This is ain’t your SEC anymore, Bear Bryant

http://www.southernpigskin.com/sec/the-martin-chronicles-the-new-ec/

Cashing in on new TV deal changes the SEC landscape

I love college football. As a Son of the South, I have feasted my eyes on the magnificent game they play in the Southeastern Conference for more than a half century. The Holy Land — places like Denny Stadium, Tiger Stadium and Neyland Stadium were our Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field.

Before there was the NFL or NBA or MLB, there were Paul Dietzel’s Chinese Bandits, Bear Bryant’s Runts at Alabama, Weepin’ Wally Butts’ Hairy Dawgs and Bowden Wyatt’s Tennessee Single Wing.

Where have you gone Billy Cannon and Lee Roy Jordan? Bo Jackson and Herschel Walker?

Sorry, this is not your SEC anymore, Bear. They don’t play for manhood or Southern Pride. It’s mainly about the cash. In a way it kinda always was, legal or otherwise. The stakes are just higher. And everybody wants a piece of the action now. We just wink and fake it better. And this Power Conference conglomerate makes it feel like college football is about to issue a new IPO. More like Wall Street instead of Main Street.

All this new brings new meaning to the Woodward-Bernstein Watergate mantra “follow the money.”

We should have seen it coming several years ago when the new SEC-ESPN deal guaranteed Vanderbilt more money than Notre Dame, which has its own network (NBC). SEC schools divided $300 million in TV dough this year. Compared to what’s on the table now, that could be chump change.

You can pretty much mark it down as a done deal: The SEC is leading the charge to form the Super Sixty-Five.

Never mind this Division IV stuff — it sounds like the bottom of the food chain. Let’s call it what it is truly morphing into: the National College Football League, or junior NFL. What’s next, annexing the University of London?

The economic model is genius. There are “franchises” mostly underwritten by state governments and funded by TV revenue. The workers (players) don’t get a salary and there is no free agency; players can’t change venues without a penalty.

And please don’t insult us by insisting on calling them “student athletes.” Yes they are students and yes they are athletes, but basically they are unpaid interns with free room and board. Actors on an HDTV stage, if you will, which is getting bigger and more lucrative everyday. Their day is coming because the Super Sixty-Five can no longer claim there’s not enough money to pay athletes a stipend.

As for you, the fan, thanks for coming and please drive carefully. Your loyalty is appreciated but will now be measured in contributions. Even though you’re not buying tickets with the same fervor, you do count in the Neilsen ratings, and I suppose the good news is that you get to binge-watch football.

Your passion is muted. Going to the stadium is not as compelling anymore and staying through all four quarters is a challenge. Besides, if there’s a better game on TV at home you can beat the crowd early.

Maybe you don’t go to the game at all. Break out the pom-poms in the family room. Sit back and watch, from College Game Day in the morning to the 11 p.m. West Coast game, crack a cold one or two, flip around the channels, snooze if you would like, tweet, text and Facebook your friends and enjoy selections from the menu that are about to get only better.

We’re not just talking about the new SEC network here. The new Super Sixty-Five will be bringing us more cross-sectional games, like baseball’s intra-league play. By the way, they’ll be moving more big games off campus in the future anyway. The good news is that the scheduling police now prohibit an all-cream puff home slate of sacrificial lambs needing paydays.

Notre Dame and Georgia are talking about a home-and-home series. Tennessee plays Oklahoma this year. Games like Florida-Michigan in 2015, played at a neutral site such as Jerry Jones World in Texas, offer bigger payoffs than the ever-shrinking box office of bowl games because revenue isn’t shared with conference members.

The college presidents are tapping into their kids’ piggy bank. Once athletic departments found several million in “tip money” to support academia, it became a required line item in the president’s budget. So since the foxes are guarding the henhouse, how can they not enjoy their own chicken dinner?

Let’s take the high road here and not completely rain on the new SEC season or disparage our version of The National Pasttime #DownHere.

On the flip side, the SEC will be showcased like Bono on the U2 360 Tour. What we have long held as true and sacred — that the SEC plays the strongest and best football — will be further evident to outsiders not from ’round here. Tickets will be easier to find.

Not that there’s anything un-American about capitalism. Many will say this bodes for a better SEC, stretched now into the TV markets of Texas and Missouri. Better facilities. More aligned academically. And most if all, nationally dominant in football like never before.

Others will always cling to the pastoral datelines of quaint destinations like Auburn and Athens and Oxford and Gainesville, where claiming territorial imperatives against fierce rivals has been as sweet as it ever needed to be.

Old or new however, the No. 1 goal of all die hard fans in 2014: To make Florida State’s one-year break in service of SEC national champions become a one-hit wonder.

