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Saturday, October 01, 2022

Clearly defined or not, there is a standard of excellence encompassing Florida athletics.

When Amanda Butler was hired to replace Carolyn Peck as the women’s basketball coach in 2007, UF held the national title in both men’s basketball and football — the first academic institution to do so.

“It’s part of being a Gator, is that excellence and being the best,” Butler said.

Currently, the men’s basketball, baseball, softball, men’s golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, men’s and women’s swimming/diving, men’s and women’s tennis, and men’s track and field are ranked nationally.

The football, volleyball and soccer teams were also ranked in the top 25 of their respective polls at season’s end. Volleyball and soccer contended for national titles, and the men’s track team just won another national championship.

But the women’s basketball team was not recognized in any poll all year and has been nationally ranked just one season during Butler’s time as coach.

“Even though we haven’t crossed that threshold quite yet, it’s definitely going to happen,” Butler said. “We know we’re going to make it happen, and that’s what we’re dwelling on.”

In all sports combined, Florida has more Southeastern Conference titles than any other school in conference history with 198, including 53 since 1999-2000. Florida has also won 40 tournament titles that aren’t counted toward the official numbers.

Every women’s program on campus has at least three SEC championships — except basketball.

The Florida women’s basketball team was established right before Gerald Ford signed Title IX into law in July of 1975. But it’s also the only Gators sport, major or minor, to have never won a SEC championship. 

Where does that put the women’s basketball team among sports at UF?

“Obviously it’s an indication that we have a long way to go,” Butler said.

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Butler cited the difficulty of the SEC as a hindrance but remained confident that Florida’s time is near.

“Almost every other team has competed in their respective Final Fours or whatever, but we haven’t,” Butler said. “There’s a couple things. Our league is incredibly hard every year top to bottom. Mississippi State’s the last-place team in our league, but it’s a big freaking deal to beat them because they’re good.

“There’s a climb there and a grind there that I think is hard for people to appreciate from the outside,” Butler said. “But at the same time, there’s this excitement because it’s going to happen.”

***

While the beginning of Butler’s tenure at Florida has had its ups and downs, people around the program have reason to believe she is making strides.

Junior guard and co-captain Jordan Jones pointed to men’s coach Billy Donovan’s recent statement that you can’t win, and win big, without first experiencing heartbreak.

“When you look at the big picture of things, you can’t experience success until you experience failure,” Jones said. “I think it’s something to build on, not just for the rest of this season, for the rest of our careers here.”

Jones also said she isn’t concerned with the number of transfers the Gators have experienced over her time here.

“We have young players who haven’t gotten their head down this year at all,” said Jones, who transferred to Florida after spending her freshman season at South Carolina. “They haven’t pouted about playing time. The attitudes of our younger players this year are much different, specifically, than the ones who transferred.”

Apart from lone senior Ebonie Crawford, the entire current roster is scheduled to return for Butler’s fifth season at the helm, and Butler said she wants this group to lay the foundation for the future.

“Twenty years from now, no matter how many SEC Championships, national championships, Final Four appearances that Florida has, there’s going to be a first, and that first can never be taken away from you,” Butler said. “The second isn’t any less special. But the first is (what makes people ask), ‘When did they get good? When did that happen?’”

Jones said Butler and the Gators are on the right path.

“You can’t expect to build a program overnight in the SEC,” Jones said. “You have Tennessee, who’s been at the top for 80 years or whatever it is.

“We want to play for her. Not just her but this coaching staff.”

***

UF lost eight games by six points or less, including four by two points or less, during its regular-season schedule this year.

Florida gave up a 16-point lead in the second half against Georgia and a 10-point lead with fewer than six minutes to go against Kentucky.  The Gators never held a lead in a two-point loss to cellar-dweller Ole Miss and gave up a 10-point halftime advantage at Alabama.

UF even lost to Brown, one of seven wins for the Ivy League team, and dropped a game at Hampton by 15 points after leading at halftime. Florida lost eight of 10 games in a span of a month, including a 103-97 double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt.

It’s not unreasonable to believe Florida should have finished better than it did.

