Donovan left dream job to grasp for pro glory

Originally Published: May 31, 2007
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

I sincerely hope Billy Donovan doesn't wind up like all the others.

I hope he's not the next Tark, the next John Calipari, the next Tim Floyd, the next Lon Kruger, the next Mike Montgomery. I hope he doesn't follow the same failed path as his mentor, Rick Pitino. I hope he doesn't wind up with his wind pipe being massaged by a player, like P.J. Carlesimo.

I hope he's not just another college coach who, for some reason, couldn't tolerate living with the happiness and success he built by hand, and chose the misery of losing in the NBA instead. I hope he's not the next in a conga line of call-up coaches who flop when taken out of their element.

I like Billy too much for that.

But I have my concerns.

Actually, I'm less concerned than I am mystified. Why, for college basketball coaches, is a great thing never good enough?

Billy Donovan is leaving a great thing at the University of Florida. He is leaving a program he built into the finest in the country, the winner of consecutive national championships, to chase the white whale of success in the NBA. He might wind up the next in a series of Ahabs.

He's abandoning the chance to be the next Mike Krzyzewski -- for my money the second-best coach in college hoops history -- for the chance to be the next Leonard Hamilton. Make no mistake: with two national titles at age 42, Donovan was on a flight plan toward immortality.

How many titles do you want to win, Billy? Three, which would put you on par with Kryzewski and Bob Knight? Four, which would tie you with Adolph Rupp? Why not go for five, leaving you ahead of everyone not named John Wooden?

Historic greatness was within his reach.

Instead he's chosen to grasp for glory in the pros.

And beyond the risk Donovan is taking with his own future is the sizeable impact upon college basketball as a whole. The game received a boost of adrenaline and talent when the NBA changed its draft rules and basically required that every American teenager play at least one year of college, but this sucks some of that juice back out of college ball.

Donovan becomes one more adult doing what the kids now do: Leaving behind the happiness of a true team environment on a campus for the mercenary life of The League.

The college to pro leap
Recent college coaches who have jumped to the pros,
with his NBA record there:
Billy Donovan, Florida
Orlando Magic, 2007-, ?
Mike Montgomery, Stanford
Golden State, 2004-06, 68-96
Leonard Hamilton, Miami
Washington, 2000-01, 19-63
Lon Kruger, Illinois
Atlanta, 2000-03, 69-122
Tim Floyd, Iowa State
Chicago, 1999-2001, 49-190
Rick Pitino, Kentucky
Boston, 1997-2001, 102-146
John Calipari, UMass
New Jersey, 1996-99, 72-114
It's true that the situation in Orlando is better than most college-to-NBA guys have inherited, but it's no slam dunk. The odds of continued success at Florida -- going to Final Fours and winning national titles -- are better than the odds of elevating the eighth-best franchise in the Eastern Conference from a losing record to an NBA title within the five-year span of Donovan's reported $27.5 million contract.

The money is great, of course. Staggering. But it's not as if Donovan were going to starve by staying at Florida. He most likely would have been the richest college coach in the country had he agreed to the contract extension that athletic director Jeremy Foley laid on the table.

Not good enough, apparently.

On Thursday, I heard a bunch of people say, "He's getting a ton of cash and if it doesn't work out, he can always go back to college coaching and get a good job."

Sure. You can always go back. But you cannot always (or perhaps ever) go back to The Perfect Job.

Donovan should probably ask two men he knows well -- Pitino and Steve Spurrier -- how much happiness their professional cash bought them amid all the losing. Misery trumped bank account in both instances. For men as competitive as they -- and Donovan -- are, defeat costs an emotional and psychological fortune.

And Donovan might want to ask how they feel now about forfeiting their spot at Camelot -- Pitino at Kentucky, Spurrier at Florida -- in exchange for starting over at a program of lesser stature years later.

Pitino has taken the Louisville Cardinals back to the Final Four, but it's been a tougher job there than it was in Lexington. Spurrier has taken South Carolina bowling, but he's never come close to a BCS game, and he's had to watch Urban Meyer take his old school all the way to the national championship.

Donovan had up-close-and-personal views of those two professional debacles. But like every other ego-stoked coach who has made the professional jump, he clearly assumes it will be different for him.

I hope it will be, for Donovan's sake. But he's abandoning a dream job for the chance to be another well-paid failure of a professional coach.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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