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Steve Spurrier’s Secret to Success

“Call me arrogant, cocky, crybaby, whiner or whatever names you like. At least they’re not calling us losers anymore. If people like you too much, it’s probably because they’re beating you.” – From Steve Spurrier’s resignation speech at Florida, Jan. 4, 2002

““Keep on playing and something good will happen.” — Steve Spurrier

By BUDDY MARTIN

ON THE EAST COAST OF FLORIDA: Bad news for South Carolina opponents: At age 69 in his 30th year as a head coach, Steve Spurrier has no intentions of retiring yet and, in fact, says it would also be premature to write off the Gamecocks or speak of them in past tense.
Spurrier doesn’t have a year in mind for retirement — says he thinks he has three years left on his contract and appears highly motivated to achieve at least one major goal that has eluded his Gamecocks: Winning an SEC title. “When I quit calling plays and start forgetting people’s names,” Spurrier said last fall, “then I’ll quit.”

Refreshed and eager to build on a four-year run of 42 wins, inspired about building his own version of the Pyramids in Columbia, Spurrier departed his beloved Florida East Coast beach house on his way to the Southeastern Conference meeting in Destin. Eager for Year Ten of Gamecock Nation-building to begin, he has that elusive SEC title is still in his crosshairs. “That’s something we haven’t done yet,” he recently told the media, “but we’ll try and see if we can get that done.”

We were sitting at the Florida beach on a tranquil cotton-candy spring afternoon recently, talking careers and playing “what if?” with the First Lady of South Carolina football, when the question came up about her husband. “I don’t know what Steve would have done if he hadn’t coached football,” Jerri Spurrier said. “We talk about that among our family all the time.”

I suggested Steve would have likely succeeded in some other field because of his high level of intelligence, ability to motivate people and his combustible, competitive spirit. Jerry semi-agreed, but also pointed out that working the toaster was probably testing the limits of his technological acumen.

Perhaps he could never have been a good investment banker, astronaut or Wall Street trader, but college football not yet being a video game, Spurrier will always have a chance to excel in moving bodies around on the football field like it was a human chessboard. And he does it masterfully, with aplomb, meeting challenge after challenge, no matter the landscape.

Football would have been much the poorer had Spurrier not decided to try his hand as an assistant at Florida, then Georgia Tech, then Duke – the latter of which would become the first real laboratory for the man once dubbed “The Mad Genius.”

For nearly three decades now, Spurrier has been one of the game’s most interesting and successful coaches, cracking wise at his foes and vanquishing them more than 70 percent of the time. All of that leads to a fascinating profile of a football man who defined three different eras.

So colorful and successful has Spurrier been that ESPN is working with Kenny Chesney to produce a 30-minute special, not unlike The Book of Manning 30 for 30. It should be a classic about the boy from Science Hill High School in Johnson City, Tenn., although Steve has no idea of the theme. “They came down here (to the beach) and shot a bunch of stuff,” said Steve, “including some photos of my late parents – talked to family members. And they’re flying my daughter Amy up to Columbia to interview. But I’m not sure what the program is going to be.” We could all probably guess.

* * *

The enigma that is Steve Spurrier provokes passionate discourse. Depending on your point of view, The Ball Coach is either diabolical or delightful, vengeful or visionary, goofball or genius, Huckster or Houdini.

Former Gator teammate Allen Trammel knows the private side of his friend that few see. “He’s very humble when he’s around family and friends,” he said of Spurrier. “He knows everybody’s name, including the kids, and he’s a very considerate person. He’s fiercely loyal to the people he cares about.”

(Don’t let that out – it might blow the image of The Evil Genius.)

Say what you want to about him, but Spurrier’s body of work is downright Miss American — a beautiful thing to see in person if you are a Gator or Gamecock: Winner of more than 200 college football games, a national championship and a Heisman Trophy.

A triple legend, if you will, who has defined three eras as player and/or coach. Way back in the day, critics predicted what they perceived as Spurrier’s poor work ethic would preclude him from enjoying success as a coach.

This was the scouting report: Too busy looking for fun. Won’t burn the midnight oil studying film. Plays too much golf and spends too much time working on his tan instead of X’s and O’s. Relishes The Good Life — in modern terms, perhaps, a little too Johnny Manzielian in his day.

Pure heresy, according to the unwritten rules of the coaching handbook. After all, would a Bear Bryant have been caught dead playing Augusta National or sunbathing at the beach?

The traditionalists never understood the part about coaches not sleeping in their office overnight or going blind watching game film in order to be successful – that there was life away from football. Maybe that’s why the HBC isn’t burnt out at 69. “It’s not about age,” Spurrier insists. “It’s about your health.”

And your record. FYI, Spurrier’s 25-year college record is 219-79-2 for .733 percent.
The secret to his success? “Keep on playing and something good will happen,” is his favorite halftime speech.

* * *

I asked the Head Ball Coach, “what would you have done if you hadn’t decided one day in 1978 after watching a Florida football game that you wanted to be a coach?”

“Insurance. Probably insurance. It would have been ‘Trammel/Spurrier Insurance,’” Spurrier said, glancing over at his longtime friend Trammel, an Orlando insurance executive/banker. However, coaching came along.

