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Wednesday September 10, 2014 'Big V' takes a turn on 'The Biggest Loser'

Updated: 3:42pm, September 10

Biggest Loser team photo GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The nadir of it all, or so Vanessa Hayden thought, was her unwillingness even to show herself in public. The former University of Florida basketball star was grossly overweight and simply did not want anyone to see her.

“I’d been hiding for a couple years,” Hayden said.

But then came a few words from her 7-year-old daughter, Zyon, that shook Hayden to the core.

“You used to do things with me. Now you’re always tired and always working. We don’t have fun anymore.”

That’s when the door of reality slammed in the face of Hayden, who at 31 was now 6-foot-4 and in excess of 350 pounds. Yet about around the time that door seemed to be closing, another opened when a friend of hers from their WNBA days called and said the popular NBC reality show, “The Biggest Loser,” was looking for former athletes to compete in the 2014 season.

Hayden promptly made one of the biggest winning decisions of her life.

When “The Biggest Loser: Glory Days” premiers Thursday night at 8, that will be Hayden, the former All-America center, standing in the third row of the 2014 team photo (above) wearing number 366.

Yes, as in 366 pounds.

Hayden, now 32 and a child welfare and intake specialist in Orlando, will be seen competing and bonding with former athletes like NFL quarterback Scott Mitchell (383 pounds), tennis star Zina Garrison (263 pounds), three-time Olympic softball gold-medalist Lori Harrigan-Mack (301 pounds) and NFL offensive lineman Damien Woody (388 pounds).

The stories of all 24 contestants were cut from similar cloth. All were one-time among the peak of their peers.

Hayden, affectionately known as "Big V" during her UF days, averaged 14.7 points and 10.3 rebounds over her four-year career (2000-04) with the Gators, garnering Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year and second-team All-America honors in her senior season. She had 50 career double-doubles, grabbed 20 rebounds in a game and blocked 10 shots in another on her way to becoming just the fifth UF player to the milestones of 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.

The WNBA Minnesota Lynx made Hayden the seventh overall pick in the 2004 draft. She played in the league five seasons, and took some spins on the European professional circuit before leaving the game in 2009 and returning to her hometown of Orlando.

That’s when it began.

Big V “After playing basketball, my weight gain was very rapid and quick,” said Hayden, pictured left in March at the SEC women's basketball tournament when she was honored as UF's annual respresentative among the SEC Legends. “In 2010, I had a knee injury and within two years I was 140 pounds overweight. That’s unheard of. As an athlete I was eating 3,000 calories a day and working out four or five hours a day. When I stopped playing, I kept those habits up and didn’t work out. I was in an office and at a desk all day.”

Which eventually led to that life-altering moment.

You’ll have to watch the show to see how Hayden fares -- no spoilers allowed here, folks -- but in a conversation last week she spoke of how much she loved being a part of the program and the camaraderie enjoyed with her fellow contestants.

Above all, Hayden embraced what it did for her self-esteem.

“Being on the show was definitely a release,” Hayden said. “This was my time to do something about my life. It was going to be on a national TV. I wasn’t going to hide anymore. I had to get myself together and it felt good.”

There were some moments that were more revealing than releasing; like the first time she had to put on a pair of tights.

“I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ I didn’t ever want to see that again,” Hayden said. “I just was not healthy going onto that show.”

But the tone in her voice made it clear that how the show began wasn’t nearly as important as how it ended.

For that, Gators fans will have to wait. And watch.

Friday September 5, 2014 UF welcomes SEC Network ... and welcomes back Heather Mitts

Updated: 12:29pm, September 5

Heather on runwayGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The lines of objectivity in journalism are easily tripped over these days, given the multitude of media platforms.

So forgive Heather Mitts if she gets caught up in the pre-game moment Saturday during a rare return visit to Florida Field. A Gator chomp sent her way just may get return fire.

“Most likely, yes,” Mitts said Thursday. “Maybe not during the game. I may have to control myself for that. But once a Gator, always a Gator.”

