The week that was: A look back

Maybe the best thing to do is steal a line from Harvard professor Tom Lehrer whose record album “That Was the Week That Was” from the 1960s is still a classic. Starting with the turmoil that began with Billy Donovan signing a contract with the Orlando Magic and ended a week later with the announcement that Billy D was back where he belongs at the University of Florida, we have a week that will forever rank among the Florida athletic classics. So with all due respect for Professor Lehrer, here’s a take on the last seven days and Florida’s “Week That Was.”

It was a roller coaster week where emotions were stretched to their absolute limits. Each day had a new revelation. Each moment, it seemed, packed more intrigue that we’ve been used to in the 11-year tenure of Billy Donovan. Finally, when it was all over and Donovan had officially returned to the University of Florida, it was a time to reflect on what had happened.

Here are four different reactions from four of the principles that played out this soap opera from beginning to end.

FOLEY’S REACTION: Jeremy Foley never gave any hints Thursday morning after the Billy Donovan press conference. He answered all the questions about Donovan and you knew he had to be ecstatic about the return of his prodigal coach but he kept a subdued tone throughout. Nobody knew that Foley was gearing up for another press conference, this one not so happy, later in the day. As happy as he had to be that Billy Donovan was back as his basketball coach, he had to be torn up inside that he was going to be announcing that Pat McMahon would not be back as the baseball coach at the University of Florida.

Foley kept his focus during the post-press conference questioning and he was careful to gear down his enthusiasm for Donovan’s return, probably because he understands what Orlando Magic president Bob Vander Weide had gone through during this tumultuous seven days. It was pretty obvious that Foley was feeling Vander Weide’s pain and the pain of the entire Orlando Magic fan base.

“Our basketball coach is back and obviously, he’s a very, very good one, but like Billy, you’re not going to be too euphoric about this because a lot of people have been impacted by this and certainly the Magic first and foremost and their fans and their management,” said Foley. “They’ve been hurt by this. I’m not going to get excited about this and neither is Billy about someone else’s pain and hurt.”

Later that afternoon Foley had to deal with the hurt and pain of dismissing McMahon, whose last two seasons of inconsistency finally over-rode all the points he scored for taking the Gators to the NCAA championship game just two years ago. Two years ago, McMahon was being hailed as the guy that proves nice guys can finish first. Thursday, Foley had to tell everybody that it wasn’t good enough to be a nice guy — you also have to win and win with a reasonable amount of consistency to hold onto your job.

As the athletic director and CEO of the Florida athletic program, Foley is often under-appreciated by fans, boosters and the media. He’s the guy given the charge of making all the tough calls and that means sometimes you have to tell a nice guy that his time is up. He understands better than anyone gives him credit that lives are disrupted when changes are made, but if you’re going to demand excellence in every phase of the athletic program, then you have to draw a line in the dirt sometimes and say this is the end of the road.

When Foley makes the right call — like the one he made 11 years ago to hire Billy Donovan or the one a couple of years ago when he landed Urban Meyer — everybody is ready to proclaim him as a genius. When one of his decisions turns out not quite up to standard, then Foley is the one that has to make the tough call and Foley is the one that ultimately will take the heat. It’s obvious he doesn’t enjoy making the tough calls but it’s part of the job and you’ll never hear him pass the buck and blame someone else. He’s quick, for example, to give Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer credit for winning national championships rather than take any credit for his role in bringing them here in the first place. He’s also the first one to take the heat and absorb the blame when one of his hires, like Carolyn Peck (women’s basketball coach; fired in late February) or McMahon doesn’t produce.

Foley’s been on the job as Florida’s athletic director for 15 years. He’s relied on his own time-proven methods for hiring and firing folks, but more importantly, he’s shown that he has the necessary instincts for building a championship program. His track record shows plenty of outstanding choices but there are a few misses along the way. Nobody’s perfect, but is there an athletic director in the country that has made as many good decisions as Foley has in the past 15 years?

One columnist speculated that it would take a long time for Billy Donovan to regain trust after the events of the past week. Perhaps that would be a problem with other athletic directors. Obviously, it’s not a problem for Foley, who has always maintained that trust plays a big part in his decision making process.

