The Year in Sports 2007
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
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.
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
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
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.
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,