And in all kinds of weather, which may again be the case Saturday when the Florida football team is scheduled to open its 2014 season against Eastern Michigan (1-0) at The Swamp. The game will be televised by the SEC Network, with Tom Hart calling play-by-play, Matt Stinchcomb providing color, and Mitts, a UF Athletic Hall-of-Famer and one of the most decorated American women soccer players in history, reporting from the sidelines.

Mitts, who helped lead the Gators to the 1998 NCAA championship, graduated from Florida in 2000 with a degree in advertising and then took off on a 12-year odyssey as a professional and international soccer standout until announcing retirement from the game she loved in March 2013. When she played, Mitts was a tenacious defender who helped the U.S. to gold medals in the 2004, ’08 and ’12 Olympic games while playing more than 100 international matches.

Along the way, she did stints at ESPN and Fox Sports as a studio soccer analyst, and was asked to work the 2005 college football season as a sideline reporter.

“I had never done college football before then,” said Mitts, who grew up in an Ohio family of soccer and basketball junkies. “It was one of those things where I didn’t feel I had any experience, but also felt like it was too good an opportunity to pass up. So I just kind of dove in ... and I really, really enjoyed doing football.”

Now, she’s doing it again.

Last weekend, Mitts made her SEC Network debut on the sidelines when Kentucky blasted Tennessee-Martin 59-14 at Lexington. Her Week 2 assignment will dispatch Mitts, now 36, back to the alma mater, where she has many fond memories of being in The Swamp and cheering on Coach Steve Spurrier and the Gators.

“Danny Wuerrfel was the quarterback,” Mitts said. “He was a god.”

And she was a UF soccer goddess.

Heather as a Gator As a freshman in 1996 on UF’s second team, the Cincinnati product instantly became one of the best defensive players in the SEC, starting all but one game she played during a rookie season that ended with a broken leg in the SEC Tournament. As a sophomore, Mitts was one of four Gators to start every game on her way to winning the coaches award as the team’s most inspirational player.

Then came the magical 1998 season.

Mitts started all 27 games and led the Gators in minutes played with 2,329. The final seconds of those minutes ticked away in a stirring 1-0 upset of the 14-time champion North Carolina in the NCAA title game at Greensboro, giving the Gators a national crown in just their fourth season of existence.

When she left UF a year later, Mitts did so as a two-time All-American and with the school record for career starts (94), minutes (7,547) and consecutive starts (74).

Mitts hasn’t gotten back to Gainesville much -- she's been married to former NFL quarterback A.J. Feeley since 2010 and together they have a 9-month-old son -- which will make this visit all the more special. Mitts still recalls the days when the soccer players would cross paths with Spurrier in the south end zone training facility. Like that time coming off their ’98 national title, an outcome that came a week after a football loss at Florida State and a Tennessee win in the SEC Championship Game.

Spurrier spoke.

“You soccer girls need to rub off a little on our football boys and show ‘em how it’s supposed to be done.”

He paid attention to all UF teams. This weekend, Mitts gets to relive some of those days, courtesy of ESPN.

“So, yeah, coming back to do a Gator game is going to be really exciting for me,” Mitts said. “I still bleed orange and blue. That’ll never change.”

Tuesday September 2, 2014 Get to know Eastern Michigan University

Updated: 12:49pm, September 3

EMU campus GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- So after calling a similar entry last week a “Get to Know the University of Idaho” blog, readers learned a whole more about UI, the college, rather than UI, the football team, thanks to 10 seconds of action Saturday night.

You’re welcome, unfortunately.

While the powers that be figure what if anything will come of the vanished date with the Vandals, the Florida football season (presumably) goes on.

Next up for the Gators is a Saturday afternoon showdown against Eastern Michigan (1-0), an opponent UF has faced just once in its 108-year history. The previous date came in 2004, in what turned out to be Coach Ron Zook’s final season. And guess what? The Eagles were supposed to be Florida’s second opponent of the year, but the threat of Hurricane Frances rolling across the state forced officials to postpone UF’s opener against Middle Tennessee State several days before the game and move it to the middle of the season.

“It’s a little unique,” EMU coach Chris Creighton told The Gainesville Sun of the upcoming weekend's scenario. “It’s the second game in a row for us not knowing what another team is going to do. It’s a little unnerving, to be sure.”

