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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Behind the U-turn
Donovan's path to Orlando and back to UF filled his days with anguish.
By Antonya English
Published June 8, 2007
An apologetic Billy Donovan returns as Gators coach and explains his experiences during the days since his decision to join the Orlando Magic and his change of heart.
Billy Donovan was distraught Saturday morning, and his wife took action. Christine Donovan dialed Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and told him Donovan was having second thoughts about becoming the Magic's coach. Foley, having just landed in Richmond, Va., to interview prospective replacement Anthony Grant, quickly explained that with Donovan under contract to the NBA team, there could be legal repercussions if he became involved. She turned to assistant coach Larry Shyatt. "Make a U-turn, " Shyatt recalled her saying as he drove toward a basketball camp. The Donovans needed help.
Shyatt arrived at their house, looked at Billy Donovan and realized something was seriously wrong.
"You could just see it in his eyes, " Shyatt said. "We talked and he explained where he was, where his heart was. He felt he had made a mistake. And I said let's try to make the next best adult decision. If I can help, I'll be happy to."
Over the next five days, Shyatt helped Donovan undo a five-year, $27.5-million contract and return to Florida.
Thursday, Donovan held a news conference, thanking those who helped and apologizing to nearly everyone.
"The last four or five days have certainly been difficult, and I want to take this time to apologize, first and foremost, to the Orlando Magic, " he said. "I feel terrible about this, and I'm very sorry that it happened. ... I made a mistake."
June 1: Contrasts and reservations
Donovan appeared in Orlando in the morning to be introduced as coach. He wore a navy suit, striped tie and a big smile. He said all the right things and seemed eager, after 13 seasons as a college head coach, for the challenge.
Fans cheered and gave him a standing ovation, his wife received a bouquet, and the Magic sold about 200 season tickets.
By afternoon, he was in Gainesville to explain his decision to the Gator faithful. He wore shorts, a polo shirt and choked up a little. He said all the right things and seemed grateful for the support.
"The last 24 hours have not been fun, " he said. "I don't think I got maybe a chance to enjoy like I would like to, but that's okay."
But it wasn't.
As Donovan and his wife drove home later, he told her he wasn't feeling right. The excitement, the jubilation about the new job wasn't there.
"Sleep on it, " he remembers her telling him. "You'll feel better in the morning."
Saturday: A situation in Gainesville
At the Richmond airport, after talking with Christine, Foley talked by phone with Grant, the Virginia Commonwealth coach who had been a Florida assistant for 10 years.
"He said, 'Jeremy, you need to go back home and take care of your coach, ' " Foley said of Grant.
The plane, on the ground less than 30 minutes, returned to Gainesville.
Bill Donovan, the coach's father, was playing golf in New York when he took a call about 10:30 a.m.
"I don't think I did the right thing, " he recalls his son saying. "I think I made a major mistake."
He knew his son had gone back and forth before signing with Orlando, but he didn't realize the level of the despair. He told Billy he'd call him back.
By the time he returned the call about 1 p.m., Billy Donovan had contacted the Magic.
"I felt like the only thing I could do was be forthright and upfront with the Magic, " Donovan said. "I thought about it, took some time to myself and I contacted them right away. I talked to them and discussed my feelings. ... I apologized to them. It became very clear to me Saturday morning that with this mistake I made I had to do something."
While Donovan weighed his options, Shyatt kept vigil, acting as a sounding board. He was well-qualified because he was in a similar situation, though on a smaller and less public scale.
When Donovan left Marshall for Florida in 1996, Shyatt, an assistant at Clemson, agreed to replace him.
"I was scheduled to have a press conference the next morning, " Shyatt said. "I called (Clemson coach) Rick Barnes crying and said, 'Coach you've got to get me out of this.' I stayed up all night and felt like the right thing to do was to face the (Marshall) president the next morning and tell him that I was too blessed with my relationship and situation at Clemson."
By early Saturday afternoon, Bill Donovan had received a call from his daughter-in-law, telling him how distraught his son was. He knew Billy was "very sensitive about how things affect other people."
"He was so upset about what he'd done, " Bill Donovan said. "The Magic, his family, Jeremy, his coaching staff, his players were all affected. All of those things are weighing on his mind at the same time. She said this decision was really torturing him."
He flew to Gainesville that night, arriving about midnight.
