UF: State of the Union Part II

In examining the State of the Program for the first, “lower” half of Gator women’s athletics, we saw how high the bar is set at the University of Florida, both in the SEC and nationally.

In Part II, we’ll see more of the same with the first 5 men’s programs.

#9 Men’s Cross Country

Current Temperature: Warm. Whereas with the women’s program there was at least the basketball team setting an average-to-low bar for achievement, the relative bottom seed on the men’s side is a pretty darn good program.

SEC Index: Above Average. While the squad hasn’t notched an SEC title since 1987, they’ve been remarkably consistent and very competitive during the last decade, and indeed throughout their history. The team has finished between 2nd and 4th in the conference every year for the last 15 consecutive seasons.

Since 1940, the program has only finished lower than 5th in league two times (a 6th place in 1989 and a 7th place in 1996). The current 10-year run is a close 2nd as the glory days of the program, sitting just behind the decade stretch from 1978 to 1987 that saw the Gators record 2 of their 3 SEC titles.

Fox & Hounds: The fox in this hunt is the dynasty at Arkansas. Although Tennesse has 25 titles to the Hogs’ 20, the Vols haven’t won a championship since 1990 (by no coincidence, the year before the Razorbacks joined the conference), while Arkansas has won all of its 20 titles in the 21 straight seasons since then.

Florida’s 3 crowns place them 6th in the rankings. They shared a title with Auburn in 1955 and then won back-to-back crowns in ’86 and ’87.

National Index: Absent. The Gators may be one of the competitive programs in the conference, but not on the national scene. Florida has only placed in 9 national meets in the history of NCAA men’s cross country that spans 73 years, with only 2 Top-10 finishes among them (a 6th & 8th).

Fox & Hounds: Arkansas is the outright leader in the nation with 11 titles, followed by Michigan State and UTEP with 8. However, none of those programs have a title since 2000, with Wisconsin last year ending Oklahoma State’s 2-year winning streak (which in turn followed Oregon’s back-to-back titles).

Outlook: Steady On. Expect the Gators to continue to be very competitive in the SEC and possibly break through for another title: with four 2nd places and four 3rd place finishes in the last 10 years, they are on a very consistent trend and are bound to break through soon. And for those who put credence in straight-line trends and projections, the program has finished the last 3 years in the league at #4, #3 and #2…only one place left to go on this path.

#8 Men’s Outdoor Track & Field

Current Temperature: Hot Spike. The last 3 years has seen a dynamic resurgence of the men’s OTF program, in the SEC but especially at the national meet.

This follows short- and long-term trends that have been consistently inconsistent.

SEC Index: Strong. Though they finished a surprising 4th this past spring, the preceding consecutive 2nd, 1st and 2nd at the SEC championships is a powerful showing for any program. That follows 10 Top-3 finishes since 1990, but that stretch also carried a number of downward spikes to 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th place, a trend that spans the history of the program.

Consistently inconsistent, demonstrated by the fact that the very brief current 4-year run is the 3rd-best run in the program’s history. The Gator Glory Days for SEC OTF was between 1952 and 1958, with 7-straight Top-3 finishes and 2 SEC titles.

To underscore how tough the SEC is in OTF, while it is rare to see a team win the national title in a year they fail to win the conference title (Alabama did it in football last year, Florida in basketball in 2006, etc.), how often do you see a team win the national title after finishing 4th in their conference in the same season, as the Florida men did this past year?

Fox & Hounds: Much like with men’s cross country, Tennessee has the most titles (25), but they are not the fox in this hunt, with only 1 title in the last 10 years.

LSU is right behind with 22, but zero since 1990. Arkansas is again the red-coated canine cousin setting the pace of late, winning their 17 titles in the 20 years they started competing in the SEC in spring 2012.

National Index: Kicking down the Door. Only a trio of freak occurrences on the final day of the national meet prevented the Gators from notching their first ever national title in men’s outdoor track & field in 2011. This past spring, despite losing two of their best athletes and top points earners to injury and suspension, the Gators reversed the 2011 karma and came from behind to grab the national title on the final event, itself a thrilling come-from-behind 4x400m victory.

While the SEC glory days were in the ‘50s, on the national scene, these are the times to remember for the Gators. During their great SEC run in the ‘50s, they never cracked the Top 10 at the NCAA meet, while the last 4 years have seen the Gator men finish #2, #2, #3 and finally #1.

Fox & Hounds: The quick fox right now is Texas A&M having won the last 3-straight national crowns before Florida’s title in the spring. But it is not overly difficult to argue for Florida being the premier track program in the nation today.

As strong as the Aggie 3-peat was, those are the only titles they have won. Before that, FSU won their only 3 titles in consecutive years (which were essentially invalidated by the NCAA findings of massive cheating/academic fraud in this and so many other programs in Tallahassee).

Before that was another 3-peat by Arkansas, which has won the 2nd-most titles in the country (12). The most championships have been won by the Trojans of USC, but their last one was earned 36 seasons ago.

