Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Back when he was a rather hot commodity as a head football coach, former Ohio State assistant Lou Holtz was considered the most likely candidate to replace Wayne Woodrow Hayes whenever Hayes elected to hang up his whistle. Hayes still hadn’t been fired yet for punching a Clemson player on the sideline of the Gator Bowl and Holtz was still making a name for himself at North Carolina State when asked if he would like to be Hayes’ successor.
Without a moment of hesitation, Holtz replied, “You never want to be the guy who follows a legend but I wouldn’t mind being the guy who follows the guy who follows the legend.”
Holtz never did replace Hayes nor was he ever HBC at Ohio State, but he did try succeeding a legend at Arkansas in Frank Broyles in 1977. He lasted seven years and while he won a lot of games (60-21-2), he felt he was never fully appreciated or accepted by the Arkansas faithful.
At Florida, we’ve seen how difficult it is to replace a legend. In football, neither Ron Zook nor Will Muschamp were able to duplicate the success of the legends they replaced. Zook lasted less than three full years after replacing Steve Spurrier, who left after the 2001 season for the NFL, and Muschamp managed only four years after he replaced Urban Meyer in 2011. More recently and in basketball, Mike White has been faced with the game of constant comparisons since taking over for Billy Donovan after Donovan left for the NBA after the 2014-15 season.
In some respects, replacing Donovan the legend is the more difficult task because the state of Florida is one of the top three states when it comes to producing football talent. It’s entirely possible to win a national championship in football with a roster made up 90 percent or more of home-grown Florida talent. Maybe it could happen in basketball, but the only two national championships ever won by a collegiate team in this state – back-to-back by UF in 2006-07 – were won without a single Floridian in the starting lineup. If you’re going to win and win big in basketball at the University of Florida, you better be able to recruit the entire country.
Donovan began the decade by making three straight Elite Eights (2011-13) and one Final Four (2014). He went 120-30 in those four years before things cratered in 2015 (16-17), prompting his departure to the NBA. White has put together a nice body of work (108-65 record) but with only one Elite Eight appearance (2017) to show for it the natives grow restless. Compounding things is the just finished 19-12 season in which the Gators began ranked sixth nationally, predicted by many to challenge for the Final Four. Like it or not, a 19-12 record only causes the Donovan shadow to lengthen.
When the media posts their predictions for the 2020-21 season, expectations won’t be nearly as high for White and the Gators but this could actually be a better basketball team from top to bottom of the roster than the one White finished the COVID-19 shortened season with back in early March. Kerry Blackshear Jr. will be playing professional basketball somewhere next year and reserve Dontae Bassett has transferred to Weber State. Everybody else is back including starters Keyontae Johnson (6-5, 235), Andrew Nembhard (6-5, 193), Noah Locke (6-3, 205) and Scottie Lewis (6-5, 180). Lewis considered declaring for the NBA Draft but elected to return for his sophomore season, in part because he knows the UF roster will be stronger than last year and the Gators will have a chance to put the disappointments behind them. Tre Mann (6-4, 180), Omar Payne (6-10, 225), Jason Jitoboh (6-11, 280) and Ques Glover give White a strong core group to work with.
The additions of Anthony Duruji (6-8, 220) and Tyree Appleby (6-1, 165), both of whom are eligible after sitting out a transfer year, and a three-player recruiting class led by sharpshooting Russian Samson Ruzhentsev (6-8, 205) will give White a lot of moving parts that should allow him the flexibility to play any style he wants. The roster is experienced, athletic and capable of putting together the best season UF has had since White made the Elite Eight his second year on the job.
Nobody knows better than Mike White what expectations are at Florida. The Gators practice in a building that for all practical purposes is a monument to Billy Donovan. The Gators play their home games on an O-Dome court named after the UF legend. Comparisons are inevitable and the only way to silence them is to put the legend in the rearview. For that, he must win and win big. He has the roster to do it next year.