It’s the second straight week for the Gators, too.

And the first time their offensive and defensive units actually will get to hit somebody.

Like last week, we’ll just assume as much.

So, let’s talk Eagles.

We'll start by checking out their spirited entrance last week into Rynearson Stadium before a 31-28 win over Morgan State. It made some highlights shows, so it might as well make Harry Fodder.




Where: Ypsilanti, Mich. (about 30 miles west of Detroit and 10 miles east of the University of Michigan campus at Ann Arbor)

Founded: 1849

Enrollment: 23,419 (in 2013)

Colors: Green & White

SwoopNickname: Eagles ... but from 1929 to 1991, EMU’s nickname was the Hurons. No, not because of the nearby Great Lake, but because of the American Indian tribe that thrived in the area for centuries. In 1991, however, an Eastern Michigan student filed a compliant with the office of Michigan Civil Rights claiming the name was insensitive to Native Americans. Within a year, the Hurons became the Eagles.

Mascot: “Swoop”  

Conference: Mid-American (in the West Division with Ball State, Central Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan).

Fun facts: In days past, EMU also was known as Michigan State Normal School, Michigan State Normal College and Eastern Michigan College. ... Forbes ranked EMU as the nation’s 623rd best public school last year. ... Eastern Michigan’s baseball team reached the championship game of the 1976 College World Series, but lost to Arizona. ... The Eagles upset Duke in the first round of the 1996 NCAA men’s basketball tournament under Coach Ben Braun and five years earlier reached the Sweet 16 for the only time in school history with wins over Mississippi State and Penn State.


* Charlie Batch (left) -- NFL quarterback who toyed as a starter for the Detroit Lions, but spent the bulk of his 15-year career backing up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, where he won a pair of Super Bowls.

*Earl Boykins -- Only 5-foot-5, yet his career as an NBA journeyman (with 11 different clubs) wrapped its 14th season last spring. He remains the shortest player in NBA history to score 30 or more points in a game (32 as a member of the Denver Nuggets against the Detroit Piston on Nov. 11, 2004). Boykins was second in the nation in scoring his senior year at EMU at 26.8 points per game. His jersey No. 11 was retired in 2011.

* Terry Collins -- In his fourth season as manager of the New York Mets.  

* Hasley Crawford -- Sprinter from Trinidad and gold-medalist in the men’s 100 meters at the 1976 Olympic Games at Montreal.

Gervin* George Gervin (right)-- One of the greatest basketball players in history, “The Iceman” averaged 26.2 points points per game and played in nine NBA All-Star games in his career, most of it with the San Antonio Spurs. Great story: Going into the final day of the 1978 season, Gervin was in a heated battle with Denver’s David Thompson for the NBA scoring title. Thompson scored 73 points in an afternoon game to take the statistical lead. Gervin went out that night and poured in 63, including an NBA record 33 in the second quarter to overtake Thompson -- and he sat out the game's final 15 minutes. In case you didn't know, the man "could finger-roll." 

* Stan Heath -- As head basketball coach at Kent State, he guided the Golden Flashes to the Elite Eight in 2002 and parlayed that magical season into later jobs at Arkansas and South Florida.

* Hayes Jones -- American track star who won the gold medal in the 100-meter high hurdles at the 1964 Olympic Games at Tokyo.

* Bob Sutton -- Head coach at Army from 1991-99 and now defensive coordinator for the New York Jets.

* Kevin Walter -- Former NFL wide receiver who caught 356 passes and 25 touchdowns over 11 seasons. While playing for the Houston Texans had a 12-catch, 160-yard game against Jacksonville in 2009.

* Bob Welch -- Flame-throwing, 1990 American League Cy Young Award-winning right-hander who won three World Series, including one each in both leagues (1981 with the Los Angeles Dodgers and 1990 with Oakland A’s, when he won 27 games) and another as pitching coach of the Arizona Diamond backs in 2001. Welch, who died in June at age 57, was the star on the aforementioned ’76 EMU team that reached the CWS title game. Old-timers and baseball historians will remember the below one-for-the-ages showdown in the ’78 Series between Welch and Reggie Jackson. If you like that one, definitely check out Reggie's revenge -- and do I mean revenge -- four games later, below that.




