College basketball in the Sunshine State has been played mostly in the shadows. Except for a blaze of glory in the early '70s, when Jacksonville and Florida State flared into national prominence by each finishing second in the NCAAs, the state has had no Final Four teams and precious few All-Americas.
Since 1970, when Jacksonville, starring Artis Gilmore and Rex Morgan, lost to UCLA in the national finals, the Dolphins haven't made it past the first round of the NCAAs. Although an NCAA finalist in 1972, Florida State is known mostly for Dave Cowens and playing second fiddle to Louisville in the Metro Conference. The University of Florida hasn't run anywhere since Neal Walked and has never won the SEC. As for the University of South Florida, no one outside the state has been able to figure out if the school is actually Florida Southern, Southern Florida or, because of its initials, the University of San Francisco. A burgeoning national power in basketball, they say in Florida. But have they been out in the sun too long?
Maybe not, if last week's inaugural Florida Four tournament at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa was any indication. It brought together four Florida teams with respected coaches, refurbished images and renewed interest in making basketball something more than a minor diversion in a football-crazy state. Since 1972 only Florida State has cracked the Top 20, but the Seminoles didn't stay there long. This year the state may well produce a legitimate Top 20 team.
The leading candidate is South Florida, which won the Florida Four by defeating Florida 58-56 and Florida State 82-67. Indeed, nowhere is the boom in Florida basketball more evident than at USF, where Coach Lee Rose arrived from Purdue last year—and went 18-11 with almost the same team that was 6-21 the previous season. That performance earned the Bulls their first postseason bid, to the NIT, where they lost 65-55 to Connecticut in the first round.
This year USF has been picked to finish second behind Alabama-Birmingham in the Sun Belt Conference. The Bulls have a front line that goes 7'0" (Jim Grandholm), 6'11" (Willie Redden) and 6'9" (Vince Reynolds). They have a bona fide All-America candidate in Guard Tony Grier. They have an enthusiastic Sun Dome cheering section called The Rose Garden. And they have their first certified loony, a band member named Kevin Cramer, who drops his French horn and performs an awkward semi-striptease during time-outs. "Nothing like that ever happened around here before," says Redden. Most of all, though, USF has Rose, whose deification in Tampa is imminent. Rose may not quite be in the Dean Smith-Bobby Knight-Ray Meyer pantheon of active coaches, but his instant success at South Florida has him knocking at the door.
Still, the Florida Four Tournament was not just USF's show. It served as a coming-out party for all four schools, the kind of provincial showcase that fans in North Carolina know as the Big Four. And Lord knows no one needed such a showcase more than the state of Florida.
The difficulties these schools have faced in upgrading their programs in some ways parallel those once encountered by the University of Miami, which doesn't even play basketball anymore. Like Jacksonville and, to a lesser degree, Florida and Florida State, Miami had a basketball tradition; after all, Rick Barry starred there, and the Hurricanes played in three NITs in the early '60s. But Miami never had a campus facility for basketball—Barry played his home games at the Miami Beach Convention Center and at Miami-Dade Junior College—and the Hurricanes finally dropped the sport in 1971. The idea of resurrecting it does surface now and then, but by and large college basketball has gone unmourned in Miami.
Until last season Florida, which beat Jacksonville 84-73 to finish third in the Florida Four, played its home games in a 5,500-seat campus sardine can known as Alligator Alley. Until this year, Florida State was burdened with Tully Gymnasium, dubbed Tiny Tully for its capacity of fewer than 3,000. South Florida had it worst of all. In 1979-80 it played its "home" games at four different sites—The Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg (40 miles from its campus), the Civic Center in Lakeland (25 miles), Curtis Hixon Hall in downtown Tampa (15 miles) and the Tampa State Fairgrounds (seven miles). "It got to be one of those things like 'If today is Tuesday, then this must be Curtis Hixon,' " says USF Sports Information Director Dave Jovanovic.
