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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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