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A Whole New Ball Game
Tim Layden
April 13, 2006
In the heart of Gator Nation the faithful discover there's more--much, much more--to life than kickoffs and bowl bids
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April 13, 2006

A Whole New Ball Game

In the heart of Gator Nation the faithful discover there's more--much, much more--to life than kickoffs and bowl bids

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A FAMOUS FLORIDA FOOTBALL COACH ONCE WON A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN NEW ORLEANS. This coach wore white visors on the sideline, made jokes about Tennessee in the off-season and reduced his beloved game to a succession of deliberately cornpone sound bites: Well, we'll pitch it around; we'll catch it some. Yet most of all, this coach was a Gator, and even though he now coaches in South Carolina, he will always be a Gator. And on this cool, foggy night, nearly a decade before Katrina, the old ball coach left a cozy celebration at his hotel and walked to the French Quarter to stand among all the Gators and drink in mouthfuls of sweet success.

History may someday remember Steve Spurrier as the embodiment of all things Gator, but in fact he is just a symbol. Gatordom grew large, spreading its influence far beyond the towering walls of the campus football stadium, slaking its thirst for victories on more than just 12 games every autumn and a distant bowl contest.

The Gainesville campus is the Disneyland of sport, dotted not simply with fields but also with stadiums. Not just the big one with the long name ( Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field) but one for baseball, one for soccer and track, one for softball, one for tennis. It is a place where the often ambiguous term commitment needs no definition beyond what the eye can see. If not all the Gators teams win big, they all nevertheless aim high.

Into this world stepped Billy Donovan a decade ago, a 30-year-old New Yorker by way of Providence and Kentucky with a thumping basketball where most men's hearts are found and a year's experience on Wall Street between his playing and coaching careers. As it turned out, that was just enough to recognize he had the opportunity to buy low.

Basketball is an interloper in the Southeastern Conference. Do not misconstrue this statement: SEC basketball teams have often played brilliantly. Nearly every team in the conference has enjoyed a period of hoops excellence, triggered by a coach (like Wimp Sanderson at Alabama) or a player (like Shaquille O'Neal at LSU). Even Florida reached the Final Four in '94, losing to Duke in the semifinals. But the SEC is a football conference, with the exception of Kentucky, which is lousy at football and had won seven of the conference's eight national basketball championships before this year. Arkansas had won the other, in 1994, just three years after joining the league.

On the first Monday night in April right in the heart of Hoosier Country, Florida became only the second traditional SEC school to win a national title in basketball. Long before that, Donovan had done something even more remarkable: He had made basketball part of the culture in Gainesville.

With the help of more than $10 million in improvements, he had turned the O'Connell Center--built in 1980--into a winter destination for Gators fans young and old. He had installed the frenetic style of play that Rick Pitino taught him at Providence and refined at Kentucky; think of it as the basketball version of the Fun 'n' Gun (fans did). He sold recruits on a football school and in 2000, just his fourth on the Florida bench, took the Gators to the national championship game, where they lost to Michigan State, a better team.

The final step is always the most difficult. The old ball coach could tell him this. His teams scored thousands of points before winning that title over Florida State in the Superdome.

The top step is guarded by demons seen and unseen, by the late-season slump and the motivated low seed, waiting in the first round with a senior point guard or mature big men. And here came 2006, when a marketing pitch (ANYONE CAN WIN!) became reality. The keepers of the Big Dance--that would be the NCAA and CBS television--have long pitched parity as the allure of the tournament, gluing fans to their big screens with the promise of not just first-round upsets but also long, sustained runs through the fortnight by teams any right-minded fan would regard as incapable of sustaining such effort.

This was the year when parity became a fact, fueled by a generation of stars stopping only briefly in college ('Melo) or not stopping at all (LeBron). It was the year when nary a No. 1 seed (a flawed lot, to be sure, but top seeds just the same) reached the Final Four but when George Mason, a mid-major at-large commuter school from the Washington, D.C., suburbs and seeded generously at No. 11, made it to the final weekend.

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