GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Florida coach Billy Donovan wanted to stay. His star players knew it was time to go.
Donovan spurned a chance to return to Kentucky and take over the tradition-rich program, saying Thursday he hopes to build the same in Gainesville.
He'll have to do it without Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah. The four juniors will enter the NBA draft, saying they have accomplished all they could at Florida.
"I'm happy and I'm sad," Donovan said. "Happy because I've never seen a group of kids grow the way these guys have grown, and sad that I'm not going to have a chance to coach them anymore. ... I do not expect any of them back here next year. Their commitment, their focus, is trying to further their careers in the game of basketball.
"When they put their minds to something they're usually very, very successful at doing it."
Donovan and the foursome led the Gators to consecutive national championships, capping the coach's 11 years and setting the foundation for a program he hopes will someday be mentioned with the likes of Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke and UCLA.
The Gators became the first team to win back-to-back titles since Duke in 1992. But following Monday night's 84-75 victory against Ohio State, Donovan's future had become the biggest question surrounding Florida.
Donovan acknowledged interest in the Kentucky job this week, saying he had a lot of admiration for the Wildcats. But he also said he intended to stay in Gainesville.
He proved it Thursday.
"It's all about where you're at in life and what's going to make you happy," Donovan said. "I'm happy here at Florida. I love the University of Florida."
Kentucky received permission to talk to Donovan about its coaching vacancy Wednesday. The coach and Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart spoke early Thursday morning.
Donovan then met with Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley and agreed to stay put.
"We want to put basketball on the map here forever," Foley said. "And there's no question he's the key component."
Donovan was the top choice to replace Tubby Smith, who left Kentucky last month to take the head job at Minnesota. Donovan spent five years as an assistant under Rick Pitino in Lexington, quickly learning about Kentucky's unrivaled fan base and unrealistic expectations.
But he spent the last decade-plus in Gainesville, putting down roots with his wife and four children. He also turned a mediocre basketball program into a national power - at a place where football used to be king - and defied conventional wisdom held by his mentor, Pitino, his predecessor, Lon Kruger. Donovan has a 261-103 record at Florida.
He has two years remaining on his current contract worth $1.7 million annually, but was expected to sign a long-term extension "later this spring," Foley said.
University of Florida president Bernie Machen and Foley have been working on a new contract for Donovan since last year. Negotiations began during Florida's 2006 title run - and Foley said Thursday the "skeleton structure" had been completed - but Donovan postponed signing the deal worth about $2 million because he didn't want to send the wrong message to the players who turned down NBA riches to stay in school.
The contract could be worth considerably more now.
Without Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah, Donovan's job could be tougher, too.
The four teammates and roommates have been the core of the consecutive titles, winning 68 games the last two seasons, including 18 in a row in the postseason and 12 straight in the NCAA tournament.
Brewer, Horford and Noah could be lottery picks, and the 6-foot Green might get drafted despite being somewhat undersized.
"The last three years have been an unbelievable experience," Noah said. "What we did was more than just basketball. We followed our hearts. We didn't listen to what other people said. This is something that we'll remember for the rest of our lives."
Brewer and Horford cried during the announcement, and Green fought back tears.
"I feel like it's been the best three years of our lives up to this point," Brewer said. "I felt like we did everything we possibly could do in college basketball. "It's been so much fun, but all knew it was time to move on. We came in together and we wanted to go out together."
Donovan felt the same way about Florida, turning down Kentucky before Barnhart even offered him the job.
"I've got a strong place in my heart for Kentucky because I started coaching there," Donovan said. "I have great respect for the tradition, the fans, the program, for everything that it represents.
"I felt like the right thing to do was to be able to make a decision without stringing anybody along. Kentucky's a great program, great tradition. ... But I felt that at this time in my life the best place for me was the University of Florida."
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