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Saturday, December 02, 2023

Their relationship has changed many times over.

Coach and player. Coworkers. Friends.

One spent twelve years as the UF women's basketball coach, stepping down in March 2002 with the most wins in program history.

The other played on some of those teams that put the Gators on the map.

Though their relationship is ever-changing, Carol Ross and Amanda Butler will always share a bond tied to UF.

Rookies Together

The pair both first arrived in Gainesville in 1990, Ross' first season as UF's coach and Butler's freshman year at point guard.

Butler quickly impressed Ross with the way she carried herself.

"You could tell immediately that she had an aura, a presence, a command," Ross said. "Had I not known…that she was a freshman, I probably would've thought she was a senior captain."

Butler would start at point guard for the next four years, making an immediate impact, finishing third in assists in the Southeastern Conference her freshman year.

"You always hope your point guard is going to be an extension of your personality and your philosophy, and we are a lot alike," Ross said. "We expect good things to happen."

The 5-foot-8 guard learned toughness from her coach, who stressed there was no justification for sitting out a game.

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"Injuries were, to me, not a factor," Butler said. "If I was conscious and could still walk around, I didn't see any reason why I shouldn't be able to play."

That mentality would be tested during her junior year, when she broke her nose in practice, just before a game against Florida State.

The face mask Butler was supposed to wear did not arrive in time.

She reluctantly agreed to Ross' recommendation that she sit the first half and see how the game progressed.

"At halftime, I was walking to the locker room, and I was looking at her and she was looking at me," Butler said. "She goes, 'Well you ready to go in?' and I said, 'Well yeah.'"

The possibility of further injury didn't limit her aggressive style of play.

"She took charges, she drove to the rim," Ross said. "She played the same fearless way she's always played."

The Gators defeated the Seminoles, and four days later, Butler would become the first collegiate women's basketball player to wear the Bill Laimbeer-style face mask in a game against South Carolina.

While her toughness was never in question, her future profession wasn't as easily determined.

Butler considered becoming a physical therapist or even possibly attending law school.

Ross knew differently.

"I could always tell which ones were going to coach before they could," Ross said. "And she goes, 'No, no, I'm going to be a physical therapist,' and I said, 'No, you'll be a coach.'"

Her interactions with her teammates generated nothing but mutual respect.

"She had a magnetic personality - her teammates gravitated to her," Ross said. "She had their respect not by what she said but by example."

That leadership capability paid off as Butler brought out the best in her teammates.

It was under her floor leadership that the Gators made the NCAA Tournament in 1993 and 1994, the program's first-ever appearances.

"She could get other people to do what she needed them to do," Ross said. "That's what coaching is. If you can do that as a teammate, as a player, with your peers, you've got head coach written all over you. It's just when and where."

Quick Transition

When Butler graduated, Ross hired her as an assistant coach. It was a rare occurrence for Ross, who couldn't recall another time she had ever asked a player to immediately join her staff.

"I didn't want to hire my own players because then you had to pick and choose, and I felt like they would grow if they went away," Ross said. "She was just so good and so talented, and I wanted her to be in the coaching profession. I thought she had a great gift. I thought it would be a win-win. I knew she would help us, and I thought we could help her."

Butler remains thankful for that first opportunity.

"There's no question that she has been the most prevalent influence on my coaching career," she said. "Besides me playing for her, she gave me my first opportunity. That's something I think you never take lightly professionally - someone who takes a chance on you, and she did that with me. She opened the door to coaching for me."

Butler spent two seasons on staff, then left to become an assistant coach at Austin Peay State for four years.

A six-year stint followed at North Carolina-Charlotte.

After two years as an assistant coach and two years as associate head coach, Butler earned the top job in 2005 when previous head coach Katie Meier left.

In her first season at the helm, she led the 49ers to a share of the Atlantic-10 regular-season title and a berth in the Women's National Invitation Tournament. She was named A-10 Coach of the Year. A second WNIT berth followed the next season.

Butler and Ross stayed in close contact throughout the years, as Butler often turned to her former coach for advice.

"She's just rarely wrong," Butler said. "When someone's rarely wrong, you need to keep going back to the well to get those answers."

Then, this past April an offer came that Butler could have never imagined.

"I realized as I'm sitting in (UF Athletics Director) Jeremy (Foley)'s office that I was going to be the next coach here," she said.

Reunited Again

Now Butler's back in the town where she got her start as a player, and she brought back - if only for a moment - the coach who gave her the opportunity.

Ross came to Gainesville the last weekend in October as a team consultant to spend a few days observing practice and offer tips to both coaches and players.

The new coach enjoyed introducing her players to her old coach and mentor.

"She put UF as a women's basketball program on the map," Butler said. "It's important for them to know. I think that having a sense of history is very important."

Ross expects similar success during Butler's tenure, since her former player never fears a challenge, whether it's playing with a broken nose or winning a recruit.

"It's not a surprise that in our first trip to the NCAA Tournament that she would be in a uniform," Ross said. "It won't be a surprise to me when this team gets to a Final Four at some point, and she's going to be the head coach in charge. She's not scared of what has not been done."

Butler knows she wouldn't be the person and coach she is today without Ross' guidance.

"Her success is undeniable," Butler said. "I just feel very fortunate to have her as a person in my life, professionally as a resource and personally as a friend."

Now Ross gets to sit back and watch as her former player works to bring her alma mater back to relevancy.

"When you coach, you always want your players to dream big and then to be able to live it," Ross said. "To sit and watch knowing that she's the head coach at UF, I still see an 18-year-old kid who loved every moment of being a Florida Gator. She knew what it meant to have Florida strapped across her chest competing. She's living her dream."

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