By: Frank Frangie
A memo to Gator basketball fans: Be careful what you wish for. You could become Illinois.
Some Florida fans are wondering if Mike White is the right basketball coach. This despite White, in his fourth season, inheriting a team that missed the NCAA Tournament, missing it the first year and since then taking the Gators to three straight Big Dances. UF has won at least won game in each of those tourneys and made the Elite Eight two years ago.
White also has an elite recruiting class coming in — two five-star and one four-star recruit to pair with three very good freshmen from this year’s team. Point is, the arrow clearly is pointing up.
Still, some Gator fans somehow are grumbling. The problem is Billy Donovan took UF to the mountaintop — he showed what the program can do — and fans are waiting for a return. And because they haven’t seen that exact return in the first four years, they have doubts they will.
I’m not sure White will win two national titles and go to four Final Fours and seven Elite Eights like Billy did. But I do think he will have extreme success. And that is at a program that never even came close to moving the needle for any extended period of time before Donovan arrived.
Florida is not an elite basketball job. It is a good job, not a great one. The facility is middle of the pack in college basketball. The only real tradition is what Donovan created starting in the late 90s. This is not North Carolina, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA. For that matter, it is not Syracuse, Villanova, Louisville, Indiana, Arizona. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s Virginia or Marquette.
It’s a good job at a great institution with a very good athletic director and a loyal fan base. The fan base is phenomenal for football and the football job IS elite, probably one of the five best in the land. In basketball, the fan base is better when the team is good.
Which takes us to Illinois, which is a wonderful institution — one of the best public universities in the country — in a very tough football and basketball conference. Other than producing some individual legends from years gone by — Red Grange and Dick Butkus among them — the football program has never done much. Basketball, on the other hand, has been quite good at times. The Flyin’ Illini of the late 80s, which went to the Final Four, is a most memorable team.
But neither Illinois job is a great job. The basketball job is about like Florida, good job, not a great job. The football job is not attractive in the least.
Yet, some 10 years ago, a very good athletic director named Ron Guenther had both jobs in good shape. Basketball coach Bruce Weber was regularly taking the Illini to the Big Dance; football coach Ron Zook was going to and winning bowl games. At Illinois, that is pretty good stuff. But, remarkably, some fans weren’t happy. They believed they should be Ohio State and Michigan in both sports.
A new president named Mike Hogan came along. He wanted to be a hero. He ran off Guenther, an Illini grad who truly loved the school, and hired an AD named Mike Thomas from Cincinnati. Thomas arrived and, before being on campus one full year, fired both Weber and Zook. He felt like they weren’t winning enough. There wasn’t a hint of NCAA indiscretions. Both were good, well-liked guys in the community. But Thomas axed both quickly.
It might go down as the worst combination firings by one AD in college sports history.
Weber was the Illinois basketball coach for eight years. He went to the NCAA Tournament six times in those eight seasons. That included a trip to the Final Four and NCAA Championship game, where the Illini lost to North Carolina for the title. He didn’t bring home a title, but clearly had Illinois among the elite in the sport.
Since he was fired, the Illini made the tournament the next season with John Groce inheriting the team Weber left him – even won two games in the Big Dance. Since then, the Illini have never made the field. Groce has since been fired and replace by Brad Underwood.
Again, for effect: Weber took the Illini to six NCAA Tournaments in his eight seasons. They have been to one since — and none in the last seven years. How does Illinois miss the NCAA Tournament seven straight years? Three of the last four Illinois basketball teams actually finished with losing records.
In football, Zook took over a team that had won four games in two seasons and struggled to two-win seasons his first two years. But then Zook’s recruiting and the development of those existing players started to pay off. Zook had Illinois in the Rose Bowl — that’s right, the Rose Bowl — in his third year.
He recruited an incredible amount of players who wound up in the NFL, including a handful of first round picks. In his seven seasons at Illinois, he beat every team in the Big Ten at least once, including winning at The Big House in Ann Arbor and defeating previously undefeated and top-ranked Ohio State at the horseshoe in Columbus. That just doesn’t happen at Illinois.
Three of Zook’s last five teams went to bowl games, including that Rose Bowl appearance. His next-to-the-last team crushed Baylor with Robert Griffin III 38-14 in the Texas Bowl. His last two teams became the first teams in school history to win bowls in back-to-back seasons. First in school history.
And THAT is the year he got fired.
In the seven seasons since firing Zook, Illinois has not had a winning season. Not one winning season. The Illini have only played in one bowl game, losing to Louisiana Tech in something called the Heart of Dallas Bowl. That loss gave the Illini a 6-7 record, their best season in that seven-year stretch.
Zook was replaced by Tim Beckman, who was fired not only for losing seasons, but in part because he publicly was accused by a former player of mistreatment. He was replaced by Bill Cubit who since has been replaced by Lovie Smith.
Thomas, the AD, has long since been fired. He lasted four years, two more than the president who hired him.
This isn’t to mock Illinois. Champaign is a wonderful college town; it is a fantastic school, much acclaimed academically. Some of the nicest fans you ever will meet. In the spirit of full disclosure, I saw all of it up close and personal because Zook is a good friend and I got to spend a lot of time around the football program in those days. I almost didn’t use the Illinois analogy because I feared it would be coming from a somewhat biased point of view.
But none of that changes the facts. The numbers at both football and basketball programs — before and after those firings — are what they are. Illinois had the RIGHT coaches for both programs — guys who would have stayed forever and had the programs relevant nationally and in good shape. But a trigger-happy president and AD caved to the pressure of some fans who believed their school was something it was not.
Which takes us back to Florida.
I truly believe Mike White is a really good coach and is going to be a great coach. I think the Gators are going to Final Fours under him and will win a title with him at the helm. But Gator fans have to realize what they have. The Florida basketball team making the Big Dance, and going to the round of 32 three consecutive seasons — including the Elite Eight once and narrowly missing the Final Four — IS a big deal. Signing TWO McDonald’s All-American recruits for next season IS a big deal.
If the Gators fire White, then the cycle of mediocrity/cycling in coach after coach/always hoping for the next big thing begins. You want evidence? Check out the programs at Alabama and Georgia and Tennessee and Auburn and LSU. Tennessee finally appears to have found the right guy after his predecessor got in NCAA trouble. Auburn and LSU have really good teams, but you have to wonder if the NCAA is going to vacate any tournament wins they accrue. Georgia hired a new coach a year ago it hopes is finally the guy. Alabama is looking. Again.
The Gators have a really good coach. They have the right coach. Fortunately, they have a very good AD – Scott Stricklin is about as sharp as they come – who gets it.
Here’s hoping an at times angry fan base doesn’t mess it all up.
(You can follow Frank Frangie on Twitter @Frank_Frangie)