UF: State of the Programs – Part V

Well, we’ve made it to the Final Four, at least in the progression of this analysis: the top 4 Gator men’s athletics programs.

It was difficult to choose a pecking order up and down both gender’s sports lineup, but it was probably the most difficult at the top of the men’s list. The order will likely evoke disagreement, but at this level, while recent and not-so-recent history certainly plays into the logic, it really boils down to the SEC and national stage right now and the immediate future expectations.

So here we go.

#4 Men’s Indoor Track & Field

Current Temperature: Hot as it Gets. Last year’s SEC champs and 3-time defending national champions – to quote from the old school Old Milwaukee commercials, it doesn’t get any better than this.

SEC Index: Strong. Defending league champs and rating merely “strong” is how a program wins 3-straight national crowns and is only the #4 program in Gainesville. The Gators have a whopping 16-straight Top-5 SEC finishes, but only 2 of those have been titles. And that represents a third of their conference trophies dating back to the ‘50s. In the SEC, the Gators are at the peak of their second glory days run, but possibly taking a back seat to the 14-year string of Top-5 SEC finishes from 1964 to 1977 that included back-to-back titles in ’75-’76, as well as the 14-year sting of Top-5 conference finishes from 1981 to 1994 that included back-to-back titles in ’87 and ’88. But given that since 1962, the Gators have only finished outside the Top-5 seven times (and 4 of those were 6th place finishes), you could say the men’s ITF program has been in a perpetual glory days period for the last 50 years.

Fox & Hounds: This was the same story as the SEC outdoor track & field race: Tennessee had won the most titles, but since joining the SEC in the early ‘90s, it’s been almost all Arkansas. The Vols have 18 total titles, but only one since Arkansas joined the party. Arkansas had won 17 of the 20 titles since then heading into this past spring, with Florida’s 2 making up the balance. But the Hogs notched their 18th SEC indoor title in the spring, making them both the recent kings and tied for the all-time rulers of the roost.

National Index: New Kid in Town. The program has placed at the NCAA meet 27 straight years, but only 17 times finishing in the Top 10, with just 11 Top-5s. But half of both have come in the last 9 years (8 Top-10s, 6 Top-5s). Those of course included the last 3 national titles. What’s more, the Gators are only the 4th different men’s program in NCAA history to claim back-to-back indoor championships, and only the 3rd to ever win 3-straight. But it is the New Jack nature of the program’s top end success that keeps them from being seeded higher in the Gator hierarchy this year. And also the fact that unless they fall off the map for a significant period of time, it is very difficult to perceive the non-revenue sports being bigger than the 3 revenue sports. Thus is the nature of major college athletics. For the indoor track & field team, the skeptical perspective outside Gainesville is that once the big recruiting classes graduate, UF will step back again. Stopping just short of a Lee Corso “Not so fast my friend” retort, I see the staff maintaining the influx of great athletes and sustaining the run.

Fox & Hounds: The Razorbacks rule the national roost of indoor track & field, with 19 titles, more than double that of UTEP (7), which hasn’t won a title since 1982. Those two programs are so dominant that Florida’s 3 national championships place them 3rd in the country (and tied there with Villanova & Kansas, which haven’t won titles since 1979 and 1970, respectively).

Outlook: Prepare for Greatness. With apologies to Lloyd Dobler, you can’t Say Anything about this program without saying or at least thinking of the word, “dynasty.” This squad has already taken the program somewhere few ever envisioned possible at Florida – or anywhere outside of Fayetteville or El Paso – and accomplished something they haven’t even done in the SEC before: 3-straight titles. A national title 3-Peat is already a dynasty in any sport, but to add any more in the next 5 years would put this program in rarified air by any measure.

#3 Football

Current Temperature: Sudden Drop. The fall was as fast as it was unforeseen, both nationally and in the conference. The reasons are myriad and the future is mysterious.

