Tradition Won't Matter Until Tuesday Morning

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana --- Not that tradition really means anything once you get to this stage, but Monday night's national championship game between the Florida Gators and the UCLA Bruins is being played up as upstart Florida against the tradition-laden Bruins. First things first, tradition is really nice but you don't win championships with tradition. You do win championships with superior coaching and better players and that's what matters most.

So no matter how much it is hyped Monday as the team of tradition against the new kids on the block, this is still, as Joakim Noah puts it, "ten players, two baskets and 40 minutes, playing for a championship in a game we've been playing since we were kids." The fact that UCLA has won 11 national championships, more than any team in NCAA history, won't have any bearing on the outcome of the game nor will the fact that the Bruins had won 10 national championships before the Florida Gators had ever made their first NCAA appearance.

The only thing that will matter is the players and the coaches. The players that play the best and the coach that makes the best adjustments will be the winners and nothing that happened in the past can change that. When tradition will matter is the morning after.

Tuesday morning, either the University of Florida will have its first national championship ever in basketball or UCLA will have its twelfth. For Florida, a national championship will be a benchmark of how far the program has come in Billy Donovan's 10 years and because he's only 40 years old, the future will have this look of unlimited potential.

For UCLA, a national championship will be seen by Bruin fans as a sign that order in the universe has been restored and that the dynasty is about to be cranked up again. Because he is the coach at UCLA, it's inevitable that Ben Howland will be compared to John Wooden

There will be a sense of fairness in the discussion for Donovan. After all, he is the one authoring Gator basketball tradition every time his team takes the floor. In that respect, you could fairly compare Donovan to Wooden. Wooden single-handedly created the basketball tradition at UCLA. There was no basketball history to speak of at UCLA before Wooden just as there was very little basketball history at Florida pre-Donovan. Yes, the Gators had been to the NCAA Tournament before Billy and they had even made a Final Four (1994) but let's remember that this is the same program that Lon Kruger left at the 1995 season, convinced that his run to the Final Four was nothing more than a fluke that was unlikely to ever be duplicated.

Because there is no history of past success at Florida and no great coach in the past that can be compared to Donovan, Billy doesn't have to go through his coaching life with the burden of constant comparisons to ghosts or legends. At Florida, he is the FIRST Billy Donovan and not the second coming of Adolph Rupp or Dean Smith. At Kentucky, Tubby Smith has to live with the ghost of Rupp and the shadow of Rick Pitino an hour away in Louisville. At North Carolina, no matter how much success he has, Roy Williams will always be compared to Dean Smith.

Going into Monday night's game, Donovan has a 260-118 record (225-98 at Florida) with eight straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament and two appearances in the NCAA championship game. This is all before his 41st birthday.

A win Monday night and perhaps it will be safe to call Billy D a legend in the making. Even with a loss, his place in Florida's basketball history book should be safe because getting eight straight NCAA Tournament bids and getting to two NCAA championship games is something no other Florida coach ever accomplished. But will Gator fans choose to see it that way? Will they understand that what Billy has done --- win or lose --- is remarkable? Will they understand that there was no tradition before Billy and that whatever he accomplishes is new ground broken?

And then take a moment to consider Ben Howland.

If ever a coach was in a can't win situation, Ben Howland is in it just like the seven other coaches who coached UCLA since Wooden's retirement after the 1975 national championship. Every UCLA coach has to live with the weight of expectation that was created by Wooden. Winning alone isn't good enough if there aren't championship banners to accompany the wins.

If Howland wins Monday night, the UCLA faithful will crown him "the next John Wooden." The euphoria of a championship will hang over until next March when the madness begins again. Then Howland will learn what the weight of expectation is all about. He will be expected to repeat. After all, once Wooden got his first championship (1964) he repeated the next year. And if he gets two, they will expect five more to follow.

UCLA and Kentucky in basketball are like Alabama in football. Anything less than a national championship and the fans consider the season a failure. Nobody ever takes into account that winning championships is a rather difficult past.

At UCLA nobody remembers that it wasn't until his 15th season that Wooden ever won an NCAA game and that season (1962) ended with losses in the NCAA semifinals to Cincinnati and in the consolation game (they had that until the 1982 season) to Billy Packer and Wake Forest.

Nobody remembers that Wooden had gone five years without an appearance in the NCAA Tournament when he took that 1962 team to the Final Four. They only remember the two straight titles (1964-65) and then the eight titles in the nine year run that began in 1967.

If UCLA loses Monday night, Ben Howland will get a mulligan for at least one year since 2007 was pretty much the year everyone expected UCLA to be a real contender for the national championship, but let's say he doesn't get back to the championship game next year? What will be the reaction in Westwood to that?

History tells us that win or lose, Howland can't win this battle. It will be damned if he wins because he will be expected to do it every year and damned if he doesn't because he will be considered just another coach that failed to live up to the John Wooden legacy. That's sad because Ben Howland is a fine person and just like Billy Donovan, he's a better man than he is a basketball coach.

Win or lose Monday night, Billy Donovan and Ben Howland will still be the same people Tuesday morning. They will still be outstanding coaches whose teams have defied the odds and marched their way to the chance to become the last team standing in the annual steel cage, over the top, last man standing event that is perhaps the best showcase in American sports. They will still be the same caring coaches who have proven that they love and care about the kids they coach. They will still be winners even though only one of them can carry home the big trophy. All the tradition in the world or lack of it cannot change that.

Fightin Gators Top Stories