Originally created 04/03/00

'Other' Gators surging



INDIANAPOLIS -- Cover your ears, Steve Spurrier. Florida isn't just a football school anymore.

He's probably been hearing that a lot lately.

The football coach is one of many Florida fans rooting for a basketball team that has played for years without much attention in a state where football rules.

If the Gators beat Michigan State tonight, Florida will become just the sixth school to win national titles in both sports.

Despite all the hype over football, the Florida basketball team would have just as many national championships as the football team if it beats the Spartans: one.

"Oh, yeah, it's definitely a basketball school now," coach Billy Donovan said, drawing laughter because he knows it's not the case.

"I came here knowing this is not a basketball school, nor is it ever going to be a basketball school. All I'm concerned about is doing the best job I can."

He had a long way to go and covered a lot of ground much quicker than anyone thought possible. At 34, the fast talker from Long Island is on the verge of becoming the third youngest coach to win a national championship.

He has done it with a running, 3-point-shooting style of play -- they call it Billy Ball -- that rivals Spurrier's Fun 'N' Gun as the most exciting offense on campus.

The priorities have always been clear at the sprawling school of 42,000 students in Gainesville, Fla. It's obvious as soon as you turn left onto North-South Drive from University Avenue.

On the left is the football stadium. It has three names -- The Swamp, Florida Field and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

On the right, tucked behind the parking lot, is the O'Connell Center. That's where the basketball team plays. Like everything else on this campus, it is dwarfed by the monstrosity of the stadium and Spurrier's football program.

"Football has always had a big interest in the South," Spurrier said. "As far as basketball goes, when you're hanging NIT banners in your gym, that says you don't have much of a tradition.

"But I had no doubt Billy could do this."

Four years ago, athletic director Jeremy Foley hired Donovan away from tiny Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. As much as a turnaround, Foley needed a name, personality and style fans could rally behind.

"I looked at some of the scores of when Billy was in Marshall," Foley said. "He lost to Kentucky 120-98. It was a loss, but at least there's some entertainment value there."

Until the late 1980s, the Gators never made the NCAA tournament. They broke through in 1987-89, but even those moments were tarnished.

A key player from those teams, Vernon Maxwell, later admitted he used cocaine before one tournament game and took cash from his coaches. He's the leading scorer in school history, but his points from the last two seasons aren't recognized in the record book.

Likewise, Florida's only other trip to the Final Four, in 1994, had an unfulfilled feel to it. Two years after that appearance, coach Lon Kruger took his plodding style and left for Illinois. He claimed that for the Gators "to do in basketball what they do in football is just not possible."

Donovan arrived and started to change that.