Posted: 3:00 p.m. Thursday, May 2, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
Six years ago, in August 2007, the last big conference network launch — for the Big Ten Network, the pioneering enterprise that set the pace for college sports broadcasting — came with the Florida Gators on top of the world. Florida had just won the NCAA Tournament in April, giving the Gators back-to-back titles in men's basketball that sandwiched a second national title in football, and had notched those three national championships in basketball and football over just 366 days.
Since then, Florida has fallen from that unprecedented perch — one that no team has threatened, or is likely to threaten. But, watching the SEC Network announcement today, it wasn't hard to see that one thing hasn't changed: Florida is still one of the 800-pound gorillas in the most powerful conference in college sports, and probably the burliest one in the room.
32 coaches were at the SEC's announcement on Tuesday, including Billy Donovan, the dean of SEC basketball coaches, and Will Muschamp. Though every one of the 14 football coaches was at the event, only a handful of schools had both their football and men's basketball coaches at the announcement (Kentucky had John Calipari and Mark Stoops; Missouri had Frank Haith and Gary Pinkel; Tennessee had Butch Jones and Cuonzo Martin), and no other school got to trot out coaches who had produced a BCS bowl appearance and a men's Final Four appearance at the same school today.
Amusingly and impressively, all of the Florida head coaches with teams still playing games this season has taken a team to the championship round of an NCAA sport — except for women's golf coach Emily Bastel, who is in her first year as a head coach, and Amanda O'Leary, who got Florida lacrosse within one game of that championship round last year, and may well add herself to this list in a month. (Bryan Shelton, Florida's men's tennis coach, coached Georgia Tech's women's tennis team to a national title in 2007.)
Florida's part of every discussion about the SEC, too. Want to brag about the SEC's 84 national championships since 2000? 14 were won by various Gators teams, and only Alabama has more in football. Want to talk about that remarkable seven-year string of national championships in football? Florida started it, and added a second title in its third year. Want to position SEC basketball as a must-see broadcast property? The Gators have more national titles this century than any teams but North Carolina and Connecticut, and don't have even a whiff of the stench of impropriety that got UConn banned from postseason play in 2013 and lingers on Carolina in regards to its athletics tutoring scandal. (The SEC showed montages of football and basketball national titles: Florida led both.)
And Florida's two biggest, most important names, president Bernie Machen and athletic director Jeremy Foley, are never far from the discussion. Machen appeared via the magic of the Internet during the presentation to say some things; Foley is always among the first names mentioned when discussing the best athletic directors in the country, and possible successors to SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Machen and Foley are part of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee and AD Advisory Group, respectively; the only other school with a president and an AD on those committees is USC, with president Max Nikias and AD Pat Haden.
There's probably an argument to be made that the SEC isn't the most progressive conference in college athletics, given the Big Ten getting the trend of networks owning and producing their broadcast started and the Pac-12 pioneering pretty much everything else. But the SEC has the strongest portfolio of properties, especially in the most valuable college sport.
There's probably an argument to be made that the SEC isn't the conference with the most tradition in college athletics, given that having the most successful program in college football (Alabama) and the most successful program in men's college basketball (Kentucky) does not alone confer tradition on every other team. But "tradition" is a word that gets reinvented every time ESPN uses an anniversary to refashion the history of sports, and the SEC's got more recent history than any other conference.
There's obviously an argument that Florida isn't the premier school in either of those two flagship sports, and that Florida's success as an athletic program, though considerable, only dates back so far. But I'd flip that another way: The people responsible for that success are mostly still around, and the ceiling for Florida is much higher than any other school, because of the embarrassment of riches that is the state of Florida's athletic talent and Florida's place as the state's preeminent institution.
And, to combine those last two things, a long-term alliance with ESPN, which has risen to the top of its marketplace in parallel with Florida, is a great partnership for UF and the UAA to have.
Florida doesn't have the half-dozen decades of the same bold-face history that Alabama or Kentucky does in either football or men's basketball, but Gators have written so many chapters of history in the last two that it largely doesn't matter: Children growing up in America today consider the Florida Gators among the best teams in college sports because that's all they see and know. Tim Tebow and Joakim Noah became huge stars because of who they were, but became the biggest stars they could possibly be at Florida. That's the opportunity available to any prospective Florida student-athlete.
And I do mean any prospective Gator: The SEC Network can't just show football and men's basketball at all times, and so it will have to showcase those fruits of the labor of Florida's staggeringly deep athletic department better than any network showcases any other team. (Sorry, Longhorn Network: You need to be a little bit more available to be part of this discussion.)
It's a real estate truism that you don't actually want to buy best house on the block: The initial cost is tremendous, and it's difficult to increase the value. And that holds true for Florida, too: The Gators needed expert leadership to get this far, and will need visionary leadership in the future, and Foley providing that now does not mean he always will.
But living in the best house on the block, when that block is the best in the neighborhood? That's wonderful. And with the SEC Network showing informercials for it until 2034, that is going to be a potent selling point for a generation of future Gators.