In the interim, Magic general manager Otis Smith visited Donovan, reiterating the team wanted him and suggesting he take more time.
"Billy said, 'Dad, out of respect for them, I'm going to let myself sleep on it, ' " Bill Donovan recalled.
Sunday: The news breaks
Donovan struggled with the situation, continuing talks with the Magic. Shyatt said the 42-year-old coach's emotions were "all over the place."
He had sequestered himself at his home. Out of respect for the Magic, he said, he was refusing to talk to almost everyone except family, close friends and Magic officials.
Speculation mounted that Grant would be named coach.
"We didn't know anything, " Gators sophomore Marreese Speights said. "People were calling me and telling me updates. People outside of Gator basketball knew more than we did."
Shyatt was communicating with players and recruits, but he could say very little because it wasn't public knowledge that Donovan was wavering.
Donovan's main topic of conversation was about all the lives he had turned upside down.
"I would say that definitely weighed the most on him, " Shyatt said.
Grant issued a statement Sunday evening through VCU that he had not been offered the Florida job and had not met with school officials.
Donovan was adamant he didn't want to coach the Magic, his dad said. The team wanted to know why he had come to this decision and how. Officials asked that he talk to members of the DeVos family, who own the Magic, to explain himself.
"All he could do was explain to them that his heart wasn't in it, " Bill Donovan said.
Word leaked. FoxSports.com broke the story, and other news organizations quickly followed with confirmation of their own.
"I saw a thing on the bottom line on ESPN about how Coach was trying to come back, " guard Dan Werner said. "I kind of shook it off because I didn't think it was real. I thought they had messed up or something."
Monday: Conflicted with those emotions
The Magic issued a statement saying Donovan had "conflicted emotions" but that talks were continuing. It was the only public comment by either side until the matter was resolved.
Dialogue between the Magic and Donovan continued, and the team accepted that he wouldn't become the coach.
Magic attorneys began the legal process, and the team suggested Donovan hire a lawyer to protect his interests. He did that afternoon.
Shyatt dealt with Gators players and recruits.
"Coach Shyatt knew what was going on, but he kept it to himself, " Werner said. "He just told us he's trying to work things out."
Said Speights: "It was crazy. We didn't have no coach, and we didn't know what to do. Coach (Shyatt) just told us to keep working out, keep doing what we had to do. And he told us to make sure we stay together."
Talks went back and forth.
Tuesday night, ESPN.com reported the sides had reached agreement on a provision that would keep Donovan from coaching in the NBA for the next five years, the length of his contract with the Magic.
"It was something I was glad to accept because I know in my heart that I want to be at Florida, " Donovan said.
After a long day of anticipation Wednesday, the Magic issued a statement saying it had "granted him permission to break his commitment and return to the Gators."
Terms were not released.
Thursday: A day of apology
Donovan resurfaced in Gainesville to explain what happened. He wore shorts, a T-shirt and a furrowed brow. He said the right things but seemed introspective. He took responsibility for the damage he had caused, to everyone from the Magic organization and its fans, to his friends, family, staff and players.
"This decision in a roundabout way, which I am not happy about, has crystallized in my mind where I need to be and the plan for my life and moving forward, " he said. "I can self-evaluate why maybe I couldn't get to that point. I couldn't get to that decision before getting to that point. I'm happy that I'm capable at this point to be able to deal with what happened."
His father said he sensed for the first time Thursday that Donovan may be able to put this behind him.
"I think he's finally at ease, " Bill Donovan said. "Hopefully he'll start to be able to laugh a little bit, not in the sense that he's trying to be a wise guy, but more in the sense that when guys joke about his flip-flopping, and some of them are very good friends of his, he's got to laugh about it. I think now he can say, 'It's over with, I did the best I could under the circumstances.' I think he'll take some hits for a while, then hopefully it will die down and he can get back to his life.'
A life at Florida, Donovan insisted.
"As long as the University of Florida will have me here, this is where I want to be, " he said. "It's been a real learning experience for me, personally. I'm not interested in the NBA, I'm not interested in going there. All I'm interested in is coming back to Florida, doing the best job I can in a place that I love dearly, that I have great relationships with, the administration and my coaching staff. This is where my heart is. My heart is in college. My focus is the University of Florida."
After the news conference, Foley announced a new contract for Donovan: six years, $3.5-million annually.