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March 28, 2007

Donovan decision turns Final Four into sideshow

It'll be the Big Blue elephant in every room Billy Donovan walks into from now until the time his Florida team either loses or wins its second consecutive national championship.

Is he going to frolic in the Bluegrass, or stay true to the Orange and Blue?

It's just the kind of distraction a coach needs before the Final Four. The college basketball world is on pins and needles.

This is what we know about the Donovan-to-Kentucky rumor. Two schools are gonna fight like 'Cats and Gators to get him or keep him. Two rabid fan bases are sure the guy is either coming aboard or staying put. Talk radio will sizzle like bacon on a Gainesville sidewalk in July. Message boards will have more traffic than (insert name of big-city rush-hour clogged artery here). And somebody is not going to get their man.

Maybe both.

There are going to be enough plot twists and conspiracy theories in the next week to make you believe Oliver Stone must be directing from afar.

Make no mistake about this much: Kentucky is going to make a monster offer to Donovan. When you have arguably the best job in college basketball, you go after arguably the best coach in college basketball to fill it. Donovan is on the verge of consecutive national championships, a feat last accomplished by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski - another fairly decent coach. The guy before Coach K to win a couple in a row was named Wooden.

Fans in Lexington and the rest o' the Commonwealth have all but demanded UK pursue Donovan. He spent five years on the staff with the Wildcats, all under his college coach and mentor Rick Pitino. They know Donovan at Kentucky and like him, and they're sold that his style of play and ability to recruit are just what Dr. Naismith ordered.

Here's some more ammo for the Kentucky side:

Florida didn't sell out its 1,250-ticket allotment for the Midwest Regional semifinals and final in St. Louis. It actually didn't come close, returning more than half. Anybody on the UK side want to share with Donovan whether that would happen if the Wildcats were in the Sweet 16?

Florida is never going to pay its basketball coach more than it pays its football coach (unless his name is Ron Zook). At Kentucky, the football coach's salary is tip money to the basketball coach.

The timing is perfect. The teams in the SEC East that have been the biggest thorn in the side of the Wildcats the past two seasons should be down in 2007-08. Those include Donovan's Gators, who probably will lose three of the four all-star juniors Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green responsible for the run of the past two years. Vanderbilt loses SEC Player of the Year Derrick Byars and Dan Cage, both of whom were seniors.

Here is why people close to the program at Florida believe he'll stay:

Donovan's wife, Christine, and their four children love it in Gainesville. Their oldest son, Billy, is in the midst of his freshman year at St. Francis Catholic High School. Donovan has been instrumental in getting the third-year school up and running, including raising a significant amount of funds.

He has a close relationship with UF Athletics Director Jeremy Foley, who privately has told people he's not worried about any school coming after his basketball coach one iota because he's confident he can keep him.

Adolph Rupp never coached at Florida. The legacy at Florida is Donovan's. Other coaches had some success, but he has set the standard. He doesn't have to leap over a bar set by someone else in Gainesville.

Kentucky was paying Tubby Smith $2.1 million a year, so Wildcats officials understand any offer to Donovan will have to be substantially more than that. Are they prepared to offer $3 million per year? More?

Florida knows it will have to pony up in this derby to keep its thoroughbred from bolting for Kentucky pastures. Donovan makes $1.7 million a year, but the Gators also are negotiating with another coach who won a national championship, football coach Urban Meyer. His $2 million a year is going to be an amount of the past soon. If you have two coaches with national championships, what's the price tag? How about $2.5 million apiece?

It probably isn't going to come down to money. Kentucky has to hope Donovan wants the next challenge - i.e. breathing new life into the Wildcats. Florida believes he'll stick with his already comfortable environs.

Now comes a rumor that the NBA's Miami Heat might enter the Donovan sweepstakes. Those pockets are too deep for any college to compete. Several coaches in the NBA make $5 million or more annually. It's intriguing because you're talking about the defending NBA champion, and Donovan has said he would like to coach at the next level some day.

Is some day now? Does he already have everything he wants at Florida so there's no reason to leave? Is the lure of Kentucky too strong? Where do the Wildcats turn if Donovan turns them down?

It's almost too much to ponder. We'll just have to wait and see if the Bluegrass is greener on the other side.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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