All of these players were recruited by Norm Sloan, who must be acknowledged as the man who finally brought basketball into Florida. Now the coach at his alma mater, North Carolina State, Sloan took over at Florida in 1961. His assistant coach, Perry Moore, who is now assistant to Athletic Director Ray Graves, remembers: "It was miserable. Norm and I literally walked the streets talking basketball. We took sportswriters out to lunch, just to get their minds off football. We talked to high school principals, in barber shops, anywhere anyone would listen."
Sloan is an energetic and successful promoter and recruiter, but he is a tough coach and a temperamental one—his actions on the bench were responsible for the referee ending the N.C. State-Maryland game last Saturday night with 1:15 still remaining—and last year he did not get along with the Florida players who, for the most part, are of a calm and studious mien. Bartlett, with his peppery enthusiasm on the one hand and his relaxed, tension-stoned demeanor on the other, appeals to the players. "He's a winner," Keller says simply, "and he's treated us like winners from the first."
Those who know and respect both Sloan and Bartlett say that Florida got the best of both worlds—Sloan to start the program, Bartlett to nurture it to fruition. Bartlett is a tenacious man who, despite his size, has spent a lifetime beating other people in a variety of games: tennis, football, softball, swimming, badminton, basketball. He takes up a sport, masters it, beats everybody around and, that done, moves on to something else. After a tour in the service, in which he spent much of his time playing on the All-Navy tennis team, Bartlett went home to Tennessee in 1948 on a football-basketball scholarship. He gave up the football but played basketball and tennis, and after graduation moved naturally into coaching—first in high school, then at Carson-Newman College and Chattanooga, where he had winning records every year. He returned to Tennessee as assistant basketball coach, head tennis coach and tennis pro at the Cherokee Country Club. The only two times that Tennessee ever won the SEC tennis title were when Bartlett was captain and last year when he was coach. With his pro job he was earning good money, too. "If I had wanted to remain an assistant coach, I could have lived and died at Tennessee," he says.
Two years ago, shortly after recovering from a mysterious virus that almost killed him, he decided against accepting an offer from Georgia, but when the Florida challenge came last June he grabbed at it. A few weeks later he took the team to South America. It lost one game out of nine, when all but three of Bartlett's players were fouled out. The home team wins a lot of revolutions and basketball games in South America.
So, too, in the SEC. Because of its losses at home to Vanderbilt and Florida, Kentucky has—temporarily, anyway—been eliminated from the race. The Wildcats, with plenty of good little men, have neither found the right combination nor achieved the cohesion that made it possible for last year's team to overcome a similar height handicap. Kentucky has also deteriorated dramatically on defense. The collapse has brought the Ruppologists—who, like Kremlinologists, are usually wrong—scurrying into the open again, speculating about the Baron. Rumors of his demise, however, are greatly exaggerated; Adolph has told friends that he has no intention of quitting until his fine freshman team leaves school, three seasons hence.
But the fall of Kentucky leaves a flock of contenders. As in football—five SEC teams went to bowls and four of them won—the basketball race should be a close one among good teams. Vanderbilt and Mississippi State must be ranked only slightly behind Florida, with Tennessee just another notch below.
The Gators are acutely aware that this would be their first basketball championship, a prize to match their other proud claims: Spurrier; the SEC all-sports title; the oft-repeated boast that they are second only to Vanderbilt in academics; and invention of a jaundice-yellow beverage that is made on campus and is called Gatorade. This elixir, it is alleged, will put back into an athlete's body those chemicals lost through perspiration. Presumably Gatorade is responsible for many Florida victories, and everybody is very proud of it.
There is more talk about sweat in Gainesville than in all the ads for Turkish baths. But then, Gainesville is not part of the Florida of the Gold or the Platinum Coast, but just a college town, inland and far enough north so that the palm trees seem out of place—commercial adornments planted around motels and public buildings and on median strips. It cost Bartlett $70 to buy a pair for the front lawn of his new home. When Carol Higley, Skip's wife, arrived in Gainesville from Akron, it was the lack of jungle vegetation that disappointed her most.
The Higleys were married last summer. Skip, who came to Florida sight unseen because his high school coach knew Sloan, is a top student majoring in psychology. He wants to do social work with children after his graduation. It is ironic that all the great height on the Florida team is completely dependent on Higley and his playmaking ability. Miller, who was an Eagle Scout, a center in high school and a forward last year, is, under Bartlett, the other guard. As he quickly admits, however, he really fills the role of a third forward. He and McElroy both crash from far outside, the nuclear engineer and the Eagle Scout coming at the hoop from opposite directions.
So the entire ball-handling responsibility is left to Higley, the point man. Rival teams have been pressing full court, just to harass him and wear him down, but he has not lost the ball in backcourt even once this year. "You always hear coaches talking about their good little ball handlers," says Garland Pinholster, former coach of Oglethorpe College who is studying for his Ph.D. at LSU this year, and was watching Higley bring the ball up last Saturday. "Usually they mean he is tricky and can throw it behind his back and all that. But this guy is what a good little ball handler really is." Higley is also the team's only sound defensive player.