In retrospect there was no other way it could have happened. The way Springsteen was born to run, Steve Spurrier was born to coach.

* * *

In the 40-plus years I have been covering his games as player or coach, interviewing him at SEC Media Days, after a game, at his office or in his home, I have rarely seen him in a better place or mood than he was in late May, relaxing with Jerri at a condominium pool complex where his family owns units. He had a twinkle in his eye.

This cannot be good news for his rival coaches, over whom he holds a 13-3 advantage since 2009, including five straight wins over Clemson. As usual, our unscheduled, off-the-cuff conversation was rich and enlightening. Three of his four offspring and more than half his 12 grandchildren were along; sons Steve Jr. and Scottie and daughter Lisa Spurrier King. Daughter Amy Moody of Panama City was awaiting the arrival of her parents in Panama City the next day.

“Life is really, really good,” Spurrier said, deferring only a bit to his arthritic back with a quick stretch after hour nearly three-hour conversation.

Away from football, this is his element – the ocean, his family, a few friends and few rounds of golf. It is the one place he plants comfortably for a few weeks a year.

The same beach where he stood in December 1989 the night before accepting the Florida job, reflecting on the words of the UF alma mater, when nobody had any idea of the havoc he was about the wreak on the SEC for the next 12 years with the Fun ‘n Gun.

Where palm and pine are blowing, where southern seas are flowing…

Those words seem to perfectly describe his coaching philosophy – let it blow in the wind. The magic formula for winning 219 games? He always tells his team at halftime: “Keep playing and something good will happen.” The question is, does the HBC have one or two more in him and can the Gamecocks continue being good?

* * *

Many of the pollsters are picking South Carolina in the pre-season Top Ten, so the future still looks promising. Stud running back in Mike Davis. Maybe the best offensive line in the SEC, led by 6-8, 348-pound tackle Corey Robinson.

Though experienced and talented, quarterback Dylan Thompson still must follow in the footsteps of Connor Shaw, the school’s all-time winning signal caller. There are still some holes.

Except for Shaq Roland and Damiere Byrd, wide receivers depth is a question. The NFL’s No. 1 pick, Jadeveon Clowney and defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles are gone. Defensive tackle J.T. Surratt is the only returning DL starter. Cornerback Victor Hampton also left early. But fret not ye Gamecocks. The top quarterback in Georgia, Lorenzo Nunez of Harrison High School, also committed to South Carolina over N.C. State.

“I don’t know why people think this is the end of something,” Spurrier recently said. “We’ve got a team that has a chance to be okay.”

If 2014 is “okay” or average when compared to the last 42 games, that means South Carolina is looking at a 10-win season with a shot at Spurrier’s second SEC East title. Even though they haven’t won the SEC East in three years, they’ve beaten the team that has.

* * *

The current landscape in Gainesville is a bit barren, although Jeremy Foley sounds upbeat about Muschamp’s ability to return the roar of the Gators.

Many disgruntled Gator fans have expressed a desire for change, including at least one high profile alumnus who was chastised for tweeting “it’s time for a change.” Many hard-core Florida fans have waved the white flag and turned.

Spurrier’s name still comes up. In fairness, the UF is reaching out for fans to help improve “the stadium experience” with a 12-person advisory board made up of ticket-holders. If Muschamp can win eight or more games, there can still be a turnaround.

People like David from Ocala want a quicker solution; he thinks somebody like Spurrier could bring back the magic to The Swamp immediately. “It was always so damn much fun when he was the Gator coach,” says the Ocala businessman, who just turned back six of the 10 tickets his family has owned for three generations. He says most of his tickets would go begging and would wind up in the trash.

“Why don’t we just go get Spurrier and let him finish up here? What’s it going to take — 10 million, 15 million?” One might argue that the Urban Meyer Era at Florida produced a better winning percentage and one more national championship. The difference is that Meyer was corporate, Spurrier was organic. I don’t hear too many Gator fans that are calling for Will Muschamp’s head also yearning for the return of the Urban Era.

That aside, others could say that no coach will ever impact the style of football’s most powerful conference, win as many SEC titles (6), score more points or make the game as much fun for the fans and media as Spurrier did at his alma mater. That’s why he is remembered and honored in a statue and on the stadium façade at Ben Hill Griffin. Baby Boomers still cling to joy that the homegrown Spurrier brought them and that 1996 national championship will always be their Casablanca.

* * *
As for that “vengeful description” – what may infuriate the opposition endears and ingratiates him with the home side. Thus that old saying: “Spurrier may be an SOB, but he’s our SOB.”

There is no doubt that he doesn’t forget when you cross him. Make no mistake, his steel-trap mind works two ways. There’s no problem with his memory. He can remember almost every play of every game, nearly every hole of any recent round of golf (including his playing partners) and most any competitor guilty of snubbing or disrespecting him or intentionally harming his players. Payback can be hell.