SEC Index: Bullies of the Block. Despite the precipitous plunge the Gators took the last 2 years, regardless of the brief 3-year Zook misstep – and forgetting the fact that a significant faction of Gator Nation rushed to crown Alabama the new-old King – no of the other programs in the SEC have any illusions about who is the enforcer on this block. It’s still Florida. Since Spurrier took over in 1990, the Gators have sub-let the penthouse from time to time, but everyone knows they own it. Alabama turned a lot of heads when they snuck up on a complacent and unprepared Gator team in 2009 already setting their sights on the BCS title game and the NFL, but it turns out it was just a 1-year bump and they couldn’t even return the next year to be the best team in the conference, their division or even in their own state. And it was only their first SEC title in 11 years – and just the second in the last 18. And although Alabama notched its 2nd title in 3 years last season, it merely matched what Florida did (3 years late) and it didn’t even win the SEC or even the Western Division. Meanwhile, the Gators have won the most SEC titles in the last 6 years (tied with LSU, not Alabama) and the last 12 years (again tied with LSU), the last 17 and the last 21 years. Since 1990, the modern age of the SEC, the Gators have won 41% of the SEC football titles (9 of 22), while no other program has won more than 4 (and only LSU has won that many). Over that time, UF has triple the amount of SEC titles as “mighty” Alabama (9 to just 3), and since 1984 Florida has 11 titles, twice that of LSU (5½: 5 outright titles and one shared) – and again, Alabama isn’t even in the top-2. Still, 2012 is a year that could forecast a different future than the dominant past we’ve enjoyed. As with every regime change, the position of a program hangs in the balance.

Fox & Hounds: Alabama has quite famously won the most SEC titles by a good margin, with 22 – nearly a fourth of the conference titles since 1933’s inaugural season, and 9 more than the official second place program, Tennessee. Unofficially, 2 of those Vol titles belong to Florida, which makes the Bulldogs of Athens the real #2 program with 12 titles. Florida has won 11 titles, which ties them with the Vols for 3rd, but the SEC officially credits them with just 8, behind the 10 of LSU and just ahead of the 7 for Auburn. The Gators have been closing the gap very quickly however, with all 11 of their titles coming in the last 28 years (or officially 8 in the last 21), while Alabama has only won 4 titles in the last 28 (or 3 in the last 21), one of which was shared. All of Florida’s 11 SEC titles have been outright, unshared titles.

National Index: Most Recent Premier Program. The title of premier program is fleeting on the national level for the biggest college sport in the land, but Florida held the distinction for the better part of 4 years, when they won a national title in 2006, captured the nation’s unflinching obsession with Tim Tebow’s record-shattering Heisman campaign in 2007, won a second national title in 2008 and then rode the #1 ranking in the nation all season long into the first official week of the post-season in 2009, losing only to the eventual national champs.

They wrestled the distinction from the grasp of Southern Cal, which had a 3-year run in which they won half a title – the AP title while LSU was busy winning the officially recognized natty in the BCS title game – and then a full-fledged BCS national title in 2004 before falling in the BCS title game to Texas to end their tour in the nation’s hottest spotlight, garnering 2 Heisman Trophies in the mix. Of course, their dynasty was more than cut in half when they were found to have been cheating their institutional rear end off and forced to vacate one of their Heisman Trophies and their only BCS title, having to return the AFCA Coaches’ Poll Trophy.

But since Florida fell from the premier program status in 2010, no program has made a definitive move to take its place. Alabama’s 1-year spike to the top was followed by a year that saw them lose 3 of their last 7 regular season games. Though they bounced back to equal Florida’s trick of 2 NCs in 3 years, their status of premier national program is not consensus or even solid, since they didn’t even win their division or conference last year, and were lucky to win their split of the 1-to-1 LSU series last year in the title game instead of the regular season game. Auburn and Oregon played for the national title the year before, and both of them have been lurking under a cloud of NCAA investigation since, and it is USC and LSU in the national spotlight as favorites to play for the natty in 2012, so Alabama’s resume as premier national program falls even further short of Florida’s run. Any way you slice it, the field is wide open over the next couple of years for some program to take the mantle of premier national program. My bet is that if any program does, it will be from the SEC.