“People are allowed to make mistakes,” Foley said. “I think because he’s a high profile coach, a high profile person and high profile personality that maybe he shouldn’t make mistakes but he’s a human being. Some people might hold that against you but when you make a mistake and apologize and take responsibility that’s all you can ask for a guy.

“The way I feel about him hasn’t changed one iota.”

People talk about the pressure that’s on every coach to succeed at Florida, and certainly, if you don’t win here, you’re going to be gone, but Foley succeeds because he knows when to trust, who to trust, and as part of the trust process, how to forgive.

If you want to know the secret of his success, that’s it right there. He’s done a brilliant job in his 15 years at Florida because there isn’t an athletic director in the country that takes more time to know his people than Foley.

THE ROCK OF GIBRALTAR: When Billy Donovan signed the contract with the Orlando Magic, one of the first things he did was ensure that Larry Shyatt would be coming along with him. Shyatt has been on the Florida staff three years and look at the track record: three SEC Tournament championships (first three in Florida history) and back-to-back NCAA championships. It’s not an accident that the Gators started winning championships when Larry Shyatt was added to the staff. Not only is he the best defensive coach in the nation, bar none, he is the tough guy that Donovan needs to balance things out.

Players like Joakim Noah call him “Papa” because he’s like a dad to them. Shyatt is 55 years old and he’s been there, done that so many times before that handling a crisis is nothing new. That’s why he was so valuable to Donovan in the days of limbo. Shyatt was rock steady, an anchor who held solid and helped Donovan see things clearly.

“Billy understood how many people were affected and in many cases, ill-affected,” said Shyatt Thursday morning. “I just wanted to be a sounding block and hopefully a voice of experience when he needed it. We’ve all, once we hit a certain age, hit a crossroads and Billy Donovan hit a crossroads and handled it the best way he could.

“Quite honestly, all of us have the opportunity when we hit a crossroad to go one of two ways. When Billy hit his crossroad, his professionalism, his dignity and the way he tried to right the wrong was in fact the most professional way that he could have done it. There are so many others would have taken what was being offered because of what was being offered and hidden their inner feelings.”

What was offered was $27.5 million for five years. The easy thing to do for Donovan would have been to take the money even when he had the misgivings about the job and as Shyatt says, the doubts hit like a linebacker less than a day into the new deal.

“Less than one day,” said Shyatt. “I’m not sure this would have been a story if he had not been asked to sign a contract the first day. Sometimes that’s protocol and sometimes not. In my case I didn’t sign a contract at the University of Wyoming for almost two months so after two months I signed my contract. I think it would have been far less professional for me if I had hit my crossroads two months into it than for Billy. His happened less than a day after.

“He understood what he had done, then he went about righting what he felt was a wrong. He feels sincerely sorry but I also feel he followed his heart and he tried to right the wrong and make the next best adult decision. I compliment him for taking full responsibility. He showed what he’s made of by doing the right thing.”

What makes Larry Shyatt so unique is that he is as tough a man as you can imagine, yet at the same time, he’s the most soft-hearted guy you will ever meet. He’s the guy that took all the calls and determined who would and wouldn’t have access to Donovan until it was clear that he could return to Florida. He’s also the guy whose heart was breaking every single moment for his dear friend. Florida basketball is better off because Larry Shyatt is Billy Donovan’s right hand man.

OUT OF LIMBO: A few days before Billy Donovan signed the contract with the Magic, he succeeded in finally luring Rob Lanier to the Florida staff. Donovan tried to hire Lanier off the Virginia staff in 2006 when Anthony Grant left Florida to take the head coaching job at VCU. Lanier stayed put but this year, he couldn’t resist.

Even when he took the Florida job, he knew the NBA might be calling Donovan but it was a risk he was willing to take.

“His interest in the NBA from what I understand has been fairly well — don’t know if it’s been documented or not but it’s certainly been alluded to over the last few days — so it was a question that I had for him and I was totally satisfied with the response I got,” said Lanier, who says he came to Gainesville with his eyes wide open and prepared for anything.

Lanier has been a head coach and he’s been a successful assistant coach. He’s been fired as a head coach and he’s made career moves as an assistant, so he’s familiar with the turbulence of the coaching profession.

“I think when you come into this business, there is a certain expectation that you have to be prepared for the unexpected,” he said. “It’s easier for coaches to deal with it but a little bit tougher when you’re dealing with your family. I think the limbo weighed more heavily on my wife and our children. From a professional standpoint, I didn’t feel that I was hanging in the wind. From a practical standpoint — where are we going to be and how will we get settled — those things certainly weighed more heavily on my wife.”

