Donovan exit to help UT

Tennessee's emergence as a major player in Southeastern Conference basketball just got another boost. Ultra-successful Florida coach Billy Donovan is leaving to become head man of the NBA's Orlando Magic.

Coming off back-to-back national titles, Donovan is leaving at the peak of his powers. His skills as a recruiter and developer of talent enabled him to win bigger than any Florida coach in program history. A contract paying him roughly $3 million per year was on the table at the time of his departure. Instead, Donovan will make $5.5 million per year ($27.5 million over five years) coaching the Magic.

A Rick Pitino disciple who also served as head man at Marshall, Donovan posted a record of 296-123 during his 13-year stint as a college coach. He went 22-7 in NCAA Tournament play, including a 12-0 mark the past two years.

Anthony Grant of Virginia Commonwealth is a virtual lock to replace Donovan. Grant previously coached under Donovan for two years at Marshall and for 10 years at Florida.

Grant left Gainesville one year ago to assume the VCU reins, promptly producing a 28-7 overall record and a 16-2 league mark. His team beat George Mason 65-59 for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament title, then bounced Duke 79-77 in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament. VCU pushed third-seeded Pittsburgh to overtime before losing in Round 2.

Although Grant is a fine coach in his own right, his body of work (one year as head man at Virginia Commonwealth) does not compare to Donovan's. In addition to his national titles in 2006 and 2007, Donovan posted a runnerup finish in 2000. He would've been favored to win another NCAA title in '08 except that his four rising seniors – Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green – opted to leave early for the NBA.

Now Donovan is joining them on the play-for-pay circuit.

Donovan is the second SEC East head coach to bolt since the 2006-07 season ended. Kentucky's Tubby Smith left for a lower-stress job at Minnesota mere days after the Wildcats were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament.

The departure of Smith and Donovan leaves Tennessee as the clearcut favorite for the SEC East title in 2007-08. The Vols return eight of their top nine players from 2006-07, along with head coach Bruce Pearl and his entire staff. Tennessee also welcomes talented transfers J.P. Prince (Arizona) and Tyler Smith (Iowa), plus freshmen Cameron Tatum and Brian Williams.

Pearl recently conceded that Donovan was crucial to Florida's success. When Donovan was rumored to be succeeding Smith at Kentucky, Pearl said such a move would help Tennessee. The reason? Tradition-rich Kentucky would be very good, no matter who the head man might be. But Florida, minus Donovan, would almost certainly take a backwards step.

Now that the Gators are ready to take a step back, the question arises: Is Tennessee ready to step forward?

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