National Index, Part Deux: Florida also holds a number of national distinctions that are forever a fundamental foundation of how college football is played and recognized, though most are unaware of at least two of them. For instance, Steve Spurrier is the reason there are 2 Heisman Trophies distributed each year. The hardware used to go just to the player, but in 1966 Spurrier accepted and then gave his trophy to the University of Florida to honor his school and teammates that made the award possible.

The Downtown Athletic Club in response gave Steve his own trophy to keep and proceeded to carry on the two-trophy tradition ever since. The second indelible mark that Florida has made on NCAA football – and NCAA sports overall – is the very basis by which teams and programs are built through player scholarships. John J. Tigert was quite a father – not only to his two children, but also to the University of Florida, the SEC and the NCAA. You can read elsewhere about the rather amazing academic and policy legacy of the first Rhodes Scholar ever from Tennessee, when he served as UF president for 19 years, but as for his mark on Florida football, know this: he built Florida Field. He borrowed and raised the funds and constructed the only permanent football stadium the school has ever had. It was also his idea to built it in the swamp-like depression behind the old brick gymnasium, as well as to build it into the ground rather than above it to better contain the fan noise of the stadium, to buck the boring standard oval horseshoe design of the day in favor of a straight-sided construction, and to build it without a running track around it, allowing the fans to be seated right on top of the sidelines.

As a founding father of the SEC, he was one of the leaders who created the Southeastern Conference, served as its president for 7 years over two terms and introduced and co-authored the standards for academic eligibility. What did he do to help father NCAA sports? He only originated and implemented the first ever grant-in-aid athletic scholarship. He introduced it to the SEC and it was adopted by the league in 1946. He then had to fight verbal and legal battles for 5 years with the NCAA, which other member institutions lashed out at the SEC for paying players. The irony of course is that the driving force behind Tigert’s athletic scholarship concept was the offense he took in seeing so many schools paying players in violation of the only thing at the time that bound them to amateur status: a signed affidavit that they legitimately worked a job for any monies they received during college. In response, the NCAA created the “Sanity Clause” to outlaw all athletic scholarships, but Tigert and his SEC brethren were able to delay implementation and fight for acceptance of their model until in 1951, the Sanity Claus was finally voted down and grants-in-aid for athletic scholarships were adopted by every school in the nation but the Ivy League.

Fox & Hounds: The fox in football is not so much a program, but a conference. The SEC as we all know have won 7 of the last 9 and the last 6-straight national titles, which is unprecedented and unbelievable. And as mentioned earlier, LSU is a favorite to stretch it to 7 this year (although 2010 showed us that the national champ could unexpectedly emerge from any corner of the SEC ranks). Historically, the most football national championships have been won by Yale (17) and Princeton (14). Pause here for snickering. The real numbers begin with Notre Dame’s 13 and Alabama’s 11 (though they claim 148, including 3 awarded to them by a diminutive Botswana gentleman named Ng!ke). Florida’s 3 natties rank them far back in 18th nationally, tied with 6 other programs, including Illinois, Cornell and Army. In the new era of football champions, however – the era of bowl coalition national title games that began in 1992 – the story is quite different.

The Bowl Coalition ran from 1992 to 1994, followed by the Bowl Alliance from 1995 to 1997, then the final iteration (for now), the Bowl Championship Series beginning with the 1997 season. During this time, Florida, Alabama and Nebraska have won the most national titles with 3, but only the Gators and the Tide have won 3 undisputed titles, with Nebraska splitting the natty with Michigan in 1997. Notre Dame has zero. Yale and Princeton aren’t even allowed in the grandstands of the BCS title game. Looking just at the BCS era starting in 1998, Florida is again the top dog, being one of the only 3 schools in the nation to win 2 BCS titles (along with LSU & Bama), and one of only 2 schools to win 2 undisputed national titles (again Bama; LSU’s 2003 title was split with USC, the only one of the Trojans’ 2 titles in the BCS era that they were allowed to keep).

