UF: State of the Union Address

The Florida athletics program has just put a wrap on arguably its finest consecutive all-around academic years of athletic competition and achievement in its history, marked by a 3-title sweep (men’s, women’s & overall) of the SEC All-Sports Trophy both years (making it 6-straight triple sweeps), a 4th and a 2nd in the NACDA/Director’s Cup (capping 4-straight years of Top-4 finishes – a 4th, a 3rd and two 2nds – the best run in school history), and winning both of the first two Capital One Cups awarded on the side of the men’s program and a 1st and 4th in the theoretical combined men’s & women’s finishes.

All of this completing the best 5-year run in UF athletics program annuls. With this combined success, it’s a good time to check the oil on each program and put into perspective the current station of all the Gators sports, both those toeing the line and those dragging behind.

To do this, we’ll look at their 2011-2012 seasons, as well as the historic perspective of the program’s achievements over the last few years in the SEC and the nation, chart them against other benchmark programs and gauge their course for the future.

Tackling this analysis required a lot of creative research — you’d be surprised how difficult it is to get historical SEC and national finishes of the non-revenue sports —and I will count them up from last to first on the men’s and women’s side, ranked in ascending order according to their current strength in the SEC and nation, relative to the other Gators sports.

To be fair, we will alternate the order between the genders.

A certain level of subjectivity enters this slotting, so bear in mind that being in the lower half of Gator athletics usually puts one in the top tier of conference and national programs. I personally was a little surprised at some of the ordering at the top when it was all said and done.

For the fans who only follow the revenue sports closely, I hope this is a fun initiation into the depth of excellence in the UF athletics program; for those who are rabid junkies for every UF sport, let this give you, your friends and family a chance to debate the relative strength and future outlook of all the Gator squads.

So without further delay, here is the State of the Program for the Gators, beginning with the women’s programs #12 through #7.

#12 Women’s Basketball

Current Temperature: Cold. This one was the only easy one to rank. Women’s basketball for the Gators has inexplicably been the only sport that is consistently uncompetitive in the SEC and completely off the national radar. Given the way men’s basketball has been embraced and elevated by Gators fans to a nationally-recognized fan event, a regular ESPN feature or highlight reel cutaway to the Rowdy Reptiles, and given the fact that UF has been able to reach the top of its sport in the SEC and nation either historically or recently in every other sport, including all the fledgling women’s sports that have been added in the last couple of decades, it is a true mystery without much by way of clues.

Heck, even a traditional northeastern standard like lacrosse not only energized Gators fans, but rocketed to No. 2 in the country in just its second year in existence, and Np. 1 in its third, with just an official’s net measurement from playing for the title against a team it had already beaten twice earlier in the year.

They were that close to a national championship in Year 3. Women’s soccer won the national title in Year 4. The softball program won the SEC title in Year 2. Going back to the charter SEC sports, the women’s squads in tennis, swimming & diving and golf all won SEC titles in their inaugural seasons, while the swimming & diving squad won the first NCAA sanctioned national title. The gymnastics and cross country teams won SEC titles in Year 2 of their programs. Yet women’s basketball remains the only Gator sport with no SEC title in 33 years of futility, and has never even made a blip on the national scene.

SEC Index: Poor. The Gators’ finishes in the SEC over the past decade have been erratic, with a trio of 4th place finishes amidst a lot of 7th, 8th or worse. It has been 10 years since the program’s only 2nd place finish, which capped a 7-year run beginning in 1994 (only their second 3rd place) that stands as the Lady Gators hoops’ “glory days,” a term that for this sport will likely be taken as sarcasm. As average as those 7 years were, as they head into 2012-13 riding the 3-year momentum of a 7th place and 2-straight 8th place finishes, the program would give its eye teeth to see a run like that again, .

Fox & Hounds: The fox every SEC program is chasing in this sport is the Tennessee Vols, in about as big a slam dunk as it gets, with 16 SEC titles in a sport barely 30 years old. The Gators would love to be chasing them, but this orange and blue hound rarely leaves the porch.

National Index: Absent. As ubiquitous as Gators athletics success is, from Gainesville to the NFL and NBA to the Women’s World Cup to the Olympics, it seems impossible but the women’s basketball team doesn’t register a blip.

Fox & Hounds: The Vols and the Huskies of UConn are the premier programs, but the NCAA tournament is a spectator sport for the Gators.

Outlook: Bleak. There is nothing to indicate the program is going to change its fortunes any time soon. I would love to write more about them, but there is simply nothing with which to work.

#11 Women’s Golf

Current Temperature: Sudden drop. This once proud program that swung clubs with the best in the nation over the first decade of competition has fallen on hard times recently. The 2008 SEC champs plunged to 8th in the league and then 10th before bumping up a tick to 9th in 2011 and finally back into relevance with a 4th last year.

