puts Billy Donovan on your short list of the best coaches in the nation. Everybody would love to have Billy heading up their program, especially the winningest school in college basketball history, but only the Florida Gators have him and Bernie Machen intends to make sure that Florida has him for a long, long time. Machen knows Kentucky will come calling and he’s got no problems with that.
“He owes it to himself to look at the Kentucky job,” said Machen.
He figures Billy will look. He expects Billy to look. He’s aware of the history between Billy Donovan and the University of Kentucky.
He’s also aware that the history between Billy Donovan and the University of Florida positively dwarfs those years Billy spent as an assistant coach to Rick Pitino in Lexington. Billy Donovan has spent 11 years building the Florida program into one that’s surpassed Kentucky as the best in the Southeastern Conference. He has the Gators two games away from a second straight NCAA championship and that’s something no team has done since Duke pulled it off 15 years ago.
Donovan and Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley have been working on a re-written, extended contract to replace the one that pays him $1.7 million a year. Donovan could have signed a brand new contract last year but when Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer turned down millions of NBA dollars to come back and play for free one more year, Donovan didn’t think it was appropriate to take the big bucks.
Now, just because he deferred doesn’t mean there was any discontent between Billy and the university. Nor does it mean that Billy’s looking for the first call from Big Blue to bail out on the Gator Nation. The new and improved contract isn’t in the works.
“We’ve had conversations [about the contract] and we know where we stand,” said Machen, who said there is a level of trust between Foley and Donovan that will make finishing up the deal just a matter of when, not if.
Kentucky will probably make a very big play for Donovan. Although nobody from the Kentucky athletic department has said anything publicly, you don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the shed to figure out that Donovan will be the first target.
When Tubby Smith walked out on the Wildcats this past Thursday, he left a contract that pays more than $2 million a year. Considering Florida’s new contract with Donovan will probably pay at least what Tubby was making at Kentucky — and probably more — you have to figure that Kentucky will call on Donovan with an offer that might make him the highest paid basketball coach in the nation by a fairly wide margin.
Machen knows the Big Blue nation has deep pockets.
“I am sure Kentucky — if that’s who they want — will make him an incredible offer,” said Machen. “We have our own ways to make our own offer and we have the Florida fans.”
The Florida fans, like Machen, want Billy Donovan to remain a Gator for a long, long time.
“We want what’s best for Billy and we think that’s the University of Florida,” Machen said.
Kentucky may roll out the Brinks truck to get Billy, but Machen isn’t worried.
“We’re not going to lose him to anybody,” he said.