GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Donovan lost his star player to a pro team ... in Greece, not the NBA.
He's lost recruits to the likes of Kentucky, Arizona and even Manhattan in the past four months.
Attendance fell to the lowest total in almost a decade.
Two years removed from back-to-back NCAA titles and an infamous flip-flop on the Orlando Magic job, has Billy Donovan's star begun to fade at Florida?
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Donovan is still one of the most respected, accomplished and well-paid college coaches at $3.5 million per year.
But back-to-back National Invitation Tournament berths have quelled excitement about the basketball program to the point that university officials in the school's 2009-10 athletic budget project a $500,000 decline in ticket sales next season.
On the recruiting trail, Donovan has not been able to convert those NCAA championships into a stable roster of elite players, and now he faces the imposing figure of new Kentucky coach John Calipari in the Southeastern Conference.
Former Kentucky athletics director and Alabama coach C.M. Newton says Donovan hasn't slipped as a coach, but he understands his popularity among fans has probably taken a hit — part of the reason the Magic job would have been so sweet.
"It personally might have been time to move on (in 2007) ... What more can you do?" said Newton, who hired Rick Pitino, Donovan's mentor and former boss, with the Wildcats. "All you are doing is setting yourself up for fans to say he's slipping. If Billy wanted to be real safe, he probably should have left after the second national championship and let somebody else go through the rebuilding process."
Donovan, of course, knew things wouldn't be exactly the same in Gainesville after his brief NBA fling with the Magic, who can smugly celebrate last month's NBA Finals appearance. That fate might have been Donovan's had he kept his word.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said expecting immediate success after the championship nucleus of Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green left the program in 2007 is unrealistic.
"You don't lose that type of talent and just roll on," Bilas said. "You look at guys winning championships in the last 15 years, some of them aren't even there anymore. It's a tough business. But Billy's got a lot left to do for college basketball."
Donovan insists he's still the same coach who loves recruiting and winning at Florida while not worrying about the past or his own star power. The challenge facing the Gators isn't much different than when the school got bounced out of the first or second round of the NCAA Tournament for five straight years from 2001-05, Donovan said.
"Everybody (then) was kind of like, 'Where are you guys at?'" Donovan said last week. "After that year we ended up winning SEC titles and two national championships. ... There's nobody to blame — it's the process of losing players, (assistant) coaches, all those things go into it."
Six Gators have bolted early for the pros in the past three years.
Company in Cremins
Nobody knows Donovan's predicament better than College of Charleston Coach Bobby Cremins, who reached a Final Four with Georgia Tech. In 1993, Cremins left the Yellow Jackets for the South Carolina job, but three days later he had a change of heart and returned to Tech.
Cremins made one NCAA Tournament in the next seven years at Tech.
After feeling guilt for his decision, Cremins said a blunt message helped him move on that can also help Donovan — "Put it behind you or you will ruin your career."
"Knowing Billy pretty well, I'm sure it's truly way behind him," Cremins said. "Billy wants to get Florida back. As long as Florida doesn't panic, there's no doubt in my mind they'll be back."
Calipari has surpassed Donovan in earnings ($3.9 million per year) and recruiting with the signing of point guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, two high-profile players Florida chased.
Five-foot-8 sophomore Erving Walker is the only point guard on the Florida roster. The Gators also recruited and missed on 2009 point guards Lamont Jones (Arizona) and Rico Pickett (Manhattan).
Donovan said he lost recruiting battles this spring because the point guard position at Florida was too stacked to build solid relationships nine months ago. Nick Calathes didn't commit to professional ball in Greece until late May, and Jai Lucas transferred to Texas in November.
"You have schools that have been dealing with a young man nine months, and it's hard to make up that ground when recruiting them for three weeks," said Donovan, who added there's still a possibility at landing a guard this summer.
Donovan's future success might hinge on what first lifted him to prominence in the late '90s — recruiting talented, team-first guys.
Forward Dan Werner is the only player from the current roster with NCAA Tournament experience as a Gator. A lack of depth forces high-profile newcomers Kenny Boynton and Vernon Macklin, a Georgetown transfer, to produce early.
Scout.com recruiting analyst Dave Telep said Donovan is not losing his recruiting touch.
"Two of the top recruits in the country for 2010, Harrison Barnes and Brandon Knight, they both have Florida on their short list," Telep said. "And in 2011, Billy has one of the best guards he's ever recruited in Austin Rivers." Rivers has orally committed to the Gators.
The Donovan-to-Kentucky speculation seemed to be an annual exercise when the Wildcats were first looking to replace Tubby Smith and then this year to replace Billy Gillispie. The latter required Donovan to make a quick public statement disavowing his interest.
Now, there seem to be no more worries in Gainesville about whether Donovan will bolt for another position. There's not another college job worth taking short of Duke or North Carolina, and Donovan's buyout from the Magic forces him to stay away from the pros for at least another three years.
"I hope I can stay at Florida a long, long time," Donovan said. "I'd love to be able to do that. That's my passion and my drive to try to build this program."