SEC Index: Poor. After claiming 2nd in 2007 and then winning the SEC tourney in ’08, the general consensus was that the women’s golf team had really found its stride again and was back for another extended run of success. However, the team went from that euphoric high to the worst 3-year stretch of SEC finishes in its history, including 3 of its worst 5 finishes ever. Still, the 2007-2008 resurgence was a very big move forward for a program that had only finished higher than 5th one time in the previous 10 years. The feeling here is that they will start to climb again rather than stay in the doldrums, with the 4th place uptick this past spring being a big step in that direction.

Fox & Hounds: The dreaded Bulldogs of Georgia lead the pack in SEC women’s golf with 11 titles, but the Tigers from Auburn have 9 and are on the come, winning 3 of the last 4 and 6 of the last 9. Florida is right behind them with 8, but 5 of them were before 1988 and only 1 has been claimed since 1995, when Chris Doering was a senior. Quite a sobering situation for the program that won 5 of the first 7 SEC titles in history, and 7 of the first 15.

National Index: Forgotten Legends. When the NCAA first sanctioned women’s sports at the dawn of the ‘80s, the Lady Gators golfers were a squad to be feared in the national tourney as much as the SEC, contending throughout the first decade and bagging two national titles back-to-back, the making of a dynasty in any sport. But the last one was claimed in 1986, back when Kerwin Bell was a fleeting Heisman candidate.

Fox & Hounds: This is a difficult call, with 6 different national champions over the last 6 years. Arizona State has the most titles with 7, but only one of them has come in the last 15 years – although it was recent, in 2009. Duke would have to be the pack leader of late, having won 4 of 6 titles from 2002 to 2007, however they have zero titles in the last 5 years.

Outlook: Cautiously Optimistic. While the preferred thought is that the future of the program will be closer to the consecutive 2nd/1st SEC finishes in the late ‘00s than the 3 sub-7th finishes that followed, new coach Jan Dowling presided over the last 2 of those 3 years. But she also guided them to the 4th place rise last year, so the preferred thought will be the default projection.

#10 Women’s Outdoor Track & Field

Current Temperature: Heating Up. Thus is the nature of Gator athletics – and especially women’s sports: We’re only at #10 and already the temperature reading requires an oven mitt. Four 2nd place finishes grouped around the conference crown in 2009 was a much-needed shot in the arm, as it followed the worst 4-year stretch in program history. 

SEC Index: Strong. Despite the program-worst drop in the SEC ranks from 2004 to 2007, the last 4 years have matched the 1989-1992 seasons as the best 4-year period in program annuls. Add the second place finish that preceded the recent quartet and the program is currently living its glory days. Most of the rest of team history hovers around 3rd and 4th place.

Fox & Hounds: LSU is by far the top program here, with 13 titles, and Florida with only 5 SEC titles is the closest challenger. LSU is built to stay ahead of the pack, having won the last 3 consecutive titles and 5 of the last 6, with Florida’s most recent crown wedged in the mix in ’09.

National Index: Wallflowers. Florida has never won a national title in women’s outdoor track & field and while some athletes do make some noise in select years, the program is seldom a player in the national championships. The best NCAA meet they’ve had was a runner up finish in 1992, followed by the 3rd place they grabbed in 2010. The best runs they’ve had have been 4 top-10 finishes from 1990 to 1993, and 3 top-10 finishes between 2002 and 2004 (which included 2 top-5 finishes and a 6th), and then again from 2008 to 2010.

Fox & Hounds: LSU was a national dynasty in outdoor track & field, winning 11-straight from 1987 to 1997, and 15 total, but “only” has 3 titles in the last 12 years. With 3-straight national championships from 2009-2011, the Lady Aggies from Texas A&M had become the program to beat, but the women from Red Stick served notice with their dominating title this past spring that they may be ready to reclaim the roost. Both programs have been playing keep-away from the Oregon Ducks, who have placed a frustrating 2nd place for the last 4 years in a row.

Outlook: Rosy. LSU is not going to fall back to the pack any time soon, if ever, but Florida has shown the last 4 years that it can compete with the Tigers girls, and even beat them.

Stay tuned for Part II of the series later this week, as well as Parts III and IV in the coming weeks.

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David Parker
One of the original columnists when Gator Country first premiered, David “PD” Parker has been following and writing about the Gators since the eighties. From his years of regular contributions as a member of Gator Country to his weekly columns as a partner of the popular defunct niche website Gator Gurus, PD has become known in Gator Nation for his analysis, insight and humor on all things Gator.