"This is really good, the best I could even imagine it could be because of this team and this coach," says Machen. "They play basketball the way it's supposed to be played, they go to class … they're just good kids. They are everything you want … and look at this crowd. The students love them, the community loves them. There's nothing not to like about them and every good reason to be completely proud of them."
Billy Donovan is a coach after Machen's heart. Donovan makes it perfectly clear that Florida basketball is not about him but it's about a basketball program fitting in with the mission of a great university. He sees himself as a mentor and guide, a shaper of young men, trying to instill into them lessons that they can take with them for a lifetime beyond basketball, all while teaching them to win the right way. That's the way Machen likes it.
"It's so funny that last year the media was hanging him [Donovan]," Machen said. "They lost three games in February and they were hanging him but now he's Adolph Rupp. It's such an unfair thing. He is Billy Donovan and it's his program for sure. He's built it the way it should be built and this is his moment. I'm so proud of him."
Machen is such a straight shooter. Accountability is high on his list of what's important. He wants the high-profile representatives of the University of Florida to be role models in both their profession and the community. He wants winners on the field that teach kids to be winners off the field.
"If you got really close to them [this team] you would see that Billy is everything that college basketball should be about just as this team is about everything a team should be about," said Machen. "They go to class, they make their grades, they respect him, they respect the university. This is the way it ought to be. If you ask me, I've got the best basketball coach in America at the University of Florida."
* * *
Anthony Grant sits in a chair in the Florida locker room, contemplating the national championship the Gators have just won. Almost at the same moment, what the Gators have done and the fact that he's exhausted hits him. In a millisecond, the energy is drained and he leans back in the chair, surveying a locker room that swarms with media from all parts of the globe bombarding kids he helped recruit and coach with every question imaginable. He allows a small grin to crack a face that has yet to wrinkle.
He ponders a question for a couple of seconds, then answers precisely, deliberately. He speaks softly but there is confidence and pride in his voice.
"This is a humbling feeling," says Grant, who has been an assistant coach under Donovan all ten years he's been at Florida. "To be able to look around this room and see these kids, these players and all the people who made this possible … I guess in some ways I feel like a proud parent. I couldn't be happier for what they've been able to accomplish."
The accomplishment is the high water mark for a program that has been built from the ground up over the last 10 years. The Gators endured two losing seasons while they were putting the foundation in place, but once the concrete dried they've ripped off eight straight 20-win or better seasons, eight straight NCAA bids and appeared in two national championship games. Now the Gators sit alone at the top, national champs.
Grant takes a moment to think about the blood, sweat, tears and sacrifices that have gone into building a program that doesn't just win, but wins the right way. The Florida program is clean as a whistle. Not a hint of scandal or impropriety to be found. Gainesville and the University of Florida are home for him.
"I've been here 10 years, I don't know anything else," said Grant. "This is what we have built. This is who we are. Maybe that means people recognize our efforts but we're no different than we were last year when we lost in the second round or in those years when we lost in the first round. We come to work every day and we put our heart and soul in it. This year we were fortunate to win the whole thing."
When he speaks of Donovan and fellow assistant coaches Larry Shyatt and Donnie Jones, his eyes moisten and his soft voice hovers just above a whisper.
"I would trust Billy Donovan with my life," said Grant, who has been with Billy Donovan every step of the way in the ten-year building project that has been Florida basketball. "I would trust Donnie Jones with my life. I would trust Larry Shyatt with my life … everybody that works with us."
Grant is a man of deep religious faith, quietly confident and extraordinarily articulate yet able to connect with people from any background or circumstance. He grew up in Miami, played college basketball in the Midwest at Dayton, and has earned a reputation as one of the top recruiters among the nation's assistant coaches. Among Florida's players, he is well regarded as a coach that can communicate and teach. The kids on the team appreciate that he can not only coach, but he's available any time they want to talk and they know they can talk about anything with him.
He loves his job, loves the coaches he works with and loves the players he coaches. He has a strong attachment to Gainesville and the University of Florida, a deep abiding loyalty to Donovan and a sense of contentment in what he has been able to accomplish.
He wants to be a head coach someday and it will likely be sooner and not later although he says the circumstances will have to be good or else it's a no-go.
"The job would have to be the right job, not just any job," he says. "The situation here is just so good … I love Billy Donovan, love the coaches I work with and the support staff we have here which is as good as you will find anywhere in the country and I love coaching these kids. I love Gainesville and it is home for me and for my family.
"Billy Donovan, Donnie Jones and Larry Shyatt are my best friends. I love to come to work because I work with them. The support we give each other and the support we get from the university is unparalleled. To go somewhere else means giving all this up so the situation will have to be a good one, otherwise I'll just stay here. I'm happy here."
* * *
This is year number 33 in Larry Shyatt's coaching journey. He's had a couple of head coaching jobs and when he came to Florida, it was on the heels of a bad situation at Clemson, a place where good coaches leave as quickly as possible before their careers die.
The Clemson experience was difficult but there is no bitterness. He knows there is a reason and a purpose even for difficult circumstances. In his circumstance, a difficult situation opened the door for him to come to Florida where he's been a part of two Southeastern Conference Tournament championships and now an NCAA championships. When he puts everything in the right perspective, he's content.
"I wouldn't trade one experience including getting thrown out of Clemson," he said. "It was a Godsend to be sent here to Florida. I'm a big believer that God's got a plan for every one of us."
When Billy Donovan offered him the chance to join the Florida staff, he hesitated for a moment. He thought the Florida program has tremendous potential and felt it would be a good place to coach, but he wanted to be sure he fit in.
"I wouldn't have taken the job if Billy and Anthony and Donnie didn't think this was a good fit for them, for me, for us," he said. "They had been so successful for so long and I didn't want to mess anything up so I wanted to be sure they felt like I was a good fit for this staff."
He came to Florida with a reputation for teaching sound, fundamental defense. He worked for Rick Barnes where he earned a reputation as a transformer of soft teams into tough guys and that reputation carried over when he was a head coach at Wyoming and Clemson.
The year before he arrived at Florida, the Gators ranked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference in nearly every defensive category and were considered extremely talented but very soft. Last year, in Shyatt's first year as a Florida assistant, the Gators were top four in nearly every defensive category.
Monday night, as the Gators blew UCLA out of the RCA Dome, they showed they were the best defensive team in the country and not the heralded Bruins who became media darlings after holding Memphis and LSU to 45 points each. Monday night it was the Gators who were tougher, more fundamentally sound and rarely out of position. Shyatt deserves plenty of credit for helping to change things to a take no prisoners mentality but he is quick to defer credit, pointing out that whatever happens with the Gators is the result of unselfish cooperation by the coaching staff.
"We all have a role and I think we work well together," he said. "Being on a coaching staff is no different than any other family. You have to make sure the egos are intact and you have to make sure that you're willing to bend and be flexible. You can't get hurt feelings. We're all trying to accomplish the same thing so you put the ego aside and you keep in mind that we're trying to win a national championship. We're the lucky ones tonight. We won it and it's just so special."
He didn't allow himself to celebrate until the final 60 seconds of the game when he looked at Donnie Jones and said "Can you believe it?"
Then, in typical Larry Shyatt fashion, he thought about the things that are important.
"All I could do is focus on my wife, my three boys, my mom, my sister … how God's been so good," said Shyatt. "It's a feeling that I will never forget. You don't get many moments in life like this so you want to enjoy every second of it."
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