Dann Florek (right) -- Made his debut on “Law & Order” in 1990, but eventually landed a regular role on the “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” spinoff as Capt. Don Cragen.  

Greg Mathis -- Retired Michigan 36th District Court judge who found a following on the reality show “Judge Mathis.”

Ron Campbell -- CEO of the Tampa Bay Lightning, which he helped build into the 2004 Stanley Cup champion.

Sunday August 31, 2014 UF freshman Brooke Austin competing Sunday in US Open

Updated: 2:14pm, August 31

Brooke Austin GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Brooke Austin’s first week as a University of Florida freshman barely lasted long enough to find where the campus Starbucks are located.

“I went to two classes,” Austin said. “That’s it.”

Forgive her for bailing so soon, though. One of the newest members of the UF women’s tennis team, Austin had a fairly legit excuse for splitting town.

A date at the U.S. Open.

Austin will face Russian Evgeniya Levashova in Sunday afternoon's opening-round play of the U.S. Open Junior Girls Singles competition, thus becoming a rare Gators freshman to compete in the nation’s most prestigious tournament. Austin will be just the second player of Coach Roland Thornqvist’s 14 seasons leading the UF program to have a player play on the hallowed courts of Flushing Meadows, N.Y., joining Lauren Embree in that elite category.

Anyone who follows Florida tennis knows how that worked out. All Embree did was lead the Gators to back-to-back NCAA championships her sophomore and junior years.

Enter Austin, a 5-foot-3, power right-hander from Indianapolis rated the No. 2 prospect in her signing class. She’s no stranger to the Open, having first played there as a 13-year-old. She lost a three-set tiebreaker, cramping up along the way due to a combination of heat and nerves.

She’s 18 now (and eligible one last time for the juniors bracket), but that doesn’t mean the experience will be any less overwhelming. Or special.

“There’s definitely something about that place,” Austin said. “Nothing can describe being an American and playing at the U.S. Open. The crowd support is amazing. Everybody there tries to help you and cheer you on. There’s an electricity there that you can’t describe.”

Ask Thornqvist about Austin and he gets a little electrified, too.

In his time with the Gators, the prototypical Florida player has been athletic and skilled, excelled at moving, rolling and defending, and looking for points via volleys of 15, 16 and 17 shots.

That's not Austin, he said. Her aggressive tactics and ball-striking ability makes her different. And rare.

“Brooke wants to play points in under four strokes,” Thornqvist said. “She wants to make things happen on first and second shots, and on top of that she has an uncanny knack of finding a way to win.”

Thornqvist accompanied Austin to New York and expects to see her on the attack the very first match -- and for however long she sticks around against the finest juniors field in the world.

“She’s going there to try and win,” he said. “Frankly, she could lose in the first round; the competition is that good. But she could also be there the last day, too. If she plays well, there’s no junior player in the world she can’t beat.”

The "junior" who’s really a freshman.


“I really want to have a good tournament,” Austin said. “I really just want to go there and play my best, do what I can do. Everyone in the tournament obviously is good. I just want to play my best, fight my hardest and see what that gets me.”

Friday August 29, 2014 There's safeties in numbers in the Harris family

Updated: 4:33pm, August 29

Marcel Harris GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A couple weeks ago, members of the Florida football team used some time between preseason practice and meetings to gather in the south end zone tunnel as highlights of the 1996 national championship season played on a television.

Marcell Harris, a redshirt freshman safety (pictured right), was in the group of smiling Gators.

His father was on the screen.

“He wore [No.] 13, which is why I wear 26,” Harris said. “I’m trying to double him.”

Dad can see it happening.

“People ask me all the time what’s the biggest difference between the two of us,” said Mike Harris, a four-year letter-winner for the Gators during one of the most dominant eras in Southeastern Conference history. “Honestly, he was better than me coming out of high school than I was coming out of college.”

If that’s the case, then Coach Will Muschamp and his defensive staff should be pleased.

