Donovan has Gator Nation swamped with despair
THEY like to say if you're not a Gator you're Gator Bait. One exception exists, and one only: Steve Spurrier.
He'll always be an orange and blue reptile. And as long as he's at South Carolina, one Saturday every year the head ball coach is public enemy No. 1 -- ahead of Tennessee's Philip Fulmer, whoever happen to be the coaches at Georgia and Alabama, and even that funny old man down the road in Tallahassee.
But make no mistake, Spurrier is still beloved in Gainesville, the heart of Gator Nation.
Billy Donovan has delivered twice as many national championships. But if he leaves for Kentucky, does he get the same kind of pass?
Yeah, Spurrier's in the SEC. But at least he had the courtesy to job-launder via the NFL.
He also didn't put Gator Nation through a crisis of despair through uncertainty, as worried Gators and Gatorettes tell me Donovan is. Spurrier's departure in 2002 was brutally swift, but strangely, forgivable. Donovan has the Florida faithful cringing with every word of every non-denial that he's Bluegrass bound.
Sure, to a few, Spurrier will always be a visor-wearing turncoat. But most of Gator Nation seemed to understand. He needed a new challenge. He wanted to see if the Fun-and-Gun would work in the NFL. He learned the hard way that players, not coaches, rule the pros.
After dealing with Spurrier and Donovan in the late 1990s, I came to this conclusion: Spurrier was at Florida because that's where his heart was. Though born in Tennessee, he won the Heisman at UF. (It'd be like if Colt Brennan came back to coach the Warriors 20 years from now.) Donovan was there because it's where he could make his mark most effectively; his spotless preparation met enormous opportunity at Florida by mere coincidence.
I called my old boss at the Gainesville Sun, Arnold Feliciano. He's still the sports editor there. And he's a Gator through-and-through. I couldn't tell if the strain in Arnold's voice was from finishing yet another special section to celebrate another Florida victory over Ohio State in The Game, or due to his angst over the possible bolting of Billy.
Arnold doesn't understand why he would even consider it. I already know what a nice place Gainesville is to raise a family. Arnold said Donovan's made it even better by helping to build a Catholic school, where Billy's son goes. Donovan's dad even bought a condo there.
But we agreed that it's the same as it was 10 years ago with Donovan; he still seems more like a displaced Long Islander than a Floridian, all the way from what's left of his New York accent to his starched shirts and ties.
His serious, all-business style was an interesting contrast to Spurrier's casual approach, but it just didn't seem to completely fit. Still, Arnold doesn't want to lose him.
"I don't think the pressure would be as intense here," he said. "He could relax a little. It could be, 'You're the man here.' At Kentucky, it's always going to be Adolph Rupp. If he misses the Sweet 16 a couple times, he'll be in trouble."
But that's the point. Like Spurrier five years ago, Donovan might want a new challenge.
The difference? The uncertainty.
"It was totally out of the blue with Spurrier," Arnold said. "There's a feeling of not knowing now. Obviously the fans will be heartbroken if he left, but if he's going to stay, why not come out and say it?
"This will probably go on for a while."
is a Star-Bulletin sportswriter who covers University of Hawaii football and other topics. His column appears periodically.
Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org