Global Index: Record-Setting. You have to love the heat the Gators’ track and field program has received in London over the past several days. Four members of the Gator men’s track and field teams of the last 2 years took home 5 medals in London: Christian Taylor, gold in men’s triple jump; Will Claye, silver in men’s triple jump & bronze men’s long jump; Tony McQuay, silver in men’s 4×400 relay; and Jeff Demps, silver in men’s 4x100M relay (set US record his in leg of prelims).

Outlook: Strong but Tenuous. The current squad’s fast spike shows how fleeting success can be in a sport that so closely turns on the next recruiting class. Though the squad returns a strong nucleus, it has lost a number of huge pieces the last two years. However, over the long run, this program has been built to sustain excellence, and there is no significant reason to expect anything to change that projection.

#7 Men’s Swimming & Diving

Current Temperature: Very Warm. And for the last dozen years, quite consistently so, both nationally and in the SEC. 

SEC Index: Stable Power. The Gators have finished in 2nd place in the SEC meet for the last 11 years straight. Did I say consistent? Before that, they were 3rd and 2nd again. But to put into perspective the history of the program, this stretch is a solid notch BELOW their benchmark for success, which was enjoyed over two very long periods.

The 24 years from 1951 to 1974 saw the Gators finish no lower than 2nd place in the SEC, including 17 conference titles, of which 13 were consecutive. That’s sick in any sport. Not to be too badly outdone, the program followed a brief 4-year dip with a 16-year run of Top-2 finishes with 11 SEC titles. All told, in the 70 years of SEC meets since 1937 (there were no meets from 1943 to 1947), the Gators only finished lower than 3rd SIX times (three 4s, two 5s and a 7th).

Fox & Hounds: By no surprise, UF sets the pace in SEC men’s S&D with 33 titles, 15 more championships more than the next SEC team. The 33 crowns is also by far the most of any program at UF – 7 more than the next most successful program, and 18 more than the next most successful men’s program.

However, the program everyone is chasing right now is Auburn. They only have 1 more than half of Florida’s total titles (carrying the remainder), but they have all come in the last 19 years with an amazing 16-straight currently, breaking Florida’s record of 13 in a row. Tennessee is the next-closest with 10, their last coming in 1996, the only thing keeping Auburn from winning 19-straight.

National Index: Competitive Also-Rans. While we children of the 80s don’t like to admit it, it’s been a long time since the Gators won back-to-back national titles in men’s S&D (’83-’84), but the program has been very consistent since then. Only 4 hiccups in the 5 years from 19995 to 1999 kept the program from registering 35-straight Top-10 finishes in the national meet.

As it is, they’ve notched 13-straight, with 8 of them Top-5s. Very competitive, but the Gator men have not been a threat to win the natty for quite some time.

Fox & Hounds: It’s a similar story as in the SEC, with a familiar fox. While Michigan and Ohio State have the most national titles (11 apiece), the Wolverines last won it all in 1995 and the Buckeyes haven’t claimed the title since the Kennedy administration.

As in the SEC, its 5th-place Auburn (8 titles) that everyone is chasing. Though they have not taken the national trophy home in the last 3 years, they own 6 of the last 10. Texas makes this a 2-fox hunt with 10 total titles and 4 in the ’00 decade – the last coming in 2010, and California is trying to set their own pace, having won the last 2 in a row (but their first since 1980).

Global Index: Greased Lightning! That’s what Gator grad Ryan Lochte swam like in the FINA World Championships last year and at the Olympics this summer. The newly-turned 28-year old ruddered rocket torched the pool at the World Championships with five gold medals and one bronze, set the first world record since specialized polyurethane bodysuits were banned and emerged as a celebrity of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Ryan started off the championships with a bronze in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay; then he beat 16-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps head-to-head in the 200-meter freestyle; again beat Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley, this time setting the first-of-its-kind world record; continued his tear by blowing the field away by over a full second in the 200-meter backstroke; anchored the 4×200-meter freestyle relay, overcoming an inherited deficit behind France to nail down the victory; and capped off his gold medal run by beating the 400-meter individual medley field by over 4 full seconds!

He was not as dominant in the freshly minted 2012 Olympics, but he started off with a bang, taking the gold in the 400-meter IM, was part of the gold-winning USA 4x200m Free Relay and the silver-winning 4x100m Free Relay, grabbed another individual silver medal in the 200-meter IM and a bronze in the 200-meter Backstroke. Last year, Lochte staked claim to the best swimmer in the world; this summer, he ceded that title back to Phelps, but he is still a household name for Gator Nation.

Add Conor Dwyer’s gold as Lochte’s teammates on the 4×200-meter Free Relay squad, and the Gators have made a quite a statement in the international pool.

Outlook: Strong & Steady. Given the remarkable consistency of this program over the last dozen-plus years and overall since they started swimming and diving in Gainesville, there is no reason to believe they are going to do anything but maintain and keep on going strong. However, it is just as unlikely that they or anyone else in the conference is going to unseat the Tigers of Auburn any time soon.

