One era ends; another set to begin

Billy Donovan took the NBA money and ended an era at the University of Florida Thursday. As early as Friday, if everything goes according to some pretty well-sourced rumors that stretch from Richmond all the way down to Miami, a new era will begin at Florida and Anthony Grant will be faced with the task of carving out his own legend from the one that Billy D left behind.

One coach leaves. Another coach takes his place. That’s the way it goes in college athletics and by now we should be used to it. Coaches don’t stick around like they did in the past. Dean Smith spent 40 years of his life at the University of North Carolina. John Wooden was at UCLA for 30 years. Joe Paterno started coaching at Penn State before they had face guards on helmets and he’s still there. Eddie Robinson coached 50 years at Grambling.

In our hearts, we hoped Billy Donovan would be like one of those old guard coaches, someone that hung around long enough to coach the kids of the kids he coached in years past. He decided Thursday that he needed the challenge of the NBA more than he needs to stay at Florida forever so he leaves Gainesville on the wave of the greatest 11-year stretch of basketball in Gator history. For all practical purposes, Billy Donovan IS Gator basketball history — 261 wins, two national championships, three trips to the NCAA championship game, nine straight NCAA tournaments, three straight SEC Tournament championships, an outright SEC regular season championship and a couple of shared regular season titles.

But as history has taught us, things change. Every era has its shining moment and then another era begins.

Friday morning, Billy Donovan will be expected to explain why he needed the challenge of something new when he had all that history going for him at Florida. In Maitland, at the RDV Sports Complex that houses the Orlando Magic corporate offices and practice faciliites, and later in the day in Gainesville, at the University of Florida, Billy Donovan will be asked the same question, re-worded a hundred different ways.

Why? Why leave the place where you could stay till you die for a job that will probably be listed as the cause of death for several coaches that have tried to breathe life into a franchise that’s been in a death spiral ever since it chose to give all the money to Penny Hardaway instead of Shaq?

At Florida Billy Donovan brought the Gators from the basketball hinterlands to the streets paved with gold. In Orlando, they’re giving him gold and hoping that he will fill in the potholes in some pretty gnarly streets.

He will be very well compensated for this leap of faith — maybe $27.5 million doesn’t go quite as far as it used to but it still has a lot of buying power — and if he can’t duplicate college success at the pro level like his mentor Rick Pitino and John Calipari found out all too harshly, then he will return to the college game a very wealthy man, able to pick and choose from the top jobs in the country. If he succeeds and does the unthinkable for a franchise that has shot itself in the foot so many times that it walks on prosthetics, then Billy Donovan will have to be considered one of the great coaches of this or any other era.

(Photo by Tim Casey)

And maybe that’s the reason he’s taking on a new challenge. Maybe more than those buckets of money that have been tossed his way it is that challenge to do something nobody has done. That was the challenge at Florida 11 years ago and look what he did. You could successfully argue that what he did at Florida was far more difficult than anything he could ever do in Orlando. After all, he didn’t have Dwight Howard on his roster when he came to Gainesville 11 years ago, did he?

The Magic need Billy Donovan, too. Maybe that’s what was the deciding factor. Maybe they made him feel they need him far worse than Florida. When you’re best known as the franchise that let Shaq walk for a bum named Penny, you belong in the same class as the Boston Red Sox, who will always be remembered as the franchise that traded Babe Ruth. Babe became the greatest legend in baseball history in New York. Shaq won three championships in Los Angeles and he’s won another one in Miami. Shaq also is a legend.

The Magic? They made one NBA final when they had Shaq. They haven’t come close since he left.

Penny Hardaway? He’s a curse wherever he’s been. He led a players’ revolt that sent Brian Hill packing — the first time; the second time was last week when he got canned again — and ever since he’s bounced from one team to another, leaving nothing but bad feelings at his last address.

Only time will tell if Billy Donovan will be able to “Reverse the Curse” in Orlando. He’s got his reasons why he’s taking that gig and don’t blame him for leaving Gainesville. He took Florida to places the Gator Nation only dared to dream about and he leaves behind a program that has the door wide open for someone to continue the successful path that he forged.

So do the right thing. Wish Billy Donovan the best and don’t hold it against him that he wanted to try something else. Wish him Godspeed and good luck. Thank him for what he accomplished here and pray that he’ll find peace, contentment and satisfaction at the next job.

While you’re about it, say a prayer for Anthony Grant. Everything and everybody says it will be an upset of epic proportions if anyone else is selected Florida’s next head coach. Anthony knows Gainesville and the University of Florida well. He’s the smart choice to take over for Billy. Even though he has just one year of head coaching experience at VCU, he proved that he can win a championship and he proved that he can get a team ready to play in and win big games — you do remember what he did to Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament this year, don’t you?

He already knows the kids on the team since he was at least partially responsible for most of them coming to Florida. He’s young, he’s a winner, he’s well spoken and he’s a dynamite recruiter. Kids will respond to him.

Grant has everything going for him but just because he has everything going for him doesn’t mean this job is going to be easy. Replacing a legend is never an easy task. Replacing two legends is monumental.

Legend number one is the legend of Billy Donovan. Those are big shoes to fill but Grant has the kind of calm demeanor and purpose in everything he does that somehow, you feel the fit will be snug and comfortable.

Overcoming legend number two could prove to be far more difficult. He will have to replace the same starting five that won two straight national championships, the only time that’s been done in NCAA history. Noah, Horford, Brewer, Green and Humphrey have a place in NCAA history. They are legends and they are going to be replaced by Hodge, Speights, Werner, Calathes, Powell, Parsons, Mitchell, Lucas, Tyus and Allen. Those guys aren’t exactly household names and they aren’t exactly tested veterans but it’s not a group that lacks for talent either. It is hard to imagine that there could be a younger team in all of college basketball than next year’s Florida Gators, but there will be plenty of teams that would die for the kind of talent that Anthony Grant will have in his first year at the Florida helm.

If he plays his cards right, Grant can turn youth and familiarity into precious allies. Given the task he faces, he will need a few good allies. In his favor is that he won’t have to come to Gainesville with a salesman’s attitude. He doesn’t have to sell these guys on a system that’s polar opposite of what they’ve been brought up in. The five veterans played this system last year. The five newbies will adapt. When it comes to familiarity, just remember that Grant was involved in the recruiting process of every one of these kids, even Jai Lucas although that was a couple of years ago when Grant was a Florida assistant. All these kids know Grant well so this should be a very smooth transition and that could be a very nice edge.

There will be holes to fill and that will require a master recruiter’s touch but Grant learned from the best in the business — Billy Donovan — so he’s got a leg up there, too. As for recruiting the class of 2008, losing Donovan could hurt somewhat in that the lure of playing for a coach that’s been there and done that when it comes to winning national championships is gone, but given Grant’s past recruiting success, there shouldn’t be a significant drop off. He will roll up his sleeves, work hard and win over the hearts and minds of kids and parents alike.

Only time will tell if Billy Donovan made the right move to leave Florida for the NBA. It takes no time at all to know that Jeremy Foley will make the right move by hiring Anthony Grant. If we have to change eras at the University of Florida, then this is the guy that needs to take the baton.

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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.