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Double dipping for all the chips

With an NCAA basketball title and a BCS title game berth, Florida slashes law of big-time college sports

January 06, 2007|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

GAINESVILLE, FLA. — Basketball and football have never been so cozy at the University of Florida; the venues could practically chest bump.

The Stephen C. O'Connell Center and the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium are separated by about only 90 steps.

What once was a two-sport chasm at Florida -- and other big-time college programs -- is being bridged by a burgeoning mutual admiration society.

Never before has a school won an NCAA basketball championship and college football title in consecutive seasons, but stay tuned ...

Florida claimed the basketball title last spring with a win against UCLA and the football team is one victory against Ohio State on Monday from making history.

"It's just about utopia, you can't ask for much more," said Norm Carlson, Florida's sports information director for 40 years before retiring in 2004 to become the athletic department's historian. "I never envisioned that this would happen."

In fact, both teams in this year's Bowl Championship Series title game could turn the two-title trick. Florida and Ohio State have basketball teams capable of winning this year's NCAA title.

Florida and Ohio State are two of only 10 schools to ever win national titles in football and basketball.

Up to now, there has been a long-held belief, substantiated mostly by facts, that a school can't be great in both sports because, like the merging of magnets, laws of physics fight against it.

You were either a football or a basketball school.

An exception was Kentucky in 1950-51, when two coaching legends, Adolph Rupp in basketball, and Bear Bryant in football, were ruling their roosts.

Kentucky football went 11-1 in 1950 and defeated No. 1 Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Then, however, the Associated Press writers' and United Press coaches' polls crowned their champions before the bowls, so Oklahoma got credit for the titles.

In March 1951, Rupp's Kentucky team claimed the NCAA basketball title.

The Rupp-Bryant relationship was often cited as the case study for why you couldn't win big in both sports.

Bryant eventually left Kentucky because he didn't want to compete for attention and resources with Rupp. After a stop at Texas A&M, Bryant returned to his alma mater, Alabama, and won six national titles at what he -- and everyone else -- knew to be a football school.

Bryant loved to recount the story about the time at Kentucky when, at a sports banquet, Rupp received a Cadillac for winning the Southeastern Conference title while Bryant received a cigarette lighter.

Bryant kept the lighter the rest of his life.

"I think in a lot of big-time programs where you have basketball, baseball, football, and you have really good women's programs, a lot of times there's jealousy," Florida basketball Coach Billy Donovan said. "A jealousy of attention."

That hasn't been the case at Florida, where Donovan has flourished at a traditional football school and has lifted the basketball program to equal billing.

Donovan, people in the Florida athletic department say, has made his job easier by embracing football and, for that matter, every other sport at the school.

A former whiz-kid guard at Providence, Donovan arrived in Florida in 1996, the season the Gators won their last national title in football under coach Steve Spurrier. Donovan's basketball team went 13-17 that first season, but the program was on a fast track to national acclaim. In his fourth season, 1999-2000, Donovan's Gators lost the NCAA final to Michigan State.

Donovan's impact on the department has been infectious. He befriended football coaches Spurrier, Ron Zook, and now Urban Meyer, who has led the Gators into the title game in his second season.

Meyer and Donovan live in the same housing development, separated by only a vacant lot.

"Billy and I are very close," Meyer said recently. "He recruited me to Florida."

Meyer, Donovan and Pat McMahon, the Florida baseball coach, all attend the same Catholic Church, Queen of Peace.

Donovan understood from the start that football drives the financial engine.

"But that doesn't mean we can't be successful," he said. "I don't know why I would ever need to have a bad relationship with a football coach here. Because it's not like the football coach has any effect on my job. I think what happens [other places] is that jealousies creep in where things get said, feelings get hurt, someone makes a comment in the media ... "

Florida coaches say Florida is different because Jeremy Foley, the athletic director, made it different. Foley started working at the school in 1976, as an intern in the ticket office, and has been the AD since 1992.

When he hired Donovan, Foley asked him to change the football-basketball dynamic.

"I'd been here 16 years and kept hearing the same thing -- you can't do it in both," Foley said. "Candidly, we didn't buy into that. When we hired Billy, we sat down, got everyone in the room and made the concerted decision to change the culture of basketball at Florida. Make sure the basketball team is the same as football.

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