Mike Harris was a 6-foot-1, 192-pound converted linebacker from Gainesville Buchholtz when he arrived on campus in the fall of 1993. A year later -- 20 years ago, in fact -- Harris made his UF debut in the ’94 opener against New Mexico, a 70-21 blowout win.

Marcell Harris was two months old at the time.

Now, two decades later, he’ll play his first collegiate game Saturday night when the Gators open the 2014 season against Idaho at Florida Field.

“I don’t really remember seeing him play here,” said Marcell, whose mother took him to Gator games and pointed daddy out on the field. “There’s some pictures of us together back when he played, I think. And I do have some recollection of being in his dorm one time ... but that’s about it.”

Mike Harri Over his four years, Mike Harris (pictured left) started 14 of his 43 games -- including nine as a junior in UF’s 1996 national-championship season) and amassed 182 tackles and 12 pass break-ups. The lone interception of his career came in 1995 against Florida State, the day the Gators completed their historic first unbeaten regular season; his Senior Day finale was the epic 32-29 upset of top-ranked FSU to close out the ’97 season, arguably the most thrilling game ever at The Swamp.

All told, Mike Harris went 32-3 against SEC opponents.

Not a bad career.

“It’s funny how things happen,” said Mike, who has run his own tax and brokerage business for 16 years. “Things are a lot different. We didn’t study the game back then like they do now. I know he works hard at that. Football is still about the basics, but the game has evolved so much.”

When Harris played, he rotated in the defensive backfield with the likes of Lawrence Wright, Teako Brown, Shea Showers, Demetric Jackson and Michael Gilmore. The Gators weren’t just two deep at safety, but three.

Sort of like now.

Sophomore Keanu Neal is the headline single-high safety. After redshirting in 2013, the 6-1, 208-pound Harris is listed as third backup safety (behind true freshman Duke Dawson and redshirt freshman Nick Washington) and the first backup to junior Brian Poole when the Gators go to their dime coverage.

When the Gators go to a Cover Two scheme, senior Jabari Gorman will be back there. Marcell, though, figures to get a play here and there, not to mention some cracks on special teams.

Hey, that’s how his dad started. He was second in special-teams tackles as a red-shirt freshman with 25. A year later, he was fourth on the defense in tackles with 78

“[Safety's] an important position,” said Harris, who chose UF from a lengthy list of suiters that included FSU, Miami, Texas, Auburn and LSU. “You have to get guys lined up, call things out and stay focused.”

His father could have told him that much, but when the two talk football it’s usually not X's and O's. Compete. Play hard. That sort of thing.

But now, with the reality of 20 years having passed since his first true romp in The Swamp, Mike may have one more piece of advice for Marcell.

“I’d tell him to have fun,” Mike said. “It goes by fast, so fast. You blink your eye and next thing you know you’re a senior.”

A few more blinks, and you’re watching your kid wear the orange and blue.

Tuesday August 26, 2014 Two Donovan staffers headed for NBA

Updated: 1:21pm, August 26

Mark GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan has sent his share of the players to the NBA.

Now he’s sending staff members.

Mark Daigneault (left), who has served as Donovan’s assistant to the head coach the last four seasons, and Oliver Winterbone (below left), the basketball program’s video coordinator during that time, are leaving next month for positions with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Daigneault was named head coach Friday of the franchise’s OKC-based Development League squad, while Winterbone was hired to a post in the team’s front office.

This is their last week with the program.

During their time with the Gators, Daigneault and Winterbone played key behind-the-scenes roles in the winningest four seasons in UF history, as the team went 120-30, won three Southeastern Conference championships and advanced to four Elite Eights, plus one Final Four.

Oliver “Both of those guys are just great chemistry guys,” Donovan said. “Very bright, very knowledge, totally unselfish and always working for the greater good of the staff and the program. Anytime you lose really, really good people, that’s tough, but it’s a great opportunity for both of them and a chance to be a part of a really good organization.”

For Daigneault, the opportunity to become a head coach at the age of 28 -- and with a franchise as respected as the Thunder -- was too enticing to pass up.