Outlook: Cautiously Optimistic. We’ll keep this section short, but suffice it to say that this is a very talented team with a very talented staff that merely needs a year, perhaps two to restock and develop depth and they should be poised to reestablish their status as SEC and national kingpin. Fundamentally, since the mid-‘80s Florida has proven out Bear Bryant’s foreboding observation, translated contemporarily to be that as long as the Gators have the right coach, they will be a college football giant. The thought here is that they do have the right coach once again.

#2 Baseball

Current Temperature: Hot, Hot, Hot! Many may disagree with the baseball program’s seeding ahead of the football program, but this is not a History of the Program analysis, it’s a State of the Program, and the state of the baseball program is ahead of the footballers.

SEC Index: Strong and Surging. With 5-straight Top-3 finishes following a 4th place, including consecutive conference titles for just the second time in school history, the baseball squad is at a fever pitch. And the SEC is tough sledding – in fact, only once in the last 22 years have the Gators finished out of the Top-5 in the league (a 6th in 2006), but only 5 of those seasons ended with a conference trophy. The team is currently experiencing its second glory days era, but has some ground to make up on the first salad days of the program: a 9-year stretch from 1977 to 1985 when the Gators never finished worse than 2nd place and took home 3 SEC crowns, including back2back titles in ’81 and ’82.

Fox & Hounds: The common response would be LSU, baseball royalty as they are, but the SEC baseball field is pretty wide open. LSU has won the most titles with 15, but only 2 more than Alabama’s 13 and 3 more than Florida’s 12. And no team has been too predominant over the past decade, with a staggering 9 different schools winning SEC titles in the last 9 years. That includes 3 years of shared titles (2011’s being shared between 3 teams). Over those 9 years, the Gators have won the most titles with 3, followed by LSU and Vandy with 2 apiece.

National Index: Banging at the Door. As well as the Gators have performed in the SEC over the past couple of decades, they’ve impressed perhaps even more on the national stage. The College World Series has been held every year since 1947, and the Gators didn’t earn their first bid to the tourney until 1988, but after 41 years of waiting, they’ve made 8 trips to Omaha, including 2 appearances in the Finals series in their last 4 CWS. Those 2 Finals runs were in the last 8 years that also included the 3-straight CWS appearances for the first time in program history heading into 2013.

Fox & Hounds: Just like in football, the fox is not a program but a conference. The SEC had won the previous 3-straight CWS titles before Arizona got past South Carolina this past spring, sending at least one team to the Finals series each of the last 5-straight years, and 6 of the last 8 years, for a total of 7 appearances among 4 different programs: South Carolina (3), Florida (2), LSU and Georgia. Only one other conference in the last 7 years has sent more than 1 team to the Finals (the PAC-10 has sent Oregon state twice and ‘Zona once; the Big 12 has sent Texas twice, the ACC’s North Carolina has been twice and Fresno State has represented the WAC once). Overall, Southern California has won the most national titles with 12, twice as many as LSU and Texas with 6 each, but USC has not claimed a trophy since 1998. LSU last won in 2009 and Texas in 2005.

It seems obvious that the country must be chasing South Carolina, having won 2 of the last CWS titles with 3-straight title series appearances, but the lasting impression of the last 3 years is that they have won by divine intervention (and amazing coaching) rather than via a superior program.  They’ve won 2 of the last 3 national titles, but only 3 SEC titles in their history. LSU is always looming with post-season can-do clout, but until they backed into last year’s title, they hadn’t won an outright SEC title since 2003, so they are not quite the bully they once were. They may not be the team anyone is chasing, but the squad everyone will be looking out for next year might be the same one the SEC has been chasing the last 2 regular seasons: the Florida Gators.

They certainly looked like the best program in the nation the last 2 years, even if not the most clutch team when it counted. But whoever is the fox and whoever wins the CWS in 2013, the smart money will again be on an SEC team. The conference accounted for 3 of the Final Four teams in the CWS in 2011 (and would quite likely have been 4 of 4 had Mississippi State and Florida not inexplicably been paired in the same Super Regional), and the conference went 9-0 in Omaha when you exclude losses to other SEC teams, and in 2012, the SEC put 3 more teams into the CWS, and probably would have fared better had they not all been sandwiched in the same bracket. In fact, when omitting losses to conference mates, the SEC went 19-3 in the 3 CWSs from 2009-2011 – going undefeated in 2 of them. That’s just ill. And to further remark on the earlier comment on how tough the sledding is for Florida in the SEC, 3 of the CWS Final Four teams in 2011 not only came from their conference, but from their division.

