Billy Donovan's Florida-NBA Flip-flop
BILLY DONOVAN was finally alone. It was late on the evening of June 1, and all the difficult work was done: the press conferences announcing his departure from the University of Florida to coach the Orlando Magic, the meetings with Magic officials, the phone calls to his Florida players, bosses and staff. With a sigh Donovan collapsed into the chair in his home office, surrounded by the spoils of a triumphant career: photographs of his former players; knickknacks from his Final Four run in 1987 as a guard at Providence; magazine covers celebrating his Gators, one of only two Division I teams in the past 33 years to win back-to-back championships. "For the first time in days there was complete silence," Donovan says. "It was just me and this decision."
Four hours later he was still sitting there, thinking. On paper Donovan had every reason to take the Magic job. The 42-year-old was leaving the college game at the top, the youngest D-I men's coach since Bob Knight to own two titles. He'd be moving less than two hours away, a relatively easy transition for his family. He'd be joining an NBA team with a budding superstar (Dwight Howard) and a bright future. He'd be putting himself in a position to achieve the pro success that eluded his mentor (Rick Pitino) and another Florida legend (Steve Spurrier). And, not least, he'd be earning $27.5 million over the next five years.
Donovan had always been a "paper guy," compulsively jotting his thoughts on a legal pad. Before last season he compiled a list under the heading of distractions, anticipating the challenges of repeating (such as "agents" and "media demands") with uncanny prescience. And so he'd weighed the pros and cons, college versus the NBA, and told Orlando he would accept its offer. "I made the right decision taking the Magic job—there's no doubt in my mind—on paper," Donovan says. "But writing those things down didn't get to the core of where I was. What I couldn't answer was this: Where am I supposed to be? What I never wrote down was where my heart was."
His heart, Donovan realized in his office that night, was in college basketball, in challenges like turning an unranked team of second-tier recruits into one of the greatest teams of all time. His heart was in Gainesville, where he and his wife, Christine, are raising their two sons and two daughters; where Donovan's father, Bill, who owns a textile business, lives and serves as an unofficial team elder; and where the Donovans have helped finance the construction of a new Catholic high school, the first of its kind in the city. Oh, there would be a price to pay for backing out on a signed contract: The Magic would stipulate that Donovan can't coach in the NBA for five years, his credibility would take a hit in some quarters, and the jokes would fly. Donovan would be roasted at a team banquet. (His favorite dance, he says, is the Hokey Pokey: "You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out....")
But when he changed his mind the next morning, Donovan realized he was finally at peace. He called the Magic with the news and an apology. "For 48 hours I had a disconnect between my head and my heart," he says six months later, after starting over with one of the nation's youngest teams.
Whenever an elite college coach turns down the NBA—whether it's Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Michigan State's Tom Izzo or North Carolina's Roy Williams—it's a positive sign for the sport as a whole. The best players shuffle through college so fast these days that the coaches become the symbols of stability, and of the game itself. By reconsidering his decision, the two-time defending national champion did his part to ensure that college basketball will stay healthy and strong.
Tennessee and UConn Call Off the War
THERE ARE sports rivalries, and there is what the Tennessee and Connecticut women's basketball teams have sustained over the last 13 years. Almost every one of their 22 meetings has been an epic of intensity and consequence, including four national title games, two Final Four semis, a regional final and 15 regular-season games (the teams met twice in the regular season in 2000 and '01), in which, more often than not, a No. 1 ranking was on the line. Since 1995 the two teams have won a combined nine national titles, many of them, satisfyingly, at the other's expense: Tennessee sealed two shortly after eliminating UConn; Connecticut claimed four of its five by beating Tennessee in the final.
It has been a great run that has elevated and expanded the sport, but the annual, circle-the-date part of it is over. The two teams may still meet up in the NCAA tournament, but their regular-season showdowns, which have all been broadcast on CBS or ESPN and have been consistently the highest-rated TV games of the season, are history. Tennessee ended the series last summer by declining to sign the two-year contract extension sent by Connecticut. Huskies coach Geno Auriemma told The Hartford Courant in September that Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt did so because she "hates my guts." Summitt has denied that but hasn't offered an explanation. "It's between the two programs," she says.
That there may be no more regularly scheduled games between the schools is a blow to fans, to players, to ESPN—the 2004 NCAA title game, a 70--61 win by the Diana Taurasi--led Huskies, is still the highest-rated college basketball game, men's or women's, ever broadcast on the network—and to women's hoops. Had a Connecticut-Tennessee game happened in Knoxville next February as originally planned, ESPN's GameDay crew might have broadcast from a women's game for the first time. "That [annual regular-season] game was the one that everyone kind of zeroed in on," says Carol Stiff, senior director of programming at ESPN.