Although he rarely talks about it, the famed “echo of the whistle” controversy with Florida State in the 1996 regular season still sticks in his craw because the way the Seminoles late-hit and manhandled quarterback Danny Wuerffel. Over the years, mostly through NFL contacts, FSU players have admitted to him that Bobby Bowden and his defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews purposely knocked quarterbacks out. One former Seminole said Andrews took great delight that the Seminole defensive kayoed six QBs that year. Wuerffel came back from a beating in Tallahassee to lead the Gators to an SEC title and a national championship with a whopping 52-20 Sugar Bowl victory over the hated Seminoles.

Echo THAT whistle, Spurrier seemed to be saying. And he did have the last say.

Bowden isn’t the only one who has felt Spurrier’s sting. So have former Georgia coach Ray Goff, Bill Curry (who didn’t retain Steve at Georgia Tech) and Dabo Swinney, among others. Not saying Spurrier is holding a grudge because Bernie Machen declined to hire him back at Florida, but maybe there’s also a little message in the record if you’re scoring at home, President Machen. Please note that record has been 42-11 the last four years while Florida’s was going 30-21. His home record was 69-5 at Florida.

The Gamecocks’ all-time winning coach (77-39) also takes great delight in having beaten Clemson the last five years and quotes a South Carolina newspaper headline that reads: “Another Clemson class graduates without beating South Carolina.”

Zing! That’s the Ball Coach we know. Free Shoes University. Can’t spell Citrus without at UT. And one of my personal favorites: Having the cops handcuff him at Gamecock practice after Clowney was detained downtown because of a mistaken identity. Yeah, like there’s a Steve Spurrier look alike!

Sometimes he even takes playful pokes at his friends, like Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops. Told after last year that Stoops became OU all-time winningest coach, Spurrier commented: “Yeah, but has he ever done it at two schools?”
Rim shot.

* * *

Money has never been the primary motivation with Spurrier, who will already could make over $13-$14 million the next three season in his current job and seems to have no interest in coaching anywhere else. He doesn’t even use an agent now. He did go for the big money once. When Daniel Snyder hired him as Redskins coach, the $25 million deal was the NFL’s biggest ever. Yet he walked away from the Redskins two years later for a settlement that Snyder described as “Chump Change.”

“I don’t ever want to be one of those coaches that gets paid for doing nothing,” Spurrier told me. His salary is unofficially listed at $4 million annually. “But I don’t need to be the highest paid guy. Just somewhere in the top five or so. I just ask for what’s fair.”

The pursuit of the SEC title hangs out there like a carrot for Spurrier, but another reason he keeps coaching at South Carolina is he enjoys having sons Steve Jr. (“Bubba”) and Scottie on his staff.

“Yeah, but that’s not the only reason,” said his son Steve Jr. “He’s very motivated to win and compete.” Bubba also agrees that taking a break from football – like golf and the beach — is a key to his dad’s regeneration of spirit every year. In fact, the whole family usually joins him. “It’s very refreshing for him,” says the younger Spurrier.

Over the past two decades, Steve Jr. has built a strong bond with his dad as a trusted advisor, and now as co-offensive coordinator, wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator. “He allows me to give him my opinion,” said Steve Jr. “You know, let’s me weigh in a little bit. Next to mom, I’ve been around him more than anybody the last 20 years.”

His father has already made it known he’s not plotting to have his son succeed him when he’s done, although that can’t really be ruled out. I asked Bubba if it was time for him to become a head coach. “I’ve got a really, really good job here,” said the younger Spurrier.

And while he didn’t say it, the Gamecocks are also on a really, really good roll.

* * *

Of course, his rock is Jerri, whom he married as a college student when they eloped to Folkston, Ga. in September, 1966. “Who says I didn’t have a ‘destination’ wedding?” she laughed, pointing to the simple gold band still worn on her left hand. “Right out of the tackle box,” she said of the jewelry.

Of course if she wanted a big rock, she could have a diamond as big as Kim Kardashian’s. She is so NOT Kim Kardashian. Because they were married under the radar almost 48 years ago, Steve threw a big party at Hilton Head for their 40th anniversary and plans to do something similar in a couple of years. I didn’t want to ask, but could that also be a retirement party?

* * *

So what would Spurrier be if he weren’t coaching? A showman perhaps? He brings pizzazz and panache to the game, as an iconoclast who laces his advocacy for change with a keen sense of irony and humor. If he were a country music star, his profile might look like this: A little Blake Shelton wise-ass humor, George Strait longevity for success and Keith Urban’s flair and good looks. “I love it!” exclaimed Trammel. “Perfect analogy!” Now all Spurrier needs is a hit song. How about, “Keep on playing and something good will happen!”? Are you listening Kenny Chesney?

http://www.southernpigskin.com/sec/the-martin-chronicles-spurriers-secret-to-success/

SouthernPigskin.com columnist Buddy Martin has written seven books on football, won an Emmy for his work with Terry Bradshaw and hosts Buddy Martin’s Sports Page weekdays at 5 pm on WOCA.com in North Central Florida.