The college's shoddy gym situation was disastrous for recruiting. Every year Sunshine State coaches looked on in anguish as the considerable homegrown talent shipped out, citrus fruit-like, by the crateload. "I don't know how many kids we lost because of Tully," says Florida State Coach Joe Williams. "Heck, a lot of these kids played in high school gyms that were better." Williams' predecessor, Hugh Durham, left Florida State in 1979 for Georgia partly because of perennial hassles about the gym.
Now, however, Florida, Florida State and USF are all playing in spiffy arenas that opened within the last two years. (Jacksonville, which has no plans for a campus facility, is quite content with the refurbished 9,500-seat Veterans Memorial Coliseum, four miles from its campus.) South Florida's home attendance jumped 256% when it moved into the Sun Dome last year, and certainly the new arenas are a big reason that 19 of the 27 freshmen and sophomores on the combined rosters of Florida, Florida State and USF are native sons. They include freshmen Eugene McDowell of Florida and Charles Bradley of USF, two of the most intensely recruited schoolboy players in the state last year.
"Florida was always near the top of my list," says McDowell, a powerful 6'8" center who had more than 200 scholarship offers, "but the fact that the arena was opening mattered a great deal in my decision."
But new buildings aren't the biggest factor in the state's basketball buildup. Coaches are. There is no buzzword in college sports with quite the same impact as "Final Four." Final Four coaches "have been there." Final Four coaches can "turn programs around." And now three of them are plying their trade in Florida.
Florida State's Williams finished second with Jacksonville in 1970. Norm Sloan, who took over at Florida last season, won the national title with North Carolina State in 1974. Rose came in fourth with UNC-Charlotte in 1977 and third with Purdue in 1980. And Jacksonville's first-year coach, Bob Wenzel, was an assistant to Duke's Bill Foster when the Blue Devils lost to Kentucky in the 1978 final.
Of the Florida Four coaches, Wenzel, 31, has the toughest row to hoe. Last season the Dolphins were 8-19, and he has only one of his own recruits, freshman Point Guard Andrew Hinton, on this year's team. The Dolphins simply haven't been getting the blue-chippers that Williams and his successor, Tom Wasdin, attracted from 1968 to 1973, when Jacksonville went 107-27. And now Wenzel must compete for talent not only with his estimable peers in Florida but also, in the Sun Belt Conference, with UAB.
Heck, Jacksonville couldn't even lure a Gilmore to the campus. Williams took advantage of his long friendship with Artis to sign Oren Gilmore, Artis' talented 6'9" brother, last year. Gilmore had a total of 23 points and eight rebounds in his two tournament games. Frank Gilmore, another of the six Gilmore brothers, is a part-time assistant for Williams.
But Wenzel has solid recruiting credentials. While at Duke, he was primarily responsible for landing Jim Spanarkel, Gene Banks and Mike Gminski. Wenzel has committed the Dolphins to a running style of play; he wants them to fast-break at least 35 times a game. He also has imposed some stringent regulations. "At first I think the team kind of resisted his rules," says senior Forward Terry Brush, "but now that we've seen how they've helped us, I think we're behind him." Wenzel requires coats and ties on the road, team-breakfast attendance and a 6 a.m. study session in the office of Assistant Coach Marty Gross for every missed class, practice or breakfast.
The task Williams undertook at Florida State was different from those of the other three coaches. He wasn't called in to rescue a sinking program when he replaced Durham, whose 12-year winning percentage of .708 is the best in the school's history. Florida State wanted Williams to keep things rolling. Maybe he could even lure another Cowens or two to the campus and give Louisville some competition in the Metro.
"What I'd like to shoot for, rather than overtaking Louisville, which just isn't going to happen because they'll always have a great team, is just to move up alongside them," says Williams. "Try to make it a one-two conference rather than just a one." Williams has come in second to Louisville two of the three years he has been at Florida State, but the other Metro teams haven't exactly been standing still. Cincinnati, Virginia Tech and Memphis State have all been picked to finish ahead of the Seminoles in the conference this year.
