HOOPS: After 40 Years, The Monkey Is Gone

Pardon me if I get a little sentimental and ramble just a bit. I'm one of those old-time wait until next year Gators who has spent a lifetime waiting for a moment like this. I'm one of those Gators who got all misty back in 1991 when Florida beat Kentucky to win its first official Southeastern Conference football championship, and I'm one of those old Gators who got a little misty Sunday afternoon when Florida beat Kentucky in Atlanta to win its first ever SEC Basketball Tournament Championship.

My first Gator basketball game was in December of 1963 when I was a seventh grader at Westwood Junior High in Gainesville. I saw Dick Tomlinson light up Tampa for 44 points. Ten days later, as I was waiting in line to buy a ticket for my second Gators game at old Florida Gym, I recognized Tomlinson walking in the door. I ran over to congratulate him for the game against Tampa. Instead of brushing me off, as a lot of star athletes might do, he smiled and said, "Come with me, kid!" We walked down the hall and he talked basketball with me, treating me like I was an adult, not the star-struck kid that I was. We got to the gate and he nodded at the man taking tickets and pointed to me, then put his hand on my shoulder and we both walked through.

I was in Florida Gym to see the Gators play basketball and it was for free! And the one who got me in the game was Dick Tomlinson! He told me to use that dollar I saved to buy a Coke and a hot dog. I did that and I don't think a Coke or a hot dog ever tasted as good in all the years since that I've been going to basketball games.

Florida lost to Tulsa that night when Coach Norm Sloan spent an entire evening baiting a zebra who was easily about 10-15 pounds overweight. The game got close and when the Gators needed a couple of calls down the stretch, that same official whose ear Norm had been chewing on all night turned a blind eye.

During those days, Sloan was earning his nickname "Stormin' Norman." He was Florida's first full-time basketball coach. Before 1960, the basketball coach at Florida did double duty, usually working as a football assistant. Norm was volatile and cranky for sure, but he was a young man, still just in his thirties and he was growing into the role of being a head coach. He had problems handling people at the time, as Tomlinson or Bill Koss will tell you, but he had a goal to make Florida basketball a championship program. Norm dreamed the big dream that Florida basketball would won day beat Kentucky for championships way back in the days when Florida hadn't even beaten Kentucky in a basketball game --- EVER!

Beating Kentucky for a championship might have happened a lot sooner if Norm had stayed, but no one blamed him after the 1965-66 season when he got the call from his old mentor, Everett Case, North Carolina State's first great basketball coach, to come home. NC State offered him nearly three times the salary he was making at UF, so it was a no-brainer for a young coach with three kids. He came back in the 1980s and got Florida its first regular season SEC title and Florida's first NCAA tournament appearances, but he never won the SEC Tournament.

"Norm was about championships," said Koss, a reserve center on those Gator teams of the mid-60s, and author of the best book ever about Florida basketball, "Pond Birds." Koss has probably seen as many if not more Florida basketball games than anyone alive. If there is a voice who speaks for all the "wait till next year" Gators, it is Bill. He's been with the Gators through all the ups and all the downs of Florida basketball since he played for Sloan and was a member of Florida's first outstanding basketball team, the 1964-65 edition which won 18 games, best in school history at the time, and beat Kentucky for the very first time.

"If you look at what he came to do when he came here, no one ever dreamed that dream until Norm arrived," said Koss. "When he came back in the 1980s he gave us that first ever SEC regular season championship but he wasn't able to win the tournament."

Lon Kruger got the Gators to the Final Four for the first time in 1994, but he never won the SEC Tournament, either. Billy Donovan's in his ninth season at UF, and finally, there is an SEC Tournament Championship banner that can hang from the rafters at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

"This was a great win for all the old Florida basketball players and for all the fans who have been so loyal to us for all the years," said Koss. "What makes it so special is that the championship is won by beating Kentucky. They are the standard for the SEC and every program that comes along is going to be measured against Kentucky, so to beat them tells you how far Florida basketball has come, and it tells you that it is ready for a shift in the power in the SEC.

"There is a real feeling that there is a shift taking place in the SEC. It's like an earthquake for Kentucky because Kentucky is what basketball is all about in the SEC. Today the experience of winning a Southeastern Conference Tournament championship for the first time is the ultimate. Kentucky fans were leaving with four minutes to go, and yesterday, they packed the place and they were all pulling against Florida because they know that if there is one school that is capable of challenging from here on out, every year, for the SEC championship it is Florida."

Koss believes that Florida's run to the SEC actually began in Lexington with a loss to Kentucky. He believes that if the season turned for Florida, it was in the second half of that game when Kentucky pushed, shoved and beat up the Gators.

"Florida went to Lexington and as a group, they felt they had what it takes to win," he said. "They had everything including a six or seven point lead at the half but in the second half they were not at all ready for what Kentucky did to them. Our kids saw that for the first time. They experienced something in their hearts that changed the season. They felt they were going to do something but in the second half, Kentucky took that fight to a second level and won the game. Our kids realized that we had some work to do."

Since then, Florida is 9-1, the only loss a tough one to LSU in Baton Rouge where a lot of teams have problems. In the stretch run it's been a Florida team that has won in every possible manner. The Gators have won in shootouts, they've won in the half court, and they've won with defense and rebounding.

"All weekend Corey Brewer (Florida freshman) kept saying we're about winning championships," said Koss. "And I think that's what defines this team. They have a core belief in themselves to a man that they have the ability to win championships.

"I believe they have the talent, the ability, the coaching … everything you need to make a very deep run into the NCAA Tournament. I was saying back in November that this is a Sweet Sixteen team. This is a basketball team that is different from any other team we've had here in a while because they have the talent, a will to win and a belief that they can do something extraordinary."

He woke up Sunday morning in Atlanta, convinced that the Gators were going to do something special. He told his son that he felt the Gators were going to win by 10-13 points. His son thought dear old dad might have fallen out of bed and taken a blow to the coconut during the night, but Koss insisted that the Gators had what it takes to win. Once the Gators did what he expected, it was a signal that things have changed in the SEC.

"Kentucky has great fans but they are also smart enough to realize that Florida is for real," he said, noting that this is the first Florida team since 1966-67 to beat the Wildcats twice in one season. "If there is one school that they can all agree can consistently challenge Kentucky for the top spot in the SEC, it's Florida."

Back in those days when I was first becoming a devoted Florida basketball team, I was in classes at Westwood with Sloan's daughter Debbie and I played football for Red Dulaney along with Sloan's son, Mike, so I knew all of the Sloans. Back in those days when Norm talked about Florida beating Kentucky for championships most people thought he was a lot of hot air. He didn't ever beat Kentucky for a championship but he did get the first win ever over the Wildcats at Florida Gym in 1965.

There is a bit or irony here. Forty years ago, Florida's win over Kentucky signaled that the Gators had finally arrived in big time basketball. Forty years later, it is a win over Kentucky that signals that the Florida Gators no longer have to wait till next year.

Next year is this year. For me and for so many others who qualify as "wait till next year Gators" the monkey is finally off our backs. Pardon me if I don't have the decency to wipe the tear away.

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