In this edition of the Alligator Awards, we debate which UF coach was the best of the 2015-16 season. Sports writers Ray Boone, Matt Brannon and Alejandro López join alligatorSports Editors Ian Cohen and Ethan Bauer in a roundtable discussion to debate the five nominees. Debates will go in alphabetical order by the writer’s last name.
Bauer: Holloway orchestrated impressive turnaround, UF’s only title
Back in mid-May, the UF men’s track team — normally one of the best in the country — was struggling.
It finished seventh at the NCAA Indoor Championships follwed by a sixth-place finish at the Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championship meet.
But just as I was ready to condemn the season, the team shocked the track and field world by stealing an NCAA Championship.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in the country ... that thought we would even be in the top 10,” coach Mike Holloway said after the SEC meet. “But we always did.”
The team’s belief paid off with a title — UF’s only national championship of the 2015-16 season.
Track and field is a unique sport — there are two seasons per year and lots of chances to improve after losses. Even so, it’s fairly rare that a team improves dramatically enough to go from sixth in its conference to first in the nation.
But that’s exactly what the Gators were able to do, and for that, Holloway deserves a world of credit.
The only thing he could’ve done better was have a mustache-shaving initiative like UF swimming coach Gregg Troy, who agreed to shave his distinctive mustache if his team won an SEC Championship.
Boone: Shelton made men’s tennis focal point of SEC
Florida coach Bryan Shelton has made the men’s tennis program competitive. In 2012, after a successful 13-year career as the head coach of the Georgia Tech women’s team, Shelton made his way to Gainesville.
Due to several departures from the team, Shelton’s first year was a struggle.
But things changed quickly.
In only his fourth season at the reigns, Shelton’s team became a force within the SEC.
At the end of the regular season, Florida dominated Tennessee 6-1, giving the Gators their 10th conference win of the season — the first time that mark has been reached since the 2004-05 season.
And that was just the beginning.
The Gators breezed through the SEC Tournament a few days later.
Florida swept its first two rounds against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, respectively, and defeated Georgia 4-2 to capture the program’s fifth conference tournament title — and its first since 2011.
Although the Gators’ season ended in bitter fashion — a 4-0 loss to Virginia in the NCAA Quarterfinals — the year was still a success, and Shelton deserves credit. Florida’s 21-7 overall record was its best under Shelton, and the Gators were back on top of the conference.
Year by year, Shelton has continued to build a winning team.
First in the SEC. Next in the NCAA Tournament.
Brannon: Deacon driving golf back into UF mainstream
When the men’s golf team won the FGCU Classic this season by a whopping 42 strokes, it made for Florida’s first team win since 2013.
In the team’s next tournament, it got its second.
Coach J.C. Deacon has been rebuilding the golf program since it hit rock bottom in 2013-14, and in his second season at UF, he took the team from a campus embarrassment to a program of national relevance. Before Deacon was hired in 2014, UF was coming off a last place finish in the SEC Championship and failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.
In Deacon’s first year, the team went from two top-five finishes to seven top-five finishes. And in the ensuing 2015-16 season, the coach built on that success. He signed Sam Horsfield, a highly sought-after recruit, who one year later was dubbed the best freshman in college golf with the Phil Mickelson Outstanding Freshman Award.
The team’s third-place SEC Championship finish and 15th place in the NCAA Championship were the best the Gators have done in either tournament since 2012.
Former head coach Buddy Alexander became a legend when he led Florida to two national championships in 1993 and 2001. And in his retirement, the team is trending upward again with Deacon at the helm.
Cohen: Winning ways won’t wane with White
I’ll be honest.
Mike White probably doesn’t deserve to win coach of the year.
But that’s not to say he shouldn’t be in the conversation.
So, let’s recap.
In its first year under White, Florida went 21-15 — 9-9 in the SEC — and held a 1-8 record against ranked opponents.
The Gators didn’t make the NCAA Tournament, but they steamrolled through their first two opponents in the National Invitational Tournament before losing in the quarterfinals.
There was nothing particularly transcendent about any of UF’s players under White. Dorian Finney-Smith, UF’s best and most experienced player, landed on the coaches’ second team All-SEC and the AP’s third team All-SEC before going undrafted.
And yet, White’s first season at UF was a success.
He was one of only three first-year Florida coaches last season. But whereas Jim McElwain was taking the reigns from a coach most fans were kicking out the door, White was inheriting his job from a living legend.
The doubts of what could replace Billy Donovan’s two national titles, six SEC regular season championships and constant influx of soon-to-be NBA talent would never be assuaged within one season.
But, last year, White came close.
With minimal roster turnover from Donovan’s last year as coach, the Gators improved by five wins.
White recorded a better record than each of the two Florida coaches who preceded him in their first years: Lon Kruger and Donovan.
And he did it all under intense scrutiny, all under immediate expectations, all under immense pressure to justify his worthiness of filling a seat so coveted for so long.
Put simply, White handled pressure better than any UF coach last season.
López: McElwain brought Florida football back into national spotlight
Heading into the 2015 season, the Florida Gators football team hit rock bottom.
By the end of Will Muschamp’s tenure, a once-formidable force in the SEC had devolved to a shell of its former self.
Florida went an average 28-21 (17-15 SEC) during Muschamp’s time in Gainesville, the first Gator coach to post a sub-.500 conference record in multiple seasons since Doug Dickey helmed the team in the 1970’s.
But, as the saying goes: The harder you hit rock bottom, the faster you’ll bounce back up. And last season, Jim McElwain dragged the team back into the national spotlight.
Working with a squad primarily composed of holdovers from the Muschamp era, he guided Florida to a 10-4 record, winning as many games as his predecessor did in his last two seasons combined.
The Gators also earned their first SEC Championship berth since 2009 and finished the season in the top 25 for the first time since 2012.
Under McElwain, the team delivered signature wins over Tennessee and then-No. 3 Ole Miss, avenged 2014’s homecoming blowout loss against Missouri and injected life into a jaded fan base. His personality and sense of humor quickly earned the respect of his charges, making him a favorite among players, fans and press members alike.
Not bad for his first year on the job.
UF coach Mike Holloway smiles as he talks with his team during the 2016 Florida Relays at the Percy Beard Track.
UF men's tennis coach Bryan Shelton looks on during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.
J.C. Deacon looks on during the 2016 SunTrust Invitational at the Mark Bostick Golf Course.
Florida coach Mike White calls out instructions to his team during Florida's 88-79 loss to Kentucky on March 1, 2016, in the O'Connell Center.
UF coach Jim McElwain watches his players compete during the Orange & Blue Debut on April 8, 2016, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.