Outlook: Coming Back For More. While the Gators saw a school-record 11 players selected last June (over half a dozen of whom signed pro contracts), and another 9 selected this June, the team still returns a strong nucleus of players and incoming freshmen that have a chance to win their 3rd SEC title in 4 years and 4th-straight CWS appearance. Going forward, it will be interesting to see if or how Coach O’Sullivan adjusts the Gators’ approach based on the new venue for the CWS, a stadium where the outfield fence is up a hill and the wind is always blowing in from all directions, that will surely swing college baseball from a game of long balls to a pitcher’s game. Most importantly is that the Gators will return – and keep returning for some time to come – one of the 2 or 3 best coaches in college baseball.

Kevin O’Sullivan earned the 2011 College Coach of the Year honors from Baseball America with a school-record 53 victories, and in only his 5th year Sully set the new standard for Gator coaches leading their teams to Omaha, with 3 CWS trips. And besides his acumen, he just looks like the coach you want in your dugout. He always appears about 3 seconds from tearing someone’s head off, and his Gator passion is infective, as evidenced with examples like when he erupted in wild Gator chomps to all corners of Perry Field after finishing off Mississippi State in a very heated Super Regional last year. The future of the program is in good hands, good arms and good bats.

#1 Men’s Basketball

Current Temperature: Red Hot Again. Certainly not as hot as they were just a few years ago, but in the SEC and on the national stage, they have regained their rep and their standing as a top program.

SEC Index: Very Strong. Despite the appearance every signing day that Kentucky has taken over the league again, especially with Calipari’s knack for culling the 1-and-dones that have the NBA salivating, they clearly have not. Four different teams have won the SEC the last 5 years, and one of them – Tennessee – just fired their coach and self-imposed a 2-year probation in efforts to stay out of NCAA jail. Another one of them – LSU – followed up their league title with consecutive 2-15 and 3-14 conference seasons in the SEC. That leaves Kentucky and Florida as the other two, and both Florida & Kentucky are the two teams to last win 2 SEC crowns (UK in ’10 & ’12, UF in ’11 & ’07). And though UK has a slight edge in recruiting the last few years and finally won the national title for the first time since 2 decades ago in 1998, 1-and-dones do not a program build, and even with less raw talent, Billy D’s coaching will always prevail in the long run over that of John “One Step Ahead Of The NCAA Cops” Calipari, and the Gators will be the favorites to bring home the SEC crown this year.

Fox & Hounds: Having won over 55% of the SEC titles (46, though 1 was vacated) makes Kentucky the fox dashing through the bluegrass, with LSU the closest follower with 11. The Gators have less than half of that total with 5. But since the year 2000, the dawning of the Age of Billy-Ball let’s call it, Kentucky has 6 titles, Florida has 4 and LSU 3 of the 17 SEC titles won and/or shared. So in the modern age, and with LSU going down the tubes the last 3 years, the SEC is a Kentucky-Florida battle.

National Index: Team of the Decade. That’s what the Gators were in the decade that just ended. When you tally up the performances from 2000 to 2009, only Florida and UNC have two titles, and only Florida has three Title Game appearances. Though UNC and Michigan State each had 4 Final Four appearances to Florida’s 3, the Gators have the best record in the Final Four at 5-1, compared to UNC’s 4-2 and MSU’s 3-3, and had the largest average margin of victory in Final Fours (+8.2 ppg), ahead of UNC (+6.8) an MSU (-3). What’s more they pulled off the Herculean task of repeating back2back titles with the same starting five, a feat that had remarkably never been done before or since in 80 years of college basketball.

