Donovan agonized over leaving Florida

Originally Published: June 1, 2007
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- Christine Donovan got the phone call while she was in Philadelphia with her daughter for a horse show.

She knew that she couldn't have the conversation over the phone. This was serious. Billy Donovan was being offered the Orlando Magic head coaching job. The money was staggering.

So, she went back to be with her husband at their vacation home on the east coast of Florida.

Donovan's conversations with the Magic continued over Memorial Day Weekend and into the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla. Finally, it had reached a point that required the two sides to meet face-to-face, so the Magic brass -- headed by general manager Otis Smith -- came to Donovan's home Wednesday night in Gainesville.

Every day, nearly every hour, Donovan flipped back and forth on what to do. He talked to his father, Bill Sr., his trusted confidant and good friend who has appeared at nearly every game Billy Donovan has played or coached during his 42 years on Earth. He talked to his father four or five times a day. Sometimes, he would be going to Orlando; sometimes he would be staying in Gainesville. The same thing occurred when he discussed the job with his good friends from Providence College, former teammate Ryan Ford and PC manager Bill Creamer.

He had long conversations with his former mentor and coach Rick Pitino of Louisville, former PC assistant Jeff Van Gundy and his brother Stan, both former NBA coaches.

Finally, on Thursday, Donovan took refuge in church. He needed to be alone to make the decision of leaving his comfort zone of Florida for the NBA and all of its riches.

"I needed clarity," said Donovan as he sat down with ESPN for a conversation after Friday's news conference introducing him as the Magic head coach at the RDV Sportsplex. "My initial reaction was to stay. But then I asked myself why? And [staying] was easier. If I don't take this job, then I don't have to talk to Jeremy Foley [the Florida athletic director] and the players. I was going to get paid a good salary and had a good life there. I just went back and forth.

"But then I asked myself, 'What do I really want?' I do want the challenge. That's what I wanted to do in my heart."

Donovan said he sat in church Thursday and said, "Billy, is this the challenge you want? Are you doing this because of ego getting involved? I had to process all of this. It took me time to process it and be at peace. The biggest thing in life is having regret and I never wanted to regret leaving the University of Florida."

"I don't know if I'm at peace, though my life just totally changed," Donovan said. "I know there are no guarantees. But my relationships are still so strong there that it made the break easier."

Donovan and Creamer both said that Christine Donovan had to sign off on this move. She is the one who runs the household. She takes care of shuffling around four children to their various activities. She offers the balance and wasn't going to endorse moving to another part of the country and uproot the family. That's why there was never a consensus in the Donovan clan to go to Kentucky earlier this spring or to look at NBA jobs in Memphis or Indiana (there was interest from the Pacers according to those close to Donovan).

But the transition to Orlando, the ability to keep his family in Gainesville -- where his parents, in-laws and sister all reside -- was an easy, logistical solution. They didn't have to move immediately and could take their time deciding when to transfer less than two hours away. The possibility of Donovan actually being home for dinner, and not having to constantly be on the phone or text messaging a recruit, was enticing to Christine and Billy.

"She said to me if you need to do this, then take the challenge," Billy Donovan said of his wife Christine.

Still, Donovan needed even more assurance. And it came from Pitino and Jeff Van Gundy, who told him how much he would love the NBA, the lifestyle, the ability to just coach. Donovan said how much Pitino reiterated that the Magic situation was perfect for him. The Magic have a young roster highlighted by a star center in Dwight Howard and a rising stud at point guard in Jameer Nelson. There was the potential that Grant Hill could return (he's deciding by July 1). There was the possibility of working with Darko Milicic (a restricted free agent) and Trevor Ariza. The team made the playoffs and is expected to have $10 million to $13 million of salary-cap space.

"I just felt like that if I didn't take it, this situation may not come around again," Donovan said. "I had to do a lot of soul searching on this."

Still, the clean break from Florida weighed heavily on him. Remember, no college coach that has gone to the NBA came back to the same college job.

Still, when the time came to tell Foley on Thursday, it was easily one of the toughest decisions of his life. Donovan said he looks back and sees how many great memories he has had -- from his time at Providence as a player to Kentucky as an assistant for five years to two years as a head coach at Marshall to the past 11 at Florida as head coach. With the Gators, he's reached three Final Fours and won the past two national championships. So when he met with Foley, he couldn't hold back. He cried.

"There were a lot of tears," Donovan said. "He gave me an opportunity and we did it together. There's a lot of working parts in it. Everybody was working together and we shared the vision and went through it together."

Earlier last month, during the reunion of the 1987 Providence Final Four team, Pitino said that he didn't want Donovan to leave Florida for Kentucky because he wanted him to enjoy the last two titles and then see his name on the court at the O'Connell Center.

"It's hard," Donovan said. "I know what I'm giving up. Jeremy never talked about the [name on the floor]. That was just out there. Who knows if we didn't do well the next five years, maybe they would be rubbing my name off the court. Those things are flattering but after you're around the hoopla, eventually that too comes to a close."

So he decided to move on, to create a new legacy, one that will once again try to prove people wrong who say a college coach can't win in the NBA. Donovan has done this thing many times, as a player, and as a head coach, been the guy who no one expects to succeed.

"It will be just like Florida where he'll figure it out," said UMass coach Travis Ford, who played under Donovan and Pitino at Kentucky and was in town for the NBA's pre-draft camp but hustled over to see Donovan's news conference. "He figured it out and won two national titles. He deserves this. He earned it. He just adapts and is great with relationships."

His relationships with his circle at Florida was paramount in the decision. And that's why he's taking assistant coach Larry Shyatt with him and possibly as many as a dozen more Florida staff members that could include the strength and conditioning coaches as well as trainers, depending on how much he is able to insulate himself with the Magic. And the relationship he has with former 10-year Florida assistant Anthony Grant, now the head coach at VCU and his possible successor at Florida, is one reason why he feels the Gators should be just fine without him. He knows he may not have a say in his successor but is hoping that Foley hires Grant to ensure a smooth transition and to keep the recruiting class intact.

A source close to the situation said that Foley will be meeting with Grant on Saturday in Richmond, Va.

"He was instrumental the past 11 years and had as big a part of us winning the last two years as anyone," Donovan said of Grant. "I don't think Anthony has to live in my shadow. We did it together. It wasn't me, it was us."

He said that's what he hopes will occur with the Magic. He's not naive. He knows that if the Magic aren't in the playoffs, the pressure will increase. But that's what he thrives on. Smith said he chose Donovan because he's a winner. Donovan chose the Magic because he believed they too shared his vision.

There were, of course, some negatives to college coaching: The 12-month-a-year recruiting grind, the fear that Florida would level off and the struggle to keep the Gators as a national power. Donovan agonized with the decision. But once he made it Thursday, he never looked back.

"I know there are no guarantees," Donovan said. "But ultimately in my heart, I wanted to take on the challenge. So often, coaches and athletic directors leave sideways and unhappy. I left happy. And that's a good thing."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com