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UF needs Donovan to stay put in Gainesville

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2000


SYRACUSE,N.Y. -- Billy Donovan was on the move, which, of course, was nothing new. At Florida, Billy D is always on the move, bouncing from the midcourt line to the basket, his voice bouncing off the seats of an empty coliseum.

Whatever portrait you might want to make of Donovan, it is one of a man in motion. He attacks his profession much like his team plays, as if every minute is a challenge to get 65 seconds worth of impact into.

They say a team adopts the personality of its head coach. In this case, the Gators adopt the energy, too. It was early Saturday afternoon, about 15 minutes' worth of sleep after the Gators' victory over Duke, and once again Donovan was in fast forward because, after all, success cannot come fast enough.

Ah, but if the University of Florida indeed is a basketball program on the move, it needs one thing.

It needs Billy Donovan to stay put.

Even now, in the glow of success, you cannot get around it. If Florida is going to make a home in the upper echelons of college basketball, then it starts with Donovan, who in turn has to make a home in Gainesville.

Things are going so well now. A Sweet 16 last year, an Elite Eight this year. No recruit is unreachable. No goal is unattainable. The program formerly known as the wretched mess between football and spring football has turned into something wonderful. But how long does it stay? And how long does Donovan??

You know the impression much of the nation has: Donovan has made Gainesville a stopover on his way to something bigger, something better, something in Lexington.

.

"It usually comes up early in the conversation," Donovan said. "It's not a particular school as much as "You're going to move on. This is a steppingstone, and you're not going to be here much longer.' That's what kids are hearing from other schools

"My answer to them is: "Why am I going to leave? We've assembled a very good basketball team. I have a commitment. And if I was going to leave, why aren't I interviewing for these other jobs?' Those things are going to come up. I can't control that. But I'm happy here. My wife is happy here."

For one thing, Donovan's job anymore isn't exactly the one he took at Florida, back when mentor Rick Pitino warned him not to take "a dead-end job." The facilities are better. Donovan has proven he can recruit. And, doggone it, people like him.

"If I went to another situation, for one thing, it would probably be a rebuilding situation," he said. "I've just done that. I'd like to enjoy what these kids have brought to the table. Where am I going to find another job where I'm going to have a better array of talent, or better kids, or kids who want to win more?"

That's why, when you hear rumors such as the one connecting Donovan's name to Georgia Tech, you can write it off as wishful thinking by a school with an opening. Why in the world would Donovan leave this job for that job? Or most jobs, for that matter?

On the other hand, there are a handful of elite jobs -- Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke -- where the tradition and resources might dazzle any coach. Kentucky, where Donovan was an assistant under Pitino, comes up a lot in conversation.

Is that necessarily a better job than this one?

"It depends on what you mean by a better job," Donovan said. "Does it have more tradition? Yes. Does it seat more people? Yes. But I don't look at things that way. I'm motivated to do something I've never done before. Look, Tubby Smith is a great coach and a great, great man, and I hope he's at Kentucky as long as he wants to be."

He seems to have things going his way. Already Donovan has more NCAA Tournament victories (five) than any coach in Florida history. He has two of the team's seven tournament appearances in 80 seasons.

Then, there is this. For a lot of coaches, certain situations eventually become home. Bob Knight didn't play at Indiana, or Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, or John Chaney at Temple. They came, they stayed, they molded their programs into what they have become.

That could happen with Donovan. For instance, when Donovan recruited freshman Brett Nelson, Nelson had heard all the rumors. So he asked Donovan if he would be with the Gators throughout his stay at Florida. Yes, Donovan told him.

"I'd be shocked if he went anywhere," Nelson said. "He's a very loyal guy. If he tells you something, he means it. I don't think he'd go to another college. He's perfect for Florida."

What would make Donovan leave? If things changed, he said. If he was no longer able to recruit kids to come. If the support was no longer there.

"Right now," he said, "Florida has given me everything I need to compete on a national level."

Right now the Gators should make sure they keep it up. Give him an extension, build him a house, tie him to a tree. Whatever. Just keep the coach, and the success, in town.

"In my heart," Donovan said, "right now I feel like I'm going to be at Florida for a long, long time."

For the Gators, that would be the best news of all. Because every time you see this team play, you become more convinced: If Billy D isn't going away, the good times aren't, either.

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