ORLANDO– That could have been the dateline for many stories printed in newspapers and posted online about Billy Donovan’s coaching career.
As he sat at the podium in the Amway Center practice gym turned NCAA media workroom for the week, it could have been his work area. Banners hang commemorating two NBA southeast division championships, and an Eastern Conference championship, what if they were his? Maybe there would be more mementoes to former center Dwight Howard in the Magic’s palace of a basketball arena if Donovan could have convinced the center to stick around for a few more years instead of bolting for another team. These are all ifs, and as the lyric goes in the 2005 Mistah F.A.B. song goes “If if was a fifth then we’d all be drunk.”
It was perfect timing back in the summer of 2007; Donovan was the hot name in coaching, still young, fresh off two national championships, and at the top of his profession. Alabama’s Anthony Grant was all but hired to replace him, and the Magic reportedly waved $27.5 million over five years in Donovan’s face. Donovan left, and then of course, –famously– he didn’t, altering the course of both basketball programs.
“Personally this was very difficult for me because my 11 years at Florida were a very great 11 years,” Donovan said at his news conference that Friday morning in 2007. “But I really looked at myself in a couple of aspects; one, the easy decision for me personally would have been to stay at Florida, or the next step would be to do something that would really challenge me as a person and coach and help me grow and get better.”
There were discussions that led him to that decision. Including one with his former head coach and mentor Rick Pitino. Pitino himself had made the leap as a successful head coach with a crystal basketball in the trophy cabinet to the big leagues of the Association, and it didn’t go well. He resigned in 2001 after his second stint as an NBA head coach produced no more than 36 wins in any one season, and no playoff berths. The man who says he regards Donovan as a son spoke from experience, and gave him interesting advice at the time.
“My opinion at the time to him was to stay put,” Pitino said. “I think Billy made the right move for the right reasons. That doesn’t mean that down the road some day he may change his mind, but at that time he made the move for the right reasons, and you’ve always got to go with your heart.”
That piece of advice made Pitino an outlier. He said at the time Donovan’s wife and father both supported a move to the pros and that he was only person in Billy’s inner circle that didn’t. He wouldn’t directly answer a question about whether he thinks Donovan would try to go pro or not again but he trusts that he’d do well, comparing him to former Butler and current Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
After he was announced as the Magic’s head man, Donovan’s gut started talking to him, the next day he got UF’s athletic director Jeremy Foley on the phone and by Wednesday of the next week he had officially switched out his black and blue for orange and blue. Seven years later, he looked back on that time in his life.
“For me it seems like a long time ago,” Donovan said. “Great organization, it’s a great place. You know, but for me, like I said, it was just something internally I felt like this was where I needed to be…I’m excited that I’m still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I’m happy that making that decision there’s been a lot of things that I’ve had a chance to experience in.”
He started coaching because of the basketball part of the job, that’s where the intrigue about the NBA sparked. In the NBA it’s basketball 24/7 you don’t make relationship with recruits over a several years, you don’t sit in stuffy un-air-conditioned high school gyms, or have to deal with a 19 year old that wants to leave school early to go chase NBA millions. It’s a different ball game on the college level, and Donovan plays it better than most.
He’s in a good spot, at a football school, shielded from the complete spotlight and sometimes even boosted when the athletic pursuits on the gridiron don’t go as planned, like in 2014. He’s also supported by the school, something he says fellow coaches in the state complained about when he started at UF.
With all his success at Florida and the overall No. 1 seed in the 2014 tournament, Donovan neglected to speak in concrete terms about his future, leaving it open ended.
“When you say a lifer,” Donovan said. “That means to me I’m never, every going to go anywhere and be there. Who knows? They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don’t like coming out making bold predictions or statements. I would say right now I’m extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”
As long as he keeps winning near his current pace, the University of Florida will stay happy with him too, maybe even happy enough to let Pitino experience something he’s dreamed about.
“You know, it’s always been not a dream of Billy’s but a dream of mine to see a court named Billy Donovan Court,” Pitino said. “I thought it would happen a while ago, to see his name on the court. I still very much want to see that some day because of what he’s meant to Gator basketball. “