Though his young squad lost its composure in the tournament final against USF, Florida State could spring a surprise by season's end. Next week Clemson transfer Mitchell Wiggins, a 6'4" forward who can board, becomes eligible, and Williams has already named him to the alltime team of players he has coached, with Gilmore and Morgan of Jacksonville and Jonathan Moore and Clyde Mayes of Furman.
Williams left both schools when things were going well. He departed Jacksonville for Furman following the glorious 1969-70 season in which the Dolphins made the national finals. His move had something to do with finances; he was getting less than $10,000 a year for X-ing and O-ing against people like John Wooden. He left Furman for Florida State after leading the Paladins to five Southern Conference titles and a 142-87 record in eight seasons. That move had something to do with Williams' love of sailing and deep-sea fishing, the latter a subject on which he waxes almost rhapsodic. Anyway, the easygoing Williams, surely one of the few coaches in the country to leave the practice court holding hands with his wife, seems a natural for basketball among the palm trees.
Sloan has similar warm feelings about the state. He has become so associated with basketball in the ACC that his stopover at Florida from 1960 to 1966 is frequently forgotten. He headed for North Carolina State, David Thompson and Final Fourdom after that, but he never got Florida out of his mind. "I enjoyed it tremendously when I was here before," says Sloan, "and I always felt that if Florida had the proper facility, I would consider coming back." Well, the folks at Florida hurried the construction of its futuristic Stephen C. O'Connell Center while drawing up a list of coaching talent that might lead its basketball team to glory. The list had only one name, and Sloan said yes.
Sloan may have liked the Florida living and the new facility, but he didn't like what the Gator program had become after 8-19 and 7-21 seasons under John Lotz in 1978-79 and 1979-80. Only three of Lotz's players were around last season, and Florida now has one of the youngest teams in the country—four sophomores, eight freshmen—mainly because Sloan wanted to play with his people.
"There's a combination of reasons nobody [from Lotz's teams] is here," says Sloan. "Some lost interest in playing, and I lost interest in some. I wanted players who wanted to be at the University of Florida. I have them now." Among those who left were Reggie Hannah, a big-time center who transferred to South Alabama, and Grandholm, who transferred to South Florida.
Grandholm says Sloan didn't pressure him to leave, though the coach didn't encourage him to stay, either. Grandholm left, he says, primarily because he wanted some "juice" he just wasn't getting in Gainesville. "I'm from Indiana," he says, which is enough when the subject is high school basketball. "I played before 8,500 in the gym at Elkhart Central High all the time. I played in front of more than 15,000 in the state Final Four at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis. Plus, I'd come to Florida to play for John Lotz. When he was fired and Coach Sloan came in, it just didn't seem like the right place for me anymore."
But USF is the right place for Grandholm, as it is for Grier, who had 42 points, 10 assists and 14 rebounds in the Florida Four tournament. "We really didn't know what a big-time program was before Coach Rose came," says Grier, USF's alltime leading scorer. "I thought everything was great here even though we were losing. I thought that was the way programs were run, and so be it. I found out differently. The main thing we lacked that Coach Rose gave us was mental toughness."
Still, things aren't perfect in Grier's world these days. A native of Port Chester, N.Y., he has had to do without his favorite TV show, The Honeymooners, in Tampa. "Man, I miss ol' Ralph and Norton every night," he says.
Rose's inspiration comes not from television but from sources as diverse as the Bible and the novels of Robert Ludlum. In analyzing USF's rising stature, he calls on another favorite, the Peanuts cartoon strip in which Lucy advises Charlie Brown at her 5¬¨¬®¬¨¢ psychiatry stand. "Lucy tells Charlie that life is like a big cruise ship," says Rose, "and some people have their chairs at the front of the boat looking forward, and some have their chairs at the back of the boat looking backward. Then she says, 'Which way are you looking, Charlie Brown?' And he says, 'Heck, I can't even get my chair unfolded.' Well, I like to think that right now we've just got the chair unfolded and we're ready to move it."
And, when he says that, he could be speaking for the three other Florida schools as well.