Legendary UCLA COACH JOHN WOODEN REFERRED TO his 1969?70 Bruins, the sixth among his 10 national champions in 12 seasons, as The Team Without. He issued this somber sobriquet after the graduation of perhaps the greatest player in the history of college basketball: Lew Alcindor. For decades the University of Florida was The School Without, an appellation that—unlike the tag for Wooden's Bruins—can be claimed without a touch of disingenuousness. Before Billy Donovan's arrival in 1996, the highlights of Florida basketball history could be shown during a 30-second timeout. The Gators' one Final Four appearance, in 1994, ended in a loss to Duke in the semifinals and also marked the apex of then coach Lon Kruger's six-year tenure in Gainesville; Kruger failed to build on that success with the type of recruiting that would later stock Donovan's championship teams. Add in one outright regular-season Southeastern Conference championship (1989), zero SEC tournament titles and a modest total of five trips to the NCAA tournament, and you have the extent of Orange and Blue hoops accomplishments, B.D.—Before Donovan.
Glory for the Gators in other major sports was also sparse. It took the baseball team until 1988 to make its first College World Series appearance, and it has yet to claim a national crown. ( Florida was runner-up to Texas in the 2005 CWS.) The women's hoops squad has never reached the Final Four, though the women's soccer team can list the '98 national title on its score sheet, as can several teams in less-glamorous sports such as swimming, tennis, gymnastics, track and field, and golf. In all, Gators teams have won 18 national titles—not counting the most recent football and basketball titles.
The football program before Steve Spurrier's arrival in 1990 had failed to win an official conference championship, with three first-place finishes disqualified because of NCAA violations. ( Charley Pell gave 'em hell, all right.) Spurrier finally awoke the "sleeping giant," as the program was once referred to by Bear Bryant, and lifted it into the spotlight with six SEC crowns (not including the discounted '90 title) and the '96 national title.
Ten years later Urban Meyer would make history by leading Florida to its second football crown just nine months after Donovan's first NCAA tournament championship. The double dip of glory gave the school an instant, massive infusion of what it had lacked for so long—a bona fide, unassailable recognition as a sports superpower—while providing it with the unique distinction of being the first school to have simultaneous possession of the two most coveted trophies in collegiate athletics.
Now Donovan has extended these months of celestial bliss for Gators fans with a second consecutive NCAA tournament championship, powered by the same starting five ( Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah) that cut down the nets at the RCA Dome a year before. The school's third major title in a 12-month span sets two more precedents: Florida is the first school to hold both the football and men's hoops championships in the same academic year and the first to do so in the same calendar year. Hogtown has become Titletown.
"God, I'd love to be a student here," Meyer said during Donovan's latest NCAA tournament run. "Can you imagine that? Another chance to run around in the street and act like a nut."
The tally so far for Messrs. Donovan and Meyer: three national championships and a combined postseason winning streak of 23 games dating to the 2005 SEC tournament. At this rate the school that was once starved for major titles will soon be able to use the traditional wood-and-gold NCAA championship plaques as bathroom doorstops. Its coaches will have made so many visits to the White House they might as well be heads of state, ambassadors for the commonwealth known as Gator Nation. "This is what we're all about: the University of Florida and winning championships," an elated Brewer said after the 84?75 defeat of Ohio State.
Back home in Gainesville, BCS title-game offensive MVP Chris Leak and more than 11,000 other Gators had watched the 2007 NCAA tournament final from the O'Connell Center, where the now former Florida quarterback proclaimed at halftime, "It's truly the year of the Gators."
With spring football practice in full swing and Tim Tebow set to take the reins from Leak, the ball—to use the basketball expression—is back in Meyer's court. Can he maintain Gator Nation's hegemony by pulling off his own repeat, a feat that hasn't been accomplished in football since the 1994?95 Nebraska Cornhuskers? ( USC won a split title in 2003 before claiming it outright in '04.) As Donovan knows all too well, the road won't be easy for Meyer.
"People don't realize that there's a lot of baggage that comes with winning it all," Donovan said. "I don't know if people truly understand how difficult it is."