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Stories of College Basketball
Grant Wahl
December 31, 2007
Billy Donovan's Florida-NBA Flip-flop
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December 31, 2007

Stories Of College Basketball

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Billy Donovan's Florida-NBA Flip-flop

BILLY DONOVAN was finally alone. It was late on the evening of June 1, and all the difficult work was done: the press conferences announcing his departure from the University of Florida to coach the Orlando Magic, the meetings with Magic officials, the phone calls to his Florida players, bosses and staff. With a sigh Donovan collapsed into the chair in his home office, surrounded by the spoils of a triumphant career: photographs of his former players; knickknacks from his Final Four run in 1987 as a guard at Providence; magazine covers celebrating his Gators, one of only two Division I teams in the past 33 years to win back-to-back championships. "For the first time in days there was complete silence," Donovan says. "It was just me and this decision."

Four hours later he was still sitting there, thinking. On paper Donovan had every reason to take the Magic job. The 42-year-old was leaving the college game at the top, the youngest D-I men's coach since Bob Knight to own two titles. He'd be moving less than two hours away, a relatively easy transition for his family. He'd be joining an NBA team with a budding superstar ( Dwight Howard) and a bright future. He'd be putting himself in a position to achieve the pro success that eluded his mentor ( Rick Pitino) and another Florida legend ( Steve Spurrier). And, not least, he'd be earning $27.5 million over the next five years.

Donovan had always been a "paper guy," compulsively jotting his thoughts on a legal pad. Before last season he compiled a list under the heading of distractions, anticipating the challenges of repeating (such as "agents" and "media demands") with uncanny prescience. And so he'd weighed the pros and cons, college versus the NBA, and told Orlando he would accept its offer. "I made the right decision taking the Magic job—there's no doubt in my mind—on paper," Donovan says. "But writing those things down didn't get to the core of where I was. What I couldn't answer was this: Where am I supposed to be? What I never wrote down was where my heart was."

His heart, Donovan realized in his office that night, was in college basketball, in challenges like turning an unranked team of second-tier recruits into one of the greatest teams of all time. His heart was in Gainesville, where he and his wife, Christine, are raising their two sons and two daughters; where Donovan's father, Bill, who owns a textile business, lives and serves as an unofficial team elder; and where the Donovans have helped finance the construction of a new Catholic high school, the first of its kind in the city. Oh, there would be a price to pay for backing out on a signed contract: The Magic would stipulate that Donovan can't coach in the NBA for five years, his credibility would take a hit in some quarters, and the jokes would fly. Donovan would be roasted at a team banquet. (His favorite dance, he says, is the Hokey Pokey: "You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out....")

But when he changed his mind the next morning, Donovan realized he was finally at peace. He called the Magic with the news and an apology. "For 48 hours I had a disconnect between my head and my heart," he says six months later, after starting over with one of the nation's youngest teams.

Whenever an elite college coach turns down the NBA—whether it's Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo or North Carolina's Roy Williams—it's a positive sign for the sport as a whole. The best players shuffle through college so fast these days that the coaches become the symbols of stability, and of the game itself. By reconsidering his decision, the two-time defending national champion did his part to ensure that college basketball will stay healthy and strong.

Tennessee and UConn Call Off the War

THERE ARE sports rivalries, and there is what the Tennessee and Connecticut women's basketball teams have sustained over the last 13 years. Almost every one of their 22 meetings has been an epic of intensity and consequence, including four national title games, two Final Four semis, a regional final and 15 regular-season games (the teams met twice in the regular season in 2000 and '01), in which, more often than not, a No. 1 ranking was on the line. Since 1995 the two teams have won a combined nine national titles, many of them, satisfyingly, at the other's expense: Tennessee sealed two shortly after eliminating UConn; Connecticut claimed four of its five by beating Tennessee in the final.

It has been a great run that has elevated and expanded the sport, but the annual, circle-the-date part of it is over. The two teams may still meet up in the NCAA tournament, but their regular-season showdowns, which have all been broadcast on CBS or ESPN and have been consistently the highest-rated TV games of the season, are history. Tennessee ended the series last summer by declining to sign the two-year contract extension sent by Connecticut. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma told The Hartford Courant in September that Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt did so because she "hates my guts." Summitt has denied that but hasn't offered an explanation. "It's between the two programs," she says.

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