ORLANDO, Fla. – Billy Donovan dismissed his interview with the Grizzlies owner as "informal" and "informational," an easy out for a two-time defending NCAA championship coach whom Michael Heisley refused to pay $6 million per year. That was the Florida coach's asking price, a request that made his trip to Orlando to meet Donovan a waste of time.
At the league bottom in record, attendance and revenue, Heisley quickly was convinced by members of the Grizzlies' front office that the saviors rising out of college were named Oden and Durant, not Donovan. They needed a superstar to save the franchise in Memphis, and those don't come out of school wearing starched shirts and slicked-back hair.
Only the Orlando Magic offered Donovan the chance to be paid close to his $6 million-a-season asking price, and only because this is a pro market conditioned on the culture of big-time college football. Here, the coach is emperor, the players considered pawns to his genius. That's how they see it in the football South, and the fact that the Magic hired the Florida Gators coach allows them to market him as the face of a franchise. They can slap his mug on billboards and television commercials and season-ticket brochures. It wouldn't have been worth the paper it was printed on elsewhere, but for now, it makes the new Magic coach bigger than life.
Now, Donovan can be the driving force to get a new arena constructed and get the newspaper columnists and local television reporters covering the games. In the end, it doesn't matter the Magic could've hired Stan Van Gundy for a fraction of the $5.5 million a season they'll pay Donovan and gotten themselves a far better NBA coach.
Donovan picked up the telephone in his Gainesville home Thursday and called his old boss, Jeremy Foley, to tell him that he was leaving for the pros. Eventually, his neighbor, Urban Meyer, stopped over, and Donovan and his assistant coaches talked long into the night about the move to the Magic. Foley later tried to tell people this was a difficult decision for Donovan, but he's flattering himself.
Around the NBA, everyone knew Donovan was dying to get here, and knew he had his fingers crossed behind his back when he told recruits that he planned to stay in the post-Brewer/Noah/Horford era. In fact, when assistant coach Larry Shyatt discredited a Yahoo! Sports report that Donovan had met with Memphis' owner, a friend of Donovan told me, "They're going to deny everything to try and save this recruiting class."
Yes, they saved the class, and lost some truth.
Donovan has been obsessed with a move to the NBA for years, and he privately worried that he needed to make this leap before the glow of his national titles had dimmed. Around the league, there was a belief that Donovan had intermediaries reaching out to several teams, searching for bidders. In the past, he had been careful to wait for a good NBA job to be offered him. It wasn't uncommon for him to tell people that he could've been coaching the Hawks, but he was determined never to take a bad job just for the money.
Donovan, one source says, has the ability to bring up to 13 staff members with him, from secretaries to strength and conditioning gurus to assistant coaches. He has told his entire Florida coaching staff that they're welcome to join him in the NBA. More than that kind of loyalty, Donovan desperately needs pro experience with him. This is where the transition gets tough for college coaches because there's so much about the complexities of coaching the pro game, the grind, the relationships with players.
Donovan had planned to hire his old Kentucky colleague, Jim O'Brien, as his top assistant, until Larry Bird hired him to coach the Pacers on Thursday. Donovan leans heavily on Jeff Van Gundy and would be wise to hire his longtime assistant, Tom Thibodeau, on the Magic bench. "Billy has told me that he'd like to be an assistant in the league for a couple years before taking a head job, but with the money guys make now in college, that's impossible to do," Van Gundy told me earlier this season.
What gives Donovan a chance to succeed where Rick Pitino and John Calipari failed in recent years is that he doesn't have that raging, consuming ego that created far more enemies than allies. Donovan considers Pitino a mentor, but he understands his old coach's flaws and has been determined that they wouldn't be his undoing.
Nevertheless, Donovan had better never use the excuse that he's one more college coach who failed because he took over a bad team. He has Dwight Howard, the center that Pitino and Calipari never had with the Celtics and Nets. The Magic made the playoffs this year, and there's no reason they shouldn't do it again next year.
As one Eastern Conference official said Wednesday: "Just take a look at the Cavaliers, and know that with one great player in the East, you can be in the conference finals in a short amount of time." In the East, that's enough to start on the way to the playoffs. And right away, they'll expect that out of the Gators' national championship coach. He'll bring some fans over to the Magic with him because he has made himself synonymous with winning basketball in this football country.
They hold coaches in the highest of esteem in this part of the nation, and that's the reason they're paying so much money for a college basketball coach. Donovan was a terrific college coach, but once they start digging dirt on that new arena and tape the TV commercials and radio spots for Billy the Kid, they'll find out the truth in Orlando that, in this college graduating class, the saviors were named Oden and Durant.
As history goes, the great college coach turns out to be a brief, blazing marketing campaign in the NBA. In the end, the franchise hires in the league wear tank-tops and shorts, not starched shirts and slicked-back hair.
- Billy Donovan