A full-time assistant at Holy Cross at 23, Daigneault took a graduate assistant’s post at UF in 2010 and was promoted to assistant to the head coach heading into the 2012-13 season. His duties were multi-fold, with an emphasis on player development off the court.

“I’m going to an organization that values the strengths I bring to the table,” Daigneault said. “You’re only as good as your opportunities and I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities here to make this position what I wanted and get out of it what I wanted, but I never would have been able to do that I not been empowered by Coach Donovan, the staff and these players.”

The Thunder’s D-League squad, the Tulsa 66ers, is relocating to OKC and will operate out of the club’s headquarters, which allow Daigneault to be involved with the team -- as in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, etc. -- on a regular basis.

The career track for Winterbone, 31, always has been with an eye toward the NBA. His innovative approach in his video presentations and application of advance metrics made a huge impact on the program and how the coaches broke down and analyzed results.

Now he’ll be breaking down personnel and analyzing statistics for Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti, regarding as one of the cutting-edge executives not just in the NBA but in pro sports.

“One of the beauties of working for Coach Donovan is that he gives you a lot of freedom to kind of do your own thing and be innovative and it’s a freedom that allowed me to dive into areas I’m really excited about,” Winterbone said. “This organization here [at UF] is as professional as it gets at the college level. And to have worked for a future Hall of Fame coach like him, and seeing how he manages his people and his players, that’s knowledge that I will carry with me.”

Donovan is in the process of searching for replacements for the two.

"The one thing you want to be careful of is trying to replicate and wanting people just like Mark and Oliver," Donovan said. "You want to bring in guys to both of those postions that bring value, but through their own unique strengths and talents. That’s what we’ll try to do."

Tuesday August 26, 2014 Get to know the University of Idaho

Updated: 10:47am, August 26

U of I GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- OK, we’ll go ahead and give you Boise.

Now, quickly, name the second-largest city in the state of Idaho.




Answer: Nampa, as in rhymes with “Tampa.”

After Boise, home to 205,671, according to the 2010 Census, the metropolis of Nampa checks in at 81,557. Rounding out the state’s top 10: Meridian, Idaho Falls, Poctatello, Caldwell, Coeur d’Alene, Twin Falls, Lewiston and Post Falls.

Then comes Rexburg at No. 11. Of course it does.

And Moscow, home to the University of Idaho (photo above), checks in at No. 12 with a population of 23,800.

The crowd Saturday night inside Ben Hill Griffin to see the Florida Gators open the 2014 season against Idaho figures to be at least three times bigger than the visiting school’s hometown. Not that the Vandals, out of the FBS, haven’t seen that sort of environment before. Last Nov. 23, they visited Florida State.

They lost 80-14 on the way to a 1-11 season.

If you’re a hard-core college football fan, you probably knew that last fact about Idaho. This installment of “Harry Fodder” hopefully will serve to educate Gator fans with a bigger-picture look at UF’s opening-day foe.

For example, does the name W. Mark Felt ring a bell?

Mark Felt Felt was born in Twin Falls in 1913 and graduated from Idaho in 1935 and went on to a career in the FBI -- a right-hand man to J. Edgar Hoover -- and eventually rose to Associate Director, the second-highest post at the Bureau.

It was from that position, Felt clandestinely spoon-fed Washington Post investigative reporter Bob Woodward information that ultimately led to the downfall of President Richard M. Nixon following the Watergate scandal.

You may know Felt as “Deep Throat.”

In failing health, Felt was outed (waving from his front door, right) as our nation's most famous whistleblower in 2005 by his daughter, who wanted the world to know how famous her father really was.

Here’s a clip depicting a Woodward meeting with “Deep Throat” from the film “All the President’s Men,” simply one of the finest and smartest films ever made.

Memo to youngsters: Rent this movie, if for nothing else, its historical significance. Be warned, however, not one building gets blown up.

In the meantime, get to know a little more, GatorZone blog style, about the place called “U of I.”


Founded: Jan. 30, 1889
Enrollment: 12,312
Colors: Silver and gold (honoring the state’s mining tradition)
Nickname: Vandals
Mascot: Joe Vandal (right)
Conferences: Sun Belt (football) and Big Sky (all other sports)
Of note: In 2012, Forbes ranked the University of Idaho 154th in the nation among research universities, while U.S. News & World Report placed UI at 85th among the nation’s best public universities and 160th overall.

