Florida women’s basketball coach Amanda Butler has made the goal of the program perfectly clear.
“We’re not trying to be one of the best. We’re not trying to be top five. We’re trying to be the best,” Butler said.
Butler is the only coach in Florida history to achieve postseason berths in each of her first four seasons. But of those four postseason trips, Florida has been to the Big Dance just once.
The Gators made the NCAA Tournament in 2008-09. But they went 17-13 this year in a regular season marred by failures in close games and against lesser opponents, and accepted their second straight bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
Butler admits there is still work to be done but says she doesn’t have a timeline for success.
Five players transferred in Butler’s first three years as head coach, impeding the Gators’ chances of elevated play. And at least two of those players — Tessah Holt and Trumae Lucas — pointed to Butler’s treatment of players, coaching style and anger issues as reasons for their departure.
Surprisingly, the intensity and passion that made Butler an acclaimed hire in 2007, and not the lack of improvement, might prove to be her downfall.
“Coach Butler is the type of person that looks for perfection,” Holt said in a recent phone interview. “That can be good at times, but it can be wrong at times.”
Butler, a four-year starter at point guard for Florida during the early 1990s, once took a blow to the head and had to get stitches during a game. She returned within minutes.
As a coach, Butler frequently marches out onto the court barking instructions at her team and routinely slams water bottles in frustration after a mistake or blown play. Last season, she ruptured her Achilles tendon playing flag football and couldn’t stand on the job, so she used a chair with casters and ferociously wheeled up and down the sideline.
Butler, a part of the first Florida team in school history to make the NCAA Tournament, expects that same level of competitiveness from her players. But some say she expects too much and that her aggressive personality can become abrasive, especially when the wins are not piling up.
“You can get sick of it, but she’s the coach, and you have to do what she says or you’ll be on the bench,” Holt said.
Or out of town.
Holt loved Florida. Her cousin played at UF, and she wore the same jersey, No. 12, when she arrived. But she said Butler’s expectations were surprising.
“I felt like freshmen are going to make mistakes, so when you come to me and say I don’t have room to make mistakes, I was just like, ‘Wow,’” Holt said.
Current shooting guard and team captain Jordan Jones said Butler tends to hold point guards to a higher standard because of her past at the position. Jones said Butler takes the point guards aside for individual work in practice, something she rarely does with other position groups.
“She holds a special place in her heart (for point guards), and she definitely demands so much,” Jones said. “I have so much respect for them for what they kind of, not put up with, but what she demands of them.”
Butler said she doesn’t feel she has an abrasive personality as a coach and that her players know what to expect from her.
“I’d really prefer to think that I’m direct. I do that out of respect,” Butler said. “They’ve got to know that you love them. They’ve got to know that you care for them. They’ve got to know that you’d be willing to do anything for them that you can, within the rules, to get a response out of being tough on them.”
The problem is that Butler’s actions make her words tough to believe.
Infuriated with her team after a first-round loss to Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Tournament last season, Butler erupted in the locker room and provided what Holt said was the tipping point in her decision to transfer.
“She broke a whiteboard. … It shattered,” Holt said. “Which is kind of shocking to me because … you expect for a coach to hold her temper in or whatever and be the mature person.
“But when she broke that board, I was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Who is this person?’ It was something for me — I wouldn’t say I was scared, but it was just shocking.”
Lucas agreed. She said the act didn’t scare her, mainly because it wasn’t the first time Butler had taken her anger out on an inanimate object.
“It was kind of her routine talk after a loss,” Lucas said. “Then, all of a sudden, I guess the anger she had built up just kind of came out, and she took it out on the board. I mean, she hit the board. It wasn’t even like the game-board, the clipboard. It was the board in the locker room that they had given us to use. She hit that, and it broke.”
Lucas said Butler also threw a piece of jewelry at the wall in a fit of rage.
Ten days later, Lucas announced her decision to transfer. Then, on March 16 and 17, immediately before Florida was to play South Florida in the WNIT, Christal Caldwell and Holt announced their departure plans.
