Billy The Kidder Tries To Go Home Again

Even die-hard University of Florida fans – and I’d venture to include the likes of Mr. Two-Bits and my hard-core, Gator-alum buddy George Meyer – would have to admit this: Billy Donovan took the mother of all leveraged advantages and screwed it up. Big time.

A guy who was all about taking charge and winning with class was the antithesis of both. Overcome by events and ambition.

Donovan’s assignment was beyond enviable and easy: To check out what, at age 42, back-to-back NCAA national championships would be worth in America’s hoops-happy marketplace. As he would find out, UF would make him the highest paid college coach if he stayed in Gainesville, a place where he was already lionized. The National Basketball Association’s Orlando Magic? Well, they would simply top it. Add, say, another $2 million per.

Is that win-win or what?

So, how do you convert that into a national punch line? From Pied Piper of Gainesville to the Hamlet of the hard courts. The Andrew Speaker of financial windfalls.

The thinking is that Donovan, even though he was enamored of the NBA because of its “ultimate challenge” cachet, wasn’t true to himself when it was all on the line. Nor was he true to all those in his immediate universe that would be impacted. And not just his family. The collateral fall-out was considerable.

There was Donovan’s new UF assistant, Rob Lanier, who was relocating from the University of Virginia; an incumbent assistant, Larry Shyatt, who would be hired on by Orlando; and Anthony Grant of Virginia Commonwealth University, Donovan’s successor-in-waiting, who was left literally waiting on the tarmac in Richmond, Va. Plus a bunch of employees in the UF basketball program who were offered positions with the Magic. And, of course, those high school hot shots who had signed on fully expecting to play for the charismatic coach who had recruited them.

Donovan, ironically, had always underscored the value of family, the importance of a home environment and the priority of where and how his kids would grow up.

That’s why his parents, in-laws and sister own homes in Gainesville, where the living is both bucolically upscale and small-town friendly. Donovan could be surrounded by fame, fortune and family, including his wife, Christine, and their four children, ages 5 to 15. Such a comfort zone, obviously, is not to be confused with an NBA milieu, one rife with hotels, hucksters, hustlers, hip-hoppers and college dropouts with posses.

But Donovan got greedy for the ultimate “next step” – as if winning with a whole new starting team at UF wasn’t challenge enough. As if continuing to recruit with integrity wasn’t challenge enough. As if keeping UF on track for parity with the Duke of Mike Krzyzewski wasn’t challenge enough. As if becoming a Florida eponym – not unlike Joe Paterno at Penn State or Bobby Bowden at Florida State – wasn’t challenge enough.

After signing that $27.5 million deal with Orlando, Donovan changed prisms upon returning to Gainesville for his good-bye press conference. In effect, he seemed to be pondering if, indeed, the trade-offs could really be worth those red-eye flights after another tough loss to the Seattle SuperSonics or the Sacramento Kings. He was now immersed in those he had disappointed – and they were, by all accounts, acknowledging precisely that.

The quality-of-life epiphany then kicked in: “I’m happy here; my family’s happy here; we’re all rich here; I’m not hurting for challenges here.”

Including the challenge that Thomas Wolfe couldn’t find precedent for: “You can’t go home again.” And there’s a reason why Wolfe’s sage injunction has continued to resonate over the years. You can’t recapture context, even if you’ve been barely away.

But if anyone can refute Wolfe, it’s Gator Nation.

Just keep winning, Billy.

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