“It’s a tough season where there have been a couple losses that could have gone different,” Stewart said. “Let’s say our Georgia game, our Vandy game, our Kentucky game — DePaul, Florida State. Even five of those wins, we would be ranked top-something and people would be in here celebrating what are we doing right and what’s so great about this program.”

When asked if the blame for close losses rests on the shoulders of the head coach, Butler said, “Yeah. No question.”

Former Florida guard Trumae Lucas said Butler struggles in close games.

“I feel like under pressure she kind of cracks. I’ll keep it there,” Lucas said. “I feel like she has her moments of being a good coach. But she hasn’t had that much experience as a head coach.”

Butler’s only previous head coaching experience was at Charlotte for two years.

“I guess people feel like that if you played in your past that you can just come up and coach a D-I team to championships,” Lucas said.

But Jones disagreed with Lucas about Butler’s coaching under pressure, saying, “I think she loves it.

“She’ll call a timeout at the end and she’ll pump us up. She’ll be like this is it. I don’t think she cracks under pressure at all.”

“I’m the first person to examine the decisions that we made,” Butler said. “There’s a million different things that you question yourself about, and you try to get better at it.”

Sitting at 14-13 after losing its fourth game in a row, Florida strung together three straight wins to close out its regular-season schedule.

Two of those games were contested until the final minutes, helping erase memories of the tough losses earlier in the year. Florida then won two straight to start the WNIT, and Butler talked about how the Gators were playing their best basketball and how much her young team progressed. 

Next up was a third-round game against Charlotte, Butler’s former team. Florida had never lost to Charlotte in five previous meetings.

In a rematch of the Preseason WNIT, Butler and the Gators traveled to North Carolina, where Florida squandered a 17-point lead in the second half.

Charlotte won 81-77 in overtime, ending an up-and-down season for the Gators.

***

In April 2007, when Butler signed a six-year contract worth $1.2 million in base salary plus incentives, UF athletics director Jeremy Foley said he sought a coach in the mold of Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer.

Butler, a fiery 5-foot-8 former Gators point guard and assistant coach, took over a program that won just nine games the year before.

“The University of Florida has enjoyed a lot of success with young, talented coaches and those were the characteristics we were looking for in the person to lead our women’s basketball program. We found that person in Amanda Butler,” Foley said in a 2007 press release.

And Butler herself wasn’t shy about her goals for the program.

“We’re going to open up the Lady Gator women’s history book, and we’re going to write new chapters,” she said during her inaugural press conference. “That is certainly something we aspire to do. That’s something we will do.”

The Gators went on a run of seven straight NCAA Tournament berths from 1993-1999 and made trips to the Big Dance in 2000 and 2002 under former coach Carol Ross. They returned in 2004 and 2006 under Peck.

Butler was the point guard for Florida’s first-ever NCAA Tournament team and an assistant when the Gators went to their only Final Four in 1997-98. 

In 2006-07, when Peck was fired after a season featuring 22 losses, including 13 straight, she left behind a roster with three proven players in Sha Brooks, Marshae Dotson and Depree Bowden.

When the three were seniors in 2008-09, Brooks and Dotson finished among the top-seven scorers in the SEC. The trio helped guide Florida to its first NCAA berth since 2006. UF was knocked out in the second round by eventual-champion Connecticut and hasn’t been to the tourney since.

The Gators finished 15-17 last season, 20-15 this season, and have gone to three WNITs in four years under Butler.

“I think we’ve not completely rewritten (the history books),” Butler said recently. “We’ve certainly had some good seasons and we’ve made tremendous strides. But that’s not what we’re shooting for.”

Through a UF spokeswoman, Associate Athletic Director Lynda Tealer declined an interview request to assess Butler’s performance.

“We want to win championships. We want to be the best in the country,” Butler said. “We’ve still got that to accomplish.”

While it may not be the one Butler envisioned on that day in 2007 when she was brimming with confidence, she believes a suitable ending is still possible.

“I didn’t have a timeline. I just wanted us to try and get better every day, and I think that we’ve done that,” Butler said. “I think that we’ve recruited kids that are putting us in position to do what we think we’re capable of doing. It’s a process, and we’re in the midst of it.”

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