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June 4, 2014 · 3:24 pm

‘Country Jim’ Kirk devoted his life to the community

By BUDDY MARTIN

He was a Hillbilly who came south to Alabama to pursue a spot on Alabama’s football team but would wind up at Florida State University on an accidental career path to broadcasting one busted shoulder later.

It was all about the fascination with the Talking Box.

Back in the hills of Tennessee about a decade earlier, Kirk had seen and heard his first radio through a screen door. Now he was on track to someday own his own radio stations.

Kirk joined a small station in Quincy to work for a man who had ideas of opening one in Ocala. Thus the seeds were planted for WMOP AM, and later, WFUZ FM. He would own them both before finally selling them off.

Jim says he instantly fell in love with Ocala and “I felt like I was born here after one day.” The community has loved him back for more than 60 years.

Back in the day, “research” meant walking the streets and talking with people, not Gallup Polls. During the days prior to launching the new station in Ocala, Kirk engaged folks with friendly banter around the courthouse square.

What he discovered was a thirst for country music, gospel and others voices. He gave them all of it — none more popular than he morning show host, “Country Jim,” who strummed his ukulele, sang, cracked jokes and offered up some Will Rogers-like wisdom.

Playing the uke was something he took up at FSU to impress the girls during his nighttime dormitory serenades which he also turned into a campus political campaign. In essence, Jim Kirk brought that act to Ocala and he sang his songs for over 40 years.

Very few people, if any, were ever more popular in the local media than Kirk. His presence was significant, especially when he started showing up at City Council meetings and rubbing shoulders with city leaders, which he soon parlayed into a high community profile. He lightened the mood of any room.

Kirk became one of them, launching an illustrious political campaign that included three terms as mayor – twice during critical times in the 1960s and again in the 1970s for the bicentennial. He also served two terms as councilman.

Jim married the girl he had met in high school, Elizabeth, known to Ocalans as “Biddie,” and they produced three sons and a daughter, plus five grandchildren. Russell, John and Richard live in Ocala; Deborah Ann lives in Raleigh, N.C. where she is a Presbyterian minister.

For a while, he was seemingly the only Seminole it town, but was never short on guile when it came to firing back at his Gator friends. Jim Kirk’s loyalty to FSU was akin to a three-piece suit that hangs around long enough to come back in style again, so when Bobby Bowden’s reign came in the 1980s and produced championships, Kirk was stylish.

The he became stylish again after the 2013 season when Jimbo Fisher’s ‘Noles won the national championship and quarterback Jameis Winston won the Heisman Trophy. Bragging rights got bigger.

“I’m not only happy about the Seminoles,” Kirk proudly beams, as if sticking the Seminole spear in Marion County soil, a la Chief Osceola, “but I’m happy about Ocala – the hotbed of Seminole supporters.”

And off we go.

Kirk is not only bullish on FSU, but bullish Ocala. He still maintains a small office behind the building of his former WMOP site and can look out his front door at Tuscawilla Park. His office is filled with artifacts from his past – more like a combination of Fibber McGee’s closet and a Jim Kirk Museum – much it mementoes or photos from his FSU past.

If the city goes through as planned to build Linear Park down the railroad tracks of Osceola Avenue there could be a trolley or rail car running right past his door.

“That is an exciting thing, with the walkway downtown,” says Kirk, who turns 87 this year. “They’re going to close this street and lead right to the activities center in the park.”

As he spoke, plans continued to unfold for the new home of the Ocala Symphony, the old Ocala Auditorium, which will be gutted and refurbished as a venue in the heart of the green space. Nearly 50 acres of green space, sometimes referred to as “Ocala’s Central Park.”

Being a preservationist and admirer of all things downtown, Kirk still seethes a little at the demolition of the courthouse and wants no part in the blame or credit of that decision. But he feels downtown has overcome that mistake and is headed in the right direction.

Although there have been some critics about the lack of leadership in the community, Kirk doesn’t agree and thinks it is “doing remarkably well.” He realizes the challenges we face of competing with larger city and hails the idea of the new Ocala 489 industrial park and the new deal with FedEx will attract other “classy” brands.

On sunny days as he putzes around his office, he looks out to delight at activity around the Tuscawilla Pond — fishermen dropping in line, people enjoying wildlife on their lunchtime. “I can sit here and watch it,” he says. “It’s very exciting. And I’m so proud the symphony people have taken over the auditorium. That would have destroyed my faith in humanity if they had taken that building down.”

It’s to say who was more blessed by the arrival of Jim Kirk – him or the community. Even Gator fans can’t deny that.

