GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Florida coach Billy Donovan wanted to stay. His star players knew it was time to go.
Donovan spurned a chance to return to Kentucky and take over the tradition-rich program, saying Thursday he hopes to build the same in Gainesville.
He’ll have to do it without Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah. The four juniors will enter the NBA draft, saying they have accomplished all they could at Florida.
“I’m happy and I’m sad,” Donovan said. “Happy because I’ve never seen a group of kids grow the way these guys have grown, and sad that I’m not going to have a chance to coach them anymore. ... I do not expect any of them back here next year. Their commitment, their focus, is trying to further their careers in the game of basketball.
“When they put their minds to something they’re usually very, very successful at doing it.”
Donovan and the foursome led the Gators to consecutive national championships, capping the coach’s 11 years and setting the foundation for a program he hopes will someday be mentioned with the likes of Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and UCLA.
The Gators became the first team to win back-to-back titles since Duke in 1992. But following Monday night’s 84-75 victory against Ohio State, Donovan’s future had become the biggest question mark surrounding Florida.
Donovan acknowledged interest in the Kentucky job this week, saying he had a lot of admiration for the Wildcats. But he also said he intended to stay in Gainesville.
He proved it Thursday.
“It’s all about where you’re at in life and what’s going to make you happy,” Donovan said. “I’m happy here at Florida. I love the University of Florida.”
Kentucky received permission to talk to Donovan about its coaching vacancy Wednesday. The coach and Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart spoke early Thursday morning.
Donovan then met with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and agreed to stay put.
“We want to put basketball on the map here forever,” Foley said. “And there’s no question he’s the key component.”
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Donovan was the top choice to replace Tubby Smith, who left Kentucky last month to take the head job at Minnesota. Donovan spent five years as an assistant under Rick Pitino in Lexington, quickly learning about Kentucky’s unrivaled fan base and unrealistic expectations.
But he spent the last decade-plus in Gainesville, putting down roots with his wife and four children. He also turned a mediocre basketball program into a national power — at a place where football used to be king — and defied conventional wisdom held by his mentor, Pitino, his predecessor, Lon Kruger. Donovan has a 261-103 record at Florida.
He has two years remaining on his current contract worth $1.7 million annually, but was expected to sign a long-term extension “later this spring,” Foley said.
University of Florida president Bernie Machen and Foley have been working on a new contract for Donovan since last year. Negotiations began during Florida’s 2006 title run — and Foley said Thursday the “skeleton structure” had been completed — but Donovan postponed signing the deal worth about $2 million because he didn’t want to send the wrong message to the players who turned down NBA riches to stay in school.
The contract could be worth considerably more now.
Without Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah, Donovan’s job could be tougher, too.
CBT: Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made it official that he'll be coaching Team USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and he'll also be with Duke at least that long, too.
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