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Florida Gators set high benchmark for SEC success

GAINESVILLE — It has become a familiar refrain for volleyball coach Mary Wise when her team goes on the road in the SEC — a sentiment other Florida coaches echo.

"Everywhere we go, everybody wants to beat the Gators," Wise said.

With good reason.

In the SEC, Florida has become the standard-bearer of winning. When the men's golf team won the SEC title April 17, it represented the school's 200th regular-season conference title since the SEC's inception in 1933. Second is Tennessee with 150.

Florida's coaches say the accomplishment is even more impressive when you look at the level of competition in the SEC — and how much everyone targets the Gators.

"You know you're getting everybody's best shot every time," said Wise, a former Iowa State coach who spent five years as an assistant at Kentucky before coming to Florida in 1991.

"I think that's every sport."

This sports calendar year, Florida has won SEC regular-season titles in volleyball, soccer, women's cross country, men's basketball, men's indoor track, women's tennis and men's golf. The women's lacrosse team won a title but does not compete in the SEC because the conference does not sanction the sport.

"It's a source of pride," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "If you win a conference championship in this league, you never take that for granted, and you always enjoy it because this is a tough league; a lot of great coaches, a lot of great institutions."

It's no coincidence, Florida coaches say, that 102 of the titles have come during the 19 years of Foley's leadership.

"I'm prejudiced, but I feel like it's the best-run athletic association in the country," said men's tennis coach Andy Jackson, a former Kentucky tennis player who spent 18 seasons as coach at Mississippi State before joining Florida in 2002.

"And I feel like Jeremy Foley sets the standard. And he does it pretty simply: You are given what you need, you are asked not to waste things, and you're asked to be among the best year after year after year. It's not easy, but it's what's expected. And it works."

The women's tennis team has won the most titles — 25 of the SEC's 32 — of any women's program. It is a "culture of winning" that permeates the program and carries a burden and a responsibility, coach Roland Thornvist said.

"That's, frankly, why I came here," he said. "I wanted to have the bull's-eye on your back. I think our players treasure that challenge also. And with that comes responsibility and pressure."

Critics point to the vast resources Florida has as a major factor in its success — and there's no denying it has the resources. The Gators reported they had a school-record $96.4 million budget this sports calendar year. But does money buy victories?

"There are plenty of programs out there that have money that aren't doing what we do here," said Florida track coach Mike Holloway, who has led the men's and women's teams to five SEC titles. "There have been people here before me and some of the other coaches who weren't as successful, and obviously, the money was here then. So it's not about the money.

"We know how everybody looks at us. I was at a track meet once, and I heard somebody refer to our athletic association as a Fortune 500 company. We know that's their view of us. But I take this personally. And I know my fellow coaches feel the same."

But there is a unique benefit to what money can buy: an atmosphere in which bitterness doesn't fester.

"Because of the resources and, thankfully, the revenues that football draws and the boosters (contribute), the pie from which we all share from, the portions we share aren't so small," Wise said. "For us to be successful, we're not having to shortchange another program. There is no jealousy. We're a large athletic department, but we don't have the sports by the numbers that some other schools our size do. There's enough to go around.

"No one is going hungry at the dinner table."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com. Check out her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gators.

Florida Gators set high benchmark for SEC success 05/08/11 [Last modified: Sunday, May 8, 2011 8:54pm]
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