#6 Men’s Golf

Current Temperature: Steadily Rising. It was difficult to justify putting the golfers ahead of the swimmers, but hardware overcame consistently higher finishes.

SEC Index: Top Contender. The Gator golfers have finished 2nd-or-better in the league in 8 of the last 12 seasons.

This squad defines steady improvement over the past 5 years, as they finished 5th in 2007, followed by 4th, 3rd, 2nd and then 1st in 2011, before slipping to 3rd this past spring. Hence the steadily-rising temperature.

The squad has a significant way to go, however, to match the SEC glory days of the program – a 6-year stretch from 1989 to 1994 that saw a 2nd place finish wedged amidst 5 SEC titles in 6 years.

Fox & Hounds: The fox of men’s golf is a hound: the Dawgs of UGA, to be specific. Georgia has 28 SEC titles, including the 2 consecutive prior to Florida’s 2011 crown. Georgia has been the top program recently as well, though not dominant, winning 6 of the last 14 SEC tournaments. Florida is the top challenger, both recently and historically, with 15 total crowns (tied for 2nd with LSU), and 3 in the last 14.

National Index: Inconsistent Champions. The Gators have won 4 national titles in men’s golf, and they are very well spread out over the years: 1968, 1973, 1993, and 2001. The team’s history is a bit all over the map between those titles, but the glory days on the national stage has to be the 8-year stint from 1967 to 1974 when the Gators logged 7 Top-5 finishes in the national tournament including 2 national championships.

Though certainly no slouch like the Honorable Judge Smails of the same decade, the non-glory days had to be the ‘80s: the only decade since the 1950s that did not bring a national crown to Gainesville.

Fox & Hounds: The Jags? Yes, Augusta State – the fighting Jaguars – won 2 of the last NCAA tournaments in men’s golf, including 2 in a row. They were their only 2. Yale has won the most titles, with 21, Houston next with 16, and then Princeton’s 12.

However, nobody is chasing those three dinosaurs anymore: Houston’s last title was in 1985, Yale’s last crown was in 1943, Princeton’s last was way back in 1940. Before Augusta State’s double dip, the sport went 9-straight years without a repeat champion (one of them being Florida), and last year’s champ Texas hadn’t won since 1972, so this might actually be a fox hunt without a fox.

Outlook: Expect Good Things. Since his previous SEC title in 2003, Coach Buddy Alexander has rebuilt this program deliberately to get it back atop the SEC mountain and has it poised for an enduring run near the top of the conference. While Georgia will remain the program to beat, this is one of the more competitive sports in the SEC, with 8 different winners in the last 18 years, and there is room at the top for a program that can recruit and coach up top golfers like Florida can.

#5 Men’s Tennis

Current Temperature: Hot but Cooling. Excepting the decade of the ‘80s, the Florida men’s tennis team has consistently stayed in the Top-5 of the SEC, but has seen a gradual decline since their last SEC title in 2005.

SEC Index: Perennial Power. The Gator netters are in their SEC glory days right now. The 6 best 10-year runs have all been completed in the last 6 years, with the decade stretch from 1999 to 2008 the tops, tallying 10-straight Top-3 finishes highlighted by 3 SEC trophies.

The only thing keeping the last 10 years from being the best decade in program annals is the minor slump they’ve encountered since 2005, with three 4th place finishes and a 5th in the last 5 years.

Fox & Hounds: Arch-rival Georgia is again the fox, and the hounds don’t even have a faint scent in this hunt. The Dawgs have won 26 men’s tennis titles, while the Gators have taken home the 2nd-most trophies in the conference among current members – a mere 9.

When you out-distance the crowd by 289%, you’ve got a comfy lead. In fairness, UGA actually leads the 2nd place program by 8 titles, but Tulane isn’t going to be catching up to them anymore.

National Index: Slot-Filler. That’s what you call the fish you catch that are not trophies, but you keep in order to fill in the slots in the cooler between the whoppers.

Such is Florida men’s tennis in the national tourney: they can be tough, have played well on occasion – with a couple of runner-up spots among 7 Top-10 finishes in the last 13 years – but over their history have rarely been more than a solid also-ran.

Fox & Hounds: The Trojans of USC not only have won the most titles in men’s tennis – 20 – they’ve also won the last 4 in a row. Stanford has 17 (but none since 2000) and UCLA has 15 (with their last coming in 2005). UGA places 4th on the list with 6 championships and is the only SEC team with a title.

Outlook: Strong. Though they will never escape the long, tall shadow of the mighty Gator women’s tennis team, and likely will not become a national force any time soon, the men have won as many SEC titles since 2000 as any school outside of Athens, and can certainly challenge for the SEC title on an annual basis for the foreseeable future.

So there you have the State of the Program for the first 5 men’s sports in Florida athletics. In Part III, I’ll break down the top 5 women’s sports and gauge where they stand, how they match up to historical benchmarks and where they’re headed.

Check for Part III next week.

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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.