A packed O’Dome watched the Gators eviscerate a legitimate top-20 Missouri team today. The shocking thing was how unsurprising it was. This is a very good team. Of course, those packed stands have been a rare sight this season, despite coming off back-to-back Elite Eights with a roster and coach primed for yet another Final Four run. That’s been frustrating for those of us outside of Gainesville, knowing that this team, this coach, this program deserve as much support as any we have and as any hoops team in the nation. You see, despite the average Gator fan’s dispassion, Florida is a basketball school.
For the first 80 years or so of the University’s existence, Florida’s athletic program wasn’t really defined by any sport. There was some spotty success across the board but nothing sustained. The school’s first national championship was won in men’s golf back in 1968. Into the 1990s, the massive talent pool of athletes in the state of Florida feeding into the flagship university of the state had only been able to muster a few titles in the Olympic sports.
Steve Spurrier’s arrival changed all that. Spurrier awoke the sleeping giant, which is what many rivals in the SEC referred to Florida as. And while everyone was fixated on our success in football, it wasn’t just that sport. Whether coincidence or not, 20 of the school’s 29 national titles have been won since Spurrier returned in 1990. Leading the way has been the juggernaut women’s tennis team. If you really want to get technical, perhaps Florida should be referred to as a tennis school. They’ve won six titles since 1992.
Obviously college football is king, especially in the South. Florida, and the SEC, will always be defined by the gridiron. No one can argue otherwise and frankly, no one would want it any other way. The highest of highs occur on Saturdays in the Fall and there is nothing like being crowned champion, even if it isn’t really legitimate because of the failed BCS and lack of a true playoff. There will never be bigger stars in Gainesville than Steve Spurrier, Tim Tebow and Danny Wuerrfel. But there is someone who should be on equal footing with them.
But when it comes to consistency combined with the highest level of success and sprinkled in with future professional stars, basketball is king right now in Hogtown. Billy Donovan won his 400th game at Florida today. Since arriving in 1996, Donovan has won over 70 percent of his games. What he has done at Florida is comparable to what Mike Krzyzewski has done at Duke. Coach K is an institution and rightfully so. When it is all said and done, Billy D will be right there with him. You know how Alabama fans feel about Nick Saban right now? That’s how every Florida fan should feel about Donovan.
Check the following chart from the Jacksonville Times-Union:
THE DONOVAN EFFECT
Florida’s basketball program was mediocre when Billy Donovan was hired in 1996. The Gators were just barely a .500 program in their 76 seasons prior to Donovan’s arrival. Donovan will try for his 400th win at UF on Saturday when the Gators host No. 17 Missouri. Here’s a look at how UF’s hoops program fared before Donovan and with him.
With Donovan – Category – Before Donovan
17 – Seasons – 76
399-160 – Record – 879-874
71.3% – Win percentage – - 50.1%
163-96 – SEC record – 398-513
62.9% – SEC win percentage – 43.6%
12 – NCAA tournaments – 3 (two vacated)
3 – Final Fours – 1
2 – National titles – 0
28 – NCAA tourney wins – 7
4 – SEC titles – 1
3 – SEC tourney titles – 0
9 – NBA first-round picks – 2
In his 17 seasons at Florida, the Gators have been to 12 NCAA Tournaments (with another one this year virtually a lock), won 4 SEC titles, been to 5 Elite Eights and 3 Final Fours and won 2 national titles. The Gators have won 20 games every year since his second season. That kind of consistency is mind-boggling. Compare that stretch to the ups and downs of the football team in the same time frame with the Zook years, Meyer’s final season and Muschamp’s first one and you start to get a real sense of Billy’s greatness.
The Gators success on the hardwood has extended beyond Gainesville. There are currently 11 former Gators in the NBA, making Florida one of eight schools with double digit players in the league. In fact, there have been 23 former Gators in the NBA all-time and 17 of them played for Donovan. The current former Gators crop is the best we’ve ever seen in the NBA. When the All-Star reserves are announced next week, Florida should have a couple of representatives in David Lee and Joakim Noah. Al Horford and Chandler Parsons are borderline worthy and key cogs for each of their teams. Brad Beal has been explosive in January and could make a run at Rookie of the Year. Udonis Haslem is a two-time NBA champion and Mike Miller joined him last season. And guys like Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer and Marresse Speights are key role players for playoff contenders (Stay tuned later in the year for my ranking of Gators in the NBA).
Football is America’s favorite sport and significant numbers of people are not basketball fans. But even if you don’t like hoops, you have to be in awe and beyond proud of what Billy Donovan has done and where the hoops program is. Florida will always be a football school. And thanks to Billy Donovan, Florida is a basketball school too.