Holt and Caldwell were roommates, and Lucas lived in the same building. But all three insisted they made their decisions individually.
“We didn’t actually decide together,” Lucas said. “Of course it was a conversation, and it wasn’t just a conversation amongst us three players.
“I’m pretty sure if I had a conversation with one of (the current players) it would spark the conversation of leaving,” Lucas continued. “It wasn’t just the three of us that had the talk of leaving, but I don’t want to put anyone else’s name out there. … She’s still there.”
Holt and Lucas listed Butler’s personality as one of their main reasons for leaving, and that intensity was never more apparent than after the loss to Auburn.
Asked if she would say Butler has a temper, Jones said, “Yes. I would. Definitely. …She’s gone through her fair share of boards.”
Fellow captain Azania Stewart tried to justify the situation, saying, “Everyone is used to it. She does have a temper on her, but that’s how she’s been her whole Florida career.”
Stewart, Lucas’ roommate, said she never considered transferring.
“This is my place for the long run,” Stewart said. “Florida has done everything for me. So, there’s no way. There are tough times, but I think that’s for the weak. You’ve got to put those aside.”
But Stewart also wonders what might have been if Lucas was still a Gator.
“If (Lucas) had stayed, I think she would’ve been starting for us and contributed a lot of big minutes and maybe big plays,” Stewart said.
Jones said much of the same.
“I think if she was here, she would have such an impact on our team,” Jones said. “We have no experienced guards. I was the only guard returning. This would have been her season.”
Holt, Lucas and Caldwell chose to go elsewhere, but they weren’t the only ones to leave the program.
Butler didn’t have much recruiting to do her first year with returning stars Depree Bowden, Sha Brooks and Marshae Dotson filling out the lineup. She brought in a class featuring Ndidi Madu, Ebonie Crawford and Kerri Simpson.
Simpson transferred after playing just 2.6 minutes her freshman season.
Next, Butler brought in Lucas, Tailor Jones and Stewart, all highly touted recruits. But Tailor Jones transferred to Northwestern after her freshman season, where her sister, Morgan, the high school Central Florida Player of the Year, will be joining her next season.
Faced with recruiting the guard position heavily, Butler and her staff nabbed Caldwell and Holt for the 2009 class. Again, both were prized recruits with numerous accolades to their names.
In three seasons, five players left Florida for the presumably greener pastures of Northwestern, Stetson (Simpson), West Virginia (Caldwell), Delaware (Lucas) and Boston College (Holt).
However, Butler said it didn’t concern her because “that’s something that’s not unique to Florida.”
“I’m not going to coach or be less of me, as my staff is not either, because I’m afraid someone’s going to transfer,” Butler said. “If someone can’t see what a tremendous opportunity it is to play here and compete here and be able to call themselves a Gator, and they think that there is something better out there to go find, then good luck.
“Good luck and let me know when you come up with that. Because there’s not.
“I don’t think I’m respecting you if I sugarcoat the truth or if I try to tiptoe around what we need you to do so that I don’t hurt your feelings,” Butler continued. “That’s how you treat children; that’s not how you treat adults. We want players to act as, play as, compete as women — not little girls.”
However, those who left said they are pleased with their decisions.
Caldwell declined to be interviewed, but Holt and Lucas said they couldn’t be happier about leaving Florida. At Boston College, Holt said she finally has “a coach who really believes in me.”
“(Coach Sylvia Crawley) is always on our tail in practice, but she doesn’t cuss me out,” Holt said. “She doesn’t call me out by my name, so it’s like I really have someone that believes in me.”
Lucas echoed that sentiment. But both said things could have been different.
“It’s like guaranteed happiness here [at Delaware], and I’m not even playing,” Lucas said. “If it wasn’t for that particular coaching staff, I might still be (at Florida).”
“If I didn’t play basketball,” Holt said, “I’d still be going (to Florida) to this day.”