Lanier was on his way to the basketball offices at Virginia to clean out his desk when he heard the news on the radio that Donovan was talking to the Orlando Magic. He wasn’t surprised and his first reaction was to call his wife.

“As soon as I heard it I called my wife and explained to her the potential that they might find him attractive,” Lanier said. “I did not know anything at the time and I was trying to put two and two together. As it turns out he was the guy they had targeted.

“My wife and I started to talk about it somewhere between the announcement of Brian Hill was made and the time that Billy made the announcement so we had prepared ourselves for the whole uncertainty. We had a little bit of lead time to prepare ourselves for it. We didn’t just wake up and hear about the Magic press conference taking place. It was something we were already talking about and following.”

Lanier’s first concern wasn’t with himself or his family — he had the assurances of Jeremy Foley and Billy Donovan that everything would work out well — but instead it was with the people at Florida whose lives were about to be disrupted.

“At the time he made the decision, my stance was to back up as much as I could because I think there was a lot of people here that have so much invested in the program, invested in Billy and vice versa,” said Lanier. “I thought the attention should be paid more to those people first and that Billy and I would talk at a time when it’s more appropriate.”

Lanier also took a moment to clarify his family tree a bit. Everybody has assumed for years that he’s the son of former college All-American (at St. Bonaventure) and NBA great Bob Lanier. Bob Lanier’s given name is Robert. Rob Lanier’s given name is Robert. Rob Lanier went to St. Bonaventure and coached there. Everybody always assumes it was a like father, like son deal.

“Cousin,” Lanier clarified with a smile. “He’s my cousin. He’s been called my uncle, my dad, everything but the right thing. It’s cousin.”

Bob Lanier was 6-11, 285 pounds with legendary size 22 feet.

“Half that for me,” said Lanier, who claims that Bob got the size and the brains. “Actually, he got the brains too and I’m not all that sure that I got the good looks. He’s a good looking guy!”

A LEADER EMERGES: During the season there was talk that he was unhappy with his playing time and that he was having troubles adjusting to college class work. There was message board speculation that he was seriously unhappy with the University of Florida. Everybody had a theory about Marreese Speights, the 6-10, 255-pound freshman who played well in limited action off the bench for the Gators last season.

The fact is he worked through the frustrations of limited playing time because he saw himself getting better every day in practice going against the likes of Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Chris Richard. As for the academics, he adjusted to the higher level of difficulty and passed all his classes. He’s taking summer courses, hoping to get a head start on his sophomore year academically now.

What came as a surprise was how Speights handled Donovan signing the contract with the Magic. He didn’t panic. He didn’t threaten to transfer out. Instead, he became a team leader and decided he was one who was capable of rallying the troops. First thing was to make sure that his current teammates were okay with the change. Then he got on the phone and started calling the five incoming recruits.

“I felt like the class coming in was lost, so I called them and let them know that we’re going to be okay,” said Speights. “They know I’m coming back and that I’m going to be one of the leaders on the team. I called them and talked to them and let them know that we’re going to be okay, no matter what happens. I told them we’re here. We’re Gators and we’re the best for a reason. I told them we’ll have a good coach. Well, it turns out that Coach Donovan is still our coach, but I knew that we’d have a good one no matter what happened. I let them know that nothing changes. We’re still the Florida Gators. We’re still the team that has won two straight championships in a row.”

Speights likes the measure of respect he gained during this ordeal. He likes the fact that he was a calming influence and someone teammates looked up to during a potential crisis.

“It feels good to be a leader,” he said. “I’ve been trying to do that all my life and now I have a chance to do that for this program. I want everyone to know that I’m going to do my best for my team and my coaches and my teammates. I’m a guy they can count on.”

Speights knows the Gators will be young but he warns anyone that would dismiss their chances or take them lightly.

“Nothing has changed,” he said. “He [Donovan] is still our coach and he’s the best coach in the country. Two years ago nobody knew about those guys and they won. Nobody will know about us this year but we’re going to work hard and do what he says and grow up. In the end, we’ll show everybody we’re still the Florida Gators. We’re still the same team only different faces. The championship still goes through here.”

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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.