The games have had an All-Star aura, featuring Taurasi, Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird in Connecticut blue, and Chamique Holdsclaw, Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker in Tennessee orange. But the biggest names were Summitt and Auriemma, two hypercompetitive Hall of Famers who have long had a prickly relationship. In advance of their games the wisecracking Auriemma loved to needle Summitt, famously calling her and her program The Evil Empire at the 2003 Final Four. Summitt rarely returned Auriemma's jabs, but who knows how many she absorbed? The two didn't just battle in public; they also went after many of the same recruits. There is speculation that it was a recruiting incident that led Summitt to pull the plug. We may never know.
Not everyone is bemoaning the end of the series. "The timing of it was advantageous for the game's growth, and the demise of it is necessary for its continued growth," says Ohio State coach Jim Foster. "There are other good games taking place that aren't touted, and maybe now some of those will surface. As for UConn and Tennessee, now they'll just meet in the NCAA tournament—if they're fortunate." That would be good luck for the rest of us too.
The Freshmen Needed Little Orientation
WHEN THE NBA instituted its minimum-age rule before last season, forcing the best high schoolers to spend at least one season in college before turning pro, nobody was sure how it would affect the college game. Now we know. Freshmen defined the 2006--07 regular season, none more so than Ohio State center Greg Oden and Texas forward Kevin Durant. Slowed for the first seven games by a wrist injury, the 7-foot, 250-pound Oden was a shot-blocking force while leading the young Buckeyes to the national title game. The 6'9", 215-pound Durant carved up opposing defenses, averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds and becoming the first freshman named national player of the year. The current class of first-year players—which features USC's O.J. Mayo, Kansas State's Michael Beasley, Memphis's Derrick Rose, UCLA's Kevin Love and Indiana's Eric Gordon, among others—is even deeper than last season's, so maybe, going forward, every college basketball season will be the Year of the Freshman.
23 CONSECUTIVE NCAA TOURNAMENT APPEARANCES BY ARIZONA, THE LONGEST ACTIVE STREAK
12 INCHES THE MEN'S THREE-POINT LINE WILL MOVE BACK IN 2008
8 FRESHMEN TAKEN IN THE FIRST ROUND OF 2007'S NBA DRAFT
71 CONSECUTIVE DOUBLE DOUBLES BY OKLAHOMA'S COURTNEY PARIS
896 CAREER WINS BY BOB KNIGHT
MAKING A DIFFERENCE | Danielle Orsillo
DANIELLE ORSILLO'S proudest moment was watching her brother Mark, who has Down syndrome, graduate from Las Plumas High in Oroville, Calif., five years ago. As Mark clutched his diploma, 4,000 people rose to their feet and tears welled in Danielle's eyes. "My parents allowed him to fail and succeed as much as they allowed the rest of [my brothers and sisters] to fail and succeed," says Danielle. "They're heroes for that."
Orsillo, 21, has followed their lead. The 5'9" junior guard at Arizona State, who has been sidelined this season by a bone bruise in her knee, has spent more than 150 hours over the last two years shooting hoops, cooking meals and playing video games with mentally disabled adults at a recreation center in Tempe. She's become close to Daniel Strelitz (second from right), who, like Mark, has Down syndrome. Strelitz calls Danielle "my best friend."
While Mark is attending community college, Danielle is combining her two passions—basketball and helping others—through ASU's Leadership Through Action program. She's hoping to raise $2,000 to underwrite a free, on-campus basketball clinic for more than 300 mentally disabled adults. "A lot of people my age haven't been around people with disabilities, so they don't know how to act," says Orsillo, whose parents are pastors in Oroville. "But if you just act like yourself, they will love you."
PREDICTIONS FOR 2008
FANTASTIC FRESHMEN will again steal the spotlight until March, when North Carolina junior Tyler Hansbrough will lead the Tar Heels to the national title, proving once again that experience still matters.
FOLLOWING A spate of recent bizarre behavior—including another hunting accident and a verbal altercation with student fans at Centenary—Bob Knight will finally have his Woody Hayes moment, and not even Texas Tech will be able to keep him on the job.
TENNESSEE AND Connecticut won't meet during the regular season, but they will face off in the NCAA final. UConn's hunger and decade-defining player, Maya Moore, will trump Tennessee's experience and its superstar, Candace Parker.
THEY SAID IT
"There are a lot of guys who can bench-press 300 pounds who couldn't play dead in a cowboy movie."
Texas coach RICK BARNES, responding to questions about Player of the Year Kevin Durant's alleged lack of strength
DAVID E. KLUTHO
BACK TO SCHOOL After leading Noah (13) & Co. to a repeat, Donovan jumped to the NBA but decided coaching pros had its cons.
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (PARKER AND MCLAREN)
REJECTED Tennessee terminated its series with UConn, ensuring that Parker (left) and Kaili McLaren won't face off before March.
ROBERT BECK (LOVE AND MAYO)
EARLY RISERS Mayo and Love headlined another formidable freshman class.
ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG
JASON LEE (HANDS)
JOHN BIEVER (BARNES)