Only gone a few days, Gator fans ready to welcome Donovan back

Updated: June 6, 2007, 11:13 PM ET
Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida Gators fans are quickly piecing together their broken hearts after Billy Donovan announced he will return as coach and the Orlando Magic gave him permission to do so.

Donovan, who bolted from Florida to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract Friday with the NBA's Magic, was released from the deal by the NBA team Wednesday night.

The coach won't have to crawl or beg to be taken back.

"I don't see how anyone can be upset with him here," said Florida student Chris Andrews, a 21-year-old senior marketing major. "He went for the money. He realized it was stupid. Now hopefully he'll be back winning championships where he belongs."

Wednesday brought little change on campus, as Gators awaited developments 100 miles south in Orlando. Florida officials, including athletic director Jeremy Foley, declined to comment until Donovan was released because of pending legal issues Donovan had with the Magic.

"Great news for the Gators," Foley told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.

A news conference announcing Donovan's return to Florida has been scheduled for Thursday morning.

The football-loving school has become basketball crazy in recent years -- in large part to Donovan, who built the program into a powerhouse, winning the last two national titles.

The school's bookstore, once overflowing with football gear, is now filled with basketball championship apparel. And football players now largely walk on campus in the shadow of the school's hardwood champions.

When Donovan returns, he will earn more than football coach Urban Meyer -- an unprecedented statement at Florida. Donovan was set to sign a seven-year deal worth approximately $3.5 million annually with Florida, a deal that was nearly finished when he agreed to coach the Magic. Meyer made $2 million last season plus incentives as he led his own team to the national title.

"For all that [Donovan's] done for the school, I think he's earned the right to do what he wants," said 19-year-old student Jennifer Gardener. "I trust he knows what he's doing."

The basketball complex was crawling with youngsters attending Donovan's basketball camp Wednesday. The only thing missing was Donovan, who has not spoken publicly since reports of him jilting the Magic surfaced.

But the respect for Donovan hasn't changed.

"We love him," said Ron Parker, who dropped off his son at the camp. "He's the reason this is such a big deal."

Although it might take a few years, or wins, for Donovan to earn back his credibility with everyone. Some were critical of his rash decision to bolt for the NBA.

"Don't get me wrong -- Donovan is the man, but I was disappointed when he left," said Matt Lavender, a 21-year-old Florida student. "He's going to have to earn his respect back."

Donovan has a 261-103 record in 11 seasons at Florida, and is the school's all-time leader in wins.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press