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Continuing the trend

Donovan is latest coach to have a change of heart

Posted: Monday June 4, 2007 12:51PM; Updated: Tuesday June 5, 2007 11:35AM
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At a press conference to announce Billy Donovan's hiring by the Orlando Magic last Friday morning, nearly 6,500 words were spoken by Donovan and general manager Otis Smith as they sat side-by-side on stools at the center of the team's practice court. Buried in the final 300 words of the 45-minute ordeal was Smith's smiling statement -- in response to what Donovan's first act as coach would be -- that "we gave him the weekend off."

"We'll see him," Smith said, "bright and early on Monday morning."

That, in retrospect, might have been a mistake. What Smith and the rest of the hoops world would see Monday morning was something else: news that Donovan wanted out, and the Magic -- despite the fact the front of their own Web site (as of 9 a.m.) still said, "Welcome New Magic Coach Billy Donovan: Bringing Championship Spirit to Orlando" -- had resigned themselves to letting him return to his old gig at Florida. High-powered coaches rarely take a weekend off, and this one never turned into a relaxation period for Donovan. By Saturday he had already begun to have second thoughts. Never mind the five-year, $27.5 million contract he'd be leaving on the table. The reversal was set in motion by a call to UF athletic director Jeremy Foley -- who at the time was en route to Richmond, Va., to speak with Virginia Commonwealth's Anthony Grant about the Gators job -- and then an inquiry to the Magic about hitting the undo button on what had been, for them, one of the better days in franchise history.

Seventy-two hours after the festive event in the RDV Sportsplex it's as if it never happened. I was there, and I'm pretty sure I saw what I saw: Donovan in a Magic blue-and-black tie, his wife, Christine, carrying a Magic-colored bouquet; a large group of team employees, applauding, after the new coach concluded telling the assembled masses his jump to the NBA "would really challenge me as a person, as a coach and help me grow and help me get better." There was a big white limousine idling outside afterward, presumably to whisk Donovan to the airport for his press conference in Gainesville ... a place from which he was only temporarily bidding adieu, and where, henceforth, he will be known as Billy The (Comeback) Kid.

As wild as this four-day roller-coaster ride in Florida has been, it is only the latest chapter in the Year of the Change of Heart in college hoops. When Donovan makes his announcement to return to the Gators later this week, no doubt professing a love for Gainesville he did not fully realize until it was in his rearview mirror, he won't be the first about-face coach of the past 12 months. He'll be the third. Donovan will merely be making a contribution to the developing genre of the take-me-back press conference.

On April 2, the day of the game in which Donovan's Gators would beat Ohio State for their second consecutive national championship, Creighton's Dana Altman was introduced as the new coach at Arkansas, which had fired Stan Heath after a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament.

In his meet-the-media moment in Fayetteville, Altman said, "I'm 48 years old. And with your permission, I'd like to finish my career at the University of Arkansas."

Two days later in Omaha, Neb. -- after realizing the turbulent Arkansas athletic culture wasn't exactly his scene -- Altman said, this about Creighton: "This is home; this is where I will finish my coaching career."

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