(Email Buddy at buddyshow@aol.com)

 

 

 

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Why I probably don’t miss the Masters these days as much as I should

 

It used to be my favorite place in all of sports – the photographer’s stand at Amen Corner on Sunday. For 35 years I felt blessed to be parked there, watching the leaders traipse around golf’s most famous real estate in America’s most famous golf venue.

With warm April sun splashing on my shoulder, brightly colored flowers framing the greens, and birds chirping in the Georgia woods, it always felt like I was part of the Masters landscape.

This year, as in the past two, I’ve been happily parked around my big screen HDTV during the Masters instead. And to be honest, it almost feels like I’m still there. Aside from the old friends and maybe the peach cobbler, I don’t really miss it at all.

Our dirty little secret: Every year when the leaders came through Amen Corner, almost every single journalist would scramble back to the press room to watch the final five or six holes on CBS anyway. You could never keep up with what was going on around the course if you didn’t.

The truth is, thanks to the late Frank Chirkinian of CBS, the Masters has become a made-for-TV event. Just as all of sports seems to be in the process of doing.

Yet, I read the other day that ESPN’s TV ratings for the current Masters were off by as much as 36 percent the first two days. That’s what missing Tiger Woods will do to the Nielsen ratings. Believe me, as the former media director of a Colorado PGA Tour event no longer in operation – The International – I can assure you the numbers are directly tied to high profile personalities like Woods.Tiger can make or break an event, although that’s never going to be the case with the sovereignty of the Masters. In our case he broke The International once he quit playing at Castle Pines because the TV ratings plummeted. (Ironically, the upcoming PGA Tour dates for the International were replaced by his AT&T event at Congressional in Washington, D.C.)

You can tell CBS is gagging a bit about the early ratings dropoff, although the golfing gods were fairly kind with the pairing of popular Bubba Watson and young 20-year-old phenom Jordan Spieth teeing off in Sunday’s finale. And venerable Freddie Couples still on the leader board.

Try as he may, my friend Jim Nantz can’t hype Jordan Spieth’s success big enough to convince us that he is the next Tiger. Although, like so many of you, I’m already a big fan of Spieth.

In fact, I gotta go now, because Spieth is teeing off at No. 1 and I’ll be able to see his shot better in my living room that I would standing at the No. 1 tee box.

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This Huskies-Gators Final Four matchup is about settling score, and a lucky bounce at Gampel Pavilion

The last team to beat the Gators before their 30-game winning streak is alive and is now in the way of a national title.  Remember that night in Storrs? How has this Gator transformation taken place since? Billy. Donovan.

Raise your hand if you truly thought, and believed, the Florida Gators would be going to the Final Four after the night of Dec. 2 at Gampel Pavilion when they lost to UConn because of a fluke rebound and subsequent putback by Shabazz Napier. Even Napier knew he was lucky. “I just felt I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time,” he admitted.

Fate owed one to the Gators and fate may have paved the way after the Huskies beat Michigan State, 60-55, for a trip to the semi finals at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Napier’s buzzer beater against a banged up Florida squad that December night is a bitter memory for Gator fans:

http://www.alligator.org/sports/basketball/article_803a998e-5be1-11e3-908a-001a4bcf887a.html

In fairness, Napier is a stellar guard whose briliance shone again in UConn’s 60-55 win Sunday, as he scored 25 points.

When the Huskies and Gators meet in Texas, the matchup between Shabazz and the SEC Player of the Year, most valuable player in the SEC Tournament and MVP in the South Regional, Scottie Wilbiken, may the one for the ages. In the game at UConn, a banged up Wilbiken had to leave the court with three minutes to go. You think he might be just a little psyched about payback on a neutral court.

Beating the last team to defeat them would be sweet and seemingly prophetic, but winning against anybody would be all Billy Donovan’s team needs to wipe out the memory of The Lucky Bounce in Gampel Pavilion.

Did you see this Gator rejuvention coming after Dec. 2 ?

The odds of it happening were something less than a perfect bracket, but admittedly almost lottery-like.

Show of hands please?

I must admit I didn’t raise mine either.

We should all agree on this, however: No matter if Florida wins over UConn or wins or loses in the national championship game, Billy Donovan has done his best coaching job ever and now deserves a place among the elite in college hoops — maybe right behind his mentor Rick Pitino and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.

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March 30, 2014 · 6:23 pm

Memo to The Gator Nation: It’s safe to come out!

Gator Nation is smiling. You could see their pearly whites all over the Amway Center last weekend, as you no doubt will tonight in the first round of the South Regional in Memphis when Florida tips off against UCLA.

By BUDDY MARTIN

I know I speak for the majority of the repatriated Gator fans today who feel all blissed out about the recent return to the Glory Days. It’s like a fog is lifting as this Florida basketball team blue-collars its way back to the top of college hoops. The orange and blue flags are no longer flying half-mast.

It’s Great To Be … Well, you remember how that chant used to go.

And yeah, as the Ol’ Ball Coach used to say, maybe the Good Lord is smiling on The Gator Nation again.

