Four Years Later … Donovan Still Picking Up the Pieces

NEW ORLEANS - MARCH 16:  Head coach Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Jackson State Tigers in round one of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the New Orleans Arena on March 16, 2007 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)Billy Donovan is cleaning up a struggling Florida program after he left Orlando. Chris Gaythen/Getty Images/PicApp

Florida held a press conference earlier this month to introduce a new football coach. It was not so long ago that a similar press conference was in preparation as Orlando had whisked away two-time defending national champion coach Billy Donovan away from college basketball and into the bright lights of the NBA.

Like Urban Meyer a few years ago, Donovan did an abrupt about-face and returned to Gainesville citing a “change of heart.” It was one of the more embarrassing moments in Magic history and likely Otis Smith’s worst decision as general manager. Luckily he never had to pay the price for it as he was able to quickly secure Stan Van Gundy, literally stealing him from Sacramento via Kinko’s fax.

Orlando has gone on to enter its winningest stretch in franchise history including three straight wins in the first round of the Playoffs, two straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances and one trip to the NBA Finals. And surely (despite the team’s recent slide and moves) another trip out of the first round and deep into the Playoffs is coming.

Meanwhile, Billy Donovan and his Gators have struggled. Sure, it is difficult to rebuild after all five starters from a two-time defending national championship team leave in a single year and you spend part (or a few days) of your offseason planning on how to stop Kobe Bryant. But the Gators have really fallen off the face of the earth.

In the two years after Donovan “jumped” to Orlando, his team failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Last year, the Gators were in the field as a 10-seed and nearly upset Brigham Young in overtime.

With four starters returning and a relatively strong freshmen class, the Gators were a preseason top-10 team and had high expectations to compete for an SEC title. Then the season started.

The Gators, expected to be the class of the Southeastern Conference this year, have not looked the part. They got blown out at home against a very good Ohio State team. They have looked very unimpressive in the nonconference season, looking uneven at best in defeating a good, highly ranked team like Kansas State and then losing the next time out against unranked Jacksonville at home.

Florida may not even be able to claim being the best team in the state in college basketball after losing to UCF at Amway Center back on Dec. 1.

It must have been an eerie moment for Donovan. It was not the first time Donovan has been to Orlando since he decided to become and then not become the Magic’s head coach. But it was the first time he had been inside the Amway Center. And nothing symbolizes the recent success the Magic have had more than the Amway Center.

When Donovan entered the building and saw the Magic’s locker room and what Orlando has accomplished since he made the temporary decision to coach the team, he must have thought about his decision. Ultimately, I think he is best suited as a college coach and I believe the Magic are nowhere near the level they are at today with Donovan as the head coach.

In other words, Orlando dodged a major bullet.

Still it is strange to see a coach in the college ranks seemingly fall so hard so fast. The Gators were never perennial national championship contenders, but they were consistently competing for the SEC East title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Now it seems the team is fighting to be in the tournament every year.

It has been a hard, hard fall for the Gators. In the meantime the Magic have risen to some incredible heights.

Just a little bit of perspective before 2011 begins.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily