Take a good, hard
look, America. In an era of me-first gunners, one-year supernovas (see you in
the NBA, Kevin Durant) and attention spans the length of a YouTube clip, it may
be a long, long time before we see another college basketball team like these
Florida Gators. Just listen to forward Corey Brewer, a.k.a. the Drunken
Dribbler (for his swerving forays to the hoop), who was as sober as a reverend
(for a little while, at least) after his Gators claimed their second straight
national title on Monday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. "I feel like we're
one of the best college basketball teams to ever play the game," Brewer
said after Florida's 84--75 victory over Ohio State. "You can argue about
it, but I'd put us up against anybody."
On Monday night it
wasn't a hard case for Counselor Brewer to make. Not after the Gators had
destroyed Ohio State from three-point range, shooting 10 for 18 while holding
the Buckeyes to a miserable 4 for 23. Or after forward Al Horford had danced a
Dominican merengue on his interior defenders to the tune of 18 points and 12
rebounds. Or after Brewer, named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four,
had blitzed Ohio State from every angle, producing three treys, three steals
and countless grimaces of frustration from his opponents.
If last year's
champions were the self-proclaimed Gator Boys, charming upstarts who rode a
Banzai Pipeline wave to glory, then these titlists should go down as the
History Boys, a once-in-a-generation collective that achieved one of the rarest
feats in modern American team sports. Only once in the past 33 years had
Division I men's college basketball crowned a repeat champ--Duke, in 1991 and
'92--and never had a reigning team overcome such an exhausting seasonlong
barrage of questions about its chances of winning back-to-back trophies.
On Monday all those
questions were answered in full, leaving Florida fans to bask in the glow of an
unprecedented run that now includes the last three national championships in
the two most popular college sports (two in basketball and one in
football--that one coming just three months ago against none other than Ohio
State, leaving Buckeyes fans feeling as if they've been struck down by some
kind of blue-and-orange curse). Yet the legacy of the History Boys will go far
beyond mere trophies. "I'd like for this team to be remembered as the
greatest team that ever played," Gators coach Billy Donovan said afterward.
"I'm not saying this team would beat the UNLVs [of the early 1990s] and the
UCLAs [of the John Wooden dynasty]. I'm not talking about wins and losses. I'm
talking about the word team."
By winning his
second national championship, at age 41, Billy D launched himself into rarefied
air, becoming the youngest coach to claim his second championship ring since
Bob Knight (who was 40 when he won for the second time with Indiana, in 1981).
From now on, coaches whose national-title teams return intact will use
Donovan's masterly strategy as a case study on how to handle the pressure to
repeat. It all started last April, not long after the Gators' NBA-ready stars
(center Joakim Noah, Horford and Brewer) decided to postpone professional
riches and return to school, when Donovan sat down in his office and began
constructing a list under the heading Distractions.
I love being alone,
thinking and writing down my thoughts," Donovan said during a rare break
from game preparation in his Atlanta hotel last week. "I wanted to leave no
stone unturned in getting our guys to be totally committed to our team. There
were 10 to 15 potential distractions I looked at and said, 'These are the
things I have to be ready for.'" As Donovan's list grew, he realized just
how many pitfalls possibly awaited his team. Selfishness. Agents. Media
demands. Yet perhaps the most intriguing distraction he included was this one:
everything else on the list, that self-aware entry would prove prophetic.
Donovan did his best to avoid becoming an issue when he decided not to sign a
contract extension last summer. "I knew if I did," he said, "then
[agents] would go to Noah, Horford and Brewer and say, 'How do you feel that
you turned down millions of dollars, and your coach did this?'" But it also
meant that he wasn't caught completely off-guard when Tubby Smith left Kentucky
to coach at Minnesota on March 22, thrusting Donovan (a former Wildcats
assistant and Kentucky's top choice as Smith's replacement) into a Big Blue
maelstrom right in the middle of Florida's NCAA tournament run.
coaching vacancies come open, and if people view that you're doing a good job,
you're going to get attention on that," said Donovan, who issued
pitch-perfect nondenial denials when asked last week if he'd had any contacts
with Kentucky. "But I also understood: [That's why] I listed Billy Donovan
as one of the 'Distractions.'"
An earlier crisis
had come in February, and it was the kind of thing that can tear apart a team.
ESPN's Dick Vitale was caught unaware on a Knoxville, Tenn., radio station
telling friends that Donovan had told him (off the record) that Horford was a
better pro prospect than Noah. While Donovan insisted that he had never said
such a thing, he still had a swamp-sized mess to clean up. "What made me
mad was the number of people who called me to talk about it," says Noah.
"I couldn't imagine how much time I'd spend talking about this petty s---.
Do you really think we came back for that? To go up against each other? Come
on, we're trying to make history here."
To defuse the
situation, Donovan convened a meeting with Noah and Horford in his Toyota
Sequoia SUV--a favored place for private-but-informal discussions--on the way
to the Gainesville airport the next day for a trip to Knoxville to play
Tennessee. "People wanted to say, ' Shaq and Kobe! Horford and Noah aren't
getting along because of the coach!'" said Donovan, screaming comically as
if he were delivering a tabloid headline. "But handling things that are
said in the media was also one of the distractions I anticipated."