Billy’s boys have brightened our mood and hope is abounding among Gator fans that somehow, by osmosis, that winning feeling might even return to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium some day.

To be honest, some Gator fans are afraid to be too optimistic about basketball, as if they didn’t deserve it. At times it has gotten scary: First the No. 1 ranking — some of us even feared it might be a jinx – and then on to what has become an almost annual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Timed perfectly to ease the sting of the downturn in Gator football fortunes.

So now they offer up this collective prayer to Billy Donovan: “Pulease, pulease coach Donovan – don’t let this winning feeling go away just yet!”

While maybe the basketball success is not a total panacea for an ailing football program – a program that seems to be a lot more blue these days than bright orange – it sure helps to temporarily obscure the memory of the dreaded numbers 4 and 8.

You’ve heard the old joke going around:

 

Q. What did Will Muschamp do at Florida that Billy Donovan couldn’t?

A. Turned us into a basketball school.

 

OK, a bit cheap perhaps. But point taken.

The irony of the aforementioned joke is that the basketball success at Florida has drawn the attention of the coach many people believe to be one of the top three in America. But it’s a football coach: New England’s Bill Belichick.

Last Saturday, there was Belichick at the Amway Center, white Gator visor and all, sitting with his lady friend at the Florida-Pitt game, cheering for – are you ready for this? – the basketball coach at Florida and his team.

So does that make UF a basketball school? Or a football school that just happens to be enjoying a good year in basketball?

You decide.

I have been vocal about my disappointment at Muschamp’s lack of progress – even called for his dismissal BEFORE the loss to Georgia Southern –  but I now must say Will should get a stay of execution  this year to prove he can – or can’t – get it done again at a championship level.

The worst-to-first SEC turnaround at Auburn gives Gator fans some modicum of encouragement. And Donovan’s persistence after a rocky start this season proves that the right coach with the right plan can eventually get it done.

The fact that Donovan signed a new deal in February and that Muschamp is on a short lease may or may not impact that argument. With Billy’s bonuses this year he will be just a tad under $4 million, which some would say was “football coach money.” Worth every penny and then some.

Nobody begrudges Donovan the dough after a fourth straight trip to the Sweet Sixteen and a realistic quest for a third national championship. He is one of three SEC coaches to win 400 games and ranks second all-time in wins at an SEC school behind Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (875) after No. 449 over Pittsburgh. A nice round 450 tonight over UCLA would look good on his resume.

As for whether Florida is a football or basketball school, who cares?

Bear Bryant once said he found out that answer at Kentucky when at the end of the football season in Lexington he was given a cigarette lighter as a gift and Rupp got a Cadillac. This year at Florida, the car goes to the basketball coach.

Buddy Martin, host of the daily radio show “Buddy Martin’s Sports Page,” has written four books on Gator sports. Most recently “The Boys From Old Florida” was rereleased by Skyhorse Publishing. You may email him at buddyshow@aol.com

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Four Reasons Why We Love This Florida Gator Basketball Team

By BUDDY MARTIN

Even though these guys really haven’t won the ultimate prize yet – and may not – I feel compelled to confess today that of all the sports teams fielded by the University of Florida over the past 60 years, Billy Donovan’s 2013-14 basketball squad is one of my all-time favorites. And really it has nothing to do with being the nation’s No. 1 team because, as everybody knows, such a distinction this time of year is usually fool’s gold.

No matter what awaits them in March Madness, this team will be on my Mt. Rushmore of Gator hoops. I love the way these Gators have bonded, the way they grew together and approached every game as if they were underdogs. The way they carried themselves with confidence, composure and countenance in crunch time.

But it didn’t come easily. Every game, it seems, was another chapter in “The Little Engine That Could.”

It’s easy to love the championship basketball squads like the ones which won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and ’07 and had three members drafted in the Top 10 of the NBA Draft.

The memories still resonate of Joakim Noah blocking a shot, snatching the ball in mid-air and dribbling on a beeline to the middle of the court to lead the fast break. The nimble giant would dish off to skywalking Corey Brewer on the mega-dunk or Al Horford taking it hard to the rack, or pass to a trailing Taurean Green who would knock down the trey.

Who wouldn’t have been inspired watching theatre and ballet unfold on the hardwood before your very eyes to say nothing of the trophies that were produced?

This 2014 team is not about aesthetics and bling, however. It is neither Picasso or Michelangelo, nor the grace or beauty of the triple axle.

It’s maybe more like MacGyver doing graffiti, a bunch of egoless blue-collared guys with lunch pails doing an honest day’s work. No convergence of art and music these days as much as it has been “Please be patient: Our site is under construction.” Divas need not apply.

There’s not much pretty about Scottie Wilbiken deking on his cat-and-mouse routine, darting in and then pulling back almost like a semi-do-over, dumping a ball-screen pass to Will Yeguete, a guy who only shoots as a last resort. Yeguete more than likely hands off to Casey Prather, who either drives to the hole or dishes to mammoth Patric Young. And sometimes on a hot night, Michael Frazier will be sweet-stroking 3s like buttah.