Now, the Gators had a three-year slide off the mountain top, in two of which they failed to garner invite to the NCAA tournament (though they arguably earned one both times), but were back in the Elite 8 the last two years with eclectic but talented lineups and great coaching. Call me a poor sport, but I have no doubt in my mind that the officials took the Butler game away from Florida two years ago, without which the Gators would have easily advanced to the Finals where it was clear that UConn had finally run out of gas in their long post-season run and was ripe for the beating. The Gators were that close to bringing home their 3rd national title in six years. Last year, they barely missed the Final Four once again, where they undoubtedly had the best chance to beat Kentucky of anyone in the NCAA field, having played them 3 times and matched them shot-for-shot right up to the end of their SEC Tourney loss. As it is, the Gators’ 2-straight visits to the Elite 8 was only the second time the program had done so – the only other time being their repeat national titles. They are poised to make an even deeper tournament run this year.

Fox & Hounds: The standards as we all know are UCLA with 11 titles and Kentucky with eight. Behind them, however the basketball national title is so difficult to win that Florida’s mere two championships put them in 8th place all-time. Had Butler beaten UConn 2 years ago, they’d still be tied for 7th instead. And despite the dominance of UCLA and UK, neither of them had a natty in the previous 13 years preceding UK’s bought & paid for title last year. Since 2000, Florida has two championships, as does Duke, UConn and UNC. Those are also the 4 programs that will set the pace this decade, with Kentucky fading back after Calipari bolts in two years just ahead of yet another NCAA probation for both Cal & Ken. 

Outlook: Fearsome Again. Florida lost a lot of height and heart with the graduation of Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin, as well as Alex Tyus who finally showed the kind of player he could be in the NCAA tournament this year. However, the Gators returned a very talented and capable guard-heavy lineup charged to the Elite 8 for the 2nd straight year, showing not only that Billy Donovan remains a master of crafting highly successful teams out of any mixture of players, and many different brands of basketball, but also that he has rebuilt the depth and recruiting succession to compete every year without rebuilding (barring a tectonic even like the ‘04s creating a brief void behind them). The Gators return a powerful lineup, an excellent incoming freshman class and an elite class committed to hit Gainesville next year. But beyond the roster, the Gators are back at the top of the game because of coaching. Billy Donovan has sorted out the post-‘04s/Mo Speights recruiting dip and is clearly reenergized after a couple of trying seasons. The next few years should be exceptional for the Gator hoopsters.

So there you have the State of the Program for the top 4 men’s sports in Florida athletics, concluding our look at the entire Gator athletics program. When you get this close to the top of a program as wildly successful as Florida’s, seeding order is highly subjective and somewhat meaningless, but I applied the best logic and metric I could to put them in line. One of the things that really stood out when digging into the recent and distant past of the different Florida programs was just how impressive their accomplishments have been in light of playing in the SEC, which in most of the sports is the historical and/or recent dominant conference or at least providing the dominant program. This fact is further highlighted by a very interesting fact: of the 29 national titles won by UF athletic teams, 7 of them were won by teams that did not even win the SEC title (5 second place finishers, 1 third place and 1 fourth place). Given that one of the titles – gymnastics – came before the SEC sanctioned the sport, a full 28% of the Gator national championships have been won by teams that did not win the SEC conference. The Gators pulled it off two times last spring alone.

The Gators’ 29 national titles are equitably split between genders, with 6 different men’s teams and 6 different women’s teams bringing home the hardware. The total titles are almost exactly even as well, with the men claiming 15 crowns and the women right behind with 14. Combined, they have won 149 individual NCAA championships. The Gators have won the most SEC titles of any school in the conference, with 205, more than half a century mark ahead of #2 Tennessee (153), and women’s lacrosse has won 2 ALC titles. Like the national titles, the conference championships are close to even between genders, with 11 women’s teams and 10 men’s teams claiming championships, including one title in 1975 in wrestling. The number of titles are a bit more gender-skewed than the national titles, with the girls taking home 111 crowns, and the boys staking claim to 96. The Gators of both genders combined have also won 44 SEC tournament championships in sports that award their official conference title to the regular season champion.

Thus is life in the Gator Nation. And in the Gator Nation, all is good. Good and Plenty.

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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.