The heart of their offense is their pressing defense, the zone trap, turning over an opposing player and attacking their will.

They’ve come a long way since Donovan had to scour the parking lot for a quorum to hold practice. And even then it took his former team manager to fill the void and walk-on Jacob Kurtz has wound up playing significant minutes.

If it is true, as the experts say, that success is 90 percent about showing up, then the firm of Wilbiken, Young, Prather & Yeguete will all graduate magna cum laude from Donovan’s School of Grit & Determination.

These. Gators. Always. Show. Up. And. Play. Hard. Period.

In a year when some of the hard-core Gator football fans are flying their flags at half-staff and licking the wounds from a 4-8 campaign, they can proudly beam, “Well, at least we are a BASKETBALL school!” They then can proudly point to The Four Who Stayed For Four who amassed 113 wins, an annual invitation to the Elite Eight and a perfect SEC campaign.

Young, Prather, Yeguete and Wilbiken, through their loyalty, recharged the Gator Nation, raising the spirits of The Boys From Old Florida.

1. We all love Patric, whose guns are superseded only by his supersized heart. But isn’t every one of those jump hooks a hold-your-breath adventure? He lumbers downcourt like an 18-wheeler with one tire low on air, always pedal-to-metal. He goes up for rebounds like a starving lion after red meat and flings himself toward loose balls as if falling on a grenade for his best friend. Yet his signature moment of the season was his lunge for the errant ball against Tennessee and subsequent on-his-butt outlet pass that iced the clock. And let’s not forget that Young has become the most improved free-throw shooter on the squad. He knew if he didn’t become more accurate that his team would be hurt late in games because foes would turn him into a Hack-A-Pat target. He wasn’t the two-time SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year for nothing. Thank you Patric.

2. As much as Young has improved his free-throw shooting, Prather has improved his game times 10 over in the last four seasons. Either that, or when the equipment manager wasn’t looking, a clone of Kevin Durant slipped into that No. 24 uniform. There were times when Prather wanted to transfer, discouraged by his inability to shoot the 3-pointer and lack of scoring to help his team. He was a bit of a loner. So he worked through it only to be injured earlier in this year. Prather more than doubled his 6-point scoring average to lead the team in that department. His defense also became a huge asset. He delights in slapping the ball away for a steal and finishing the break, sometimes with a soft-butterfly landing to avoid the charge. Thank you Casey.

3. Yeguete does the dirty work – whatever scraps are left by Young. He boxes out, sets the picks, takes the charge or sometimes defends the low post. It’s easy to lose sight of Will because he’s not flashy and tends to blend into the background. Yet during high school at Florida Air Academy, he was known as a player who could “dominate a game without scoring,” according to an opposing coach. He was so shy four years ago that he practically needed to re-introduce himself to the team in practice. The fact that he spoke French and his family lived on the Ivory Coast didn’t make for an overnight relationship of sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya and roasting marshmallows. After a slow start with tendonitis, Yeguete has become one of those unsung heroes you hear about. And he’s sort of the glue. Thank you Will.

4. If it seems like Wilbiken has been playing for Florida since the 1990s, it’s because he was so young (17) when he virtually walked across the street from The Rock to play four more years in his hometown. Yet he almost didn’t play that last season because he was in an eyelash of getting booted off the team late last summer for violation of a team rule. It was the second time in 18 months he broke a team rule and was sat down. His coach invited him to transfer unless Scottie was willing to move back in with his parents and follow a strict conditioning regimen. He also was required to apologize to his teammates and the fans. Even then he was suspended until further notice and didn’t come back until Game 6. Then he suffered an injury. Somehow it made him more resolute. When this team is struggling, needs a bucket but nobody else can throw it in the ocean, Wilbiken is money. He also plays belly-button defense, picks the pocket of his man often and has been known to shut down some of the SEC’s top scorers. If Patric Young is the heart of this team, Scottie Wilbekin is its guts. Thank you Scottie.

They went against the one-and-done philosophy of the basketball mercenaries. Long after any NBA riches might have come and gone, their names will be uttered in respect and Gator basketball lore will likely pay homage to The Four Who Stayed For Four.

In the end, these seniors leave behind a meaningful legacy. They’ve already bequeathed a 32-game homecourt winning streak at the O’Connell Center, not to mention the establishment of the record 18-0 standard in league play.

“They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives,” says their coach. “They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done. They’ve done something that’s not happened here before.”

Notice how Billy Donovan sort of left himself out of all of this success.

Despite some of the travails earlier in the season, I’ve got a pretty good idea that one day Donovan will admit that this has been one of his most rewarding seasons, because it might be the best coaching job he’s ever done. For right now, however, he’s got another hill to climb with “The Little Engine That Could.”

(Email Buddy Martin at buddyshow@aol.com)

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