All-time record:
443-568-26 (.440)
Conference championships:
Playoff appearances:
11 in Division I-AA and FBS classification combined
Playoff record:
Home stadium: Kibbie Dome (16,000)
Coach: Paul Petrino
(2nd season, and yes, Bobby’s younger brother)
All-time bowl record:
2-0 (Beat Southern Miss 42-35 in 1998 Humanitarian Bowl at Boise; beat Bowling Green 43-42 at 2008 Humanitarian Bowl at Boise)


Erickson Dennis Erickson
The Vandals gave Erickson his first head coach job in 1982 at the age of 34. In four years, he went 32-14, including a 4-0 mark against rival Boise, and three times took the program to the Division I-AA playoffs before bolting to become coach at Wyoming. Erickson went on to some pretty big things at Washington State and Miami. Not so much in NFL.

John L John L. Smith
Like Erickson, Smith got his first head coach’s post at IU, where he went 53-21 over six seasons and won two Big Sky Conference championships. He twice coached the Walter Payton Award winner, given annually to the best I-AA player in the nation, in quarterbacks John Friesz and Doug Nussmeier. Smith parlayed success at Idaho to head posts at Utah State, Michigan State, Louisville, Weber State (shortly) and Arkansas.


Dan O’Brien: Won the decathlon at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (right).

Tom Cable: Offensive linemen for the Vandals, went on to become head coach for three seasons (2008-10) for the Oakland Raiders, with whom he posted a 17-27 mark.

Mike Iupati: Offensive lineman and first-round pick (17th overall) of the San Franciso 49ers in 2010. A Pro-Bowler in 2012 and helped Niners reach the Super Bowl that year.

Gus Johnson: By way of Boise Junior College, Johnson was the nation's No. 2 rebounder during the 1962-63 season at 20.3 per game (he once cleared 31 rebounds in game vs. Oregon). A second-round pick of the Baltimore Bullets in '63, Johnson was a five-time NBA all-star over his 11-year pro career and won an ABA title with the Indiana Pacers.

Jerry Kramer: Starting offensive guard for Vince Lombardi’s great Green Bay Packers championship teams of the 1960s. It was Kramer who Bart Starr followed into the “A” gap for the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the legendary “Ice Bowl” game at Lambeau Field.

Dan Monson: He was a star wide receiver at Moscow High and went to play at IU before a knee injury ended his career. Monson focused on a coaching career and eventually migrated to basketball, where he became head coach at Gonzaga -- including the below game. Advance apologies to Billy D.

Mark Schlereth: Super-credible NFL analyst on ESPN. He was a 10th-round pick from Idaho in 1989 and went on to start on offensive lines for three Super Bowl champions: one in Washington (1991) and those John Elway- and Terrell Davis-led back-to-back Denver teams (1997-98). Known as the ultimate tough-guy, having undergone 29 knee surgeries in his career.

Bill Stoneman: Right-handed pitcher who threw two no-hitters, both for the Montreal Expos, during his eight-year major-league career. The first came in 1969 against Philadelphia in just his fifth career start and just the ninth game in the expansion Expos' history. His second came four years later against the New York Mets. In 1971, Stoneman finished third in the National League in strikeouts (behind only Tom Seaver and Ferguson Jenkins) to go with 20 complete games.

Wayne Walker: Three-time Pro-Bowler, one-time All-Pro while playing both linebacker and placekicker over 15 seasons for the Detroit Lions (1958-72).


Holden Bowler: He was a professional singer on a South America cruise line when he met and befriended a young aspiring writer who vowed he'd one day write a novel and name the main character "Holden." Yes, the writer was J.D Salinger. Yes, the character became Holden Caulfield. Yes, in "The Catcher In the Rye."

Bill Fagerbakke: Regular on the sit-com “Coach,” playing Dauber Dibynski, but (apparently) more famous for voicing Patrick Star (right) in “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Sarah (Heath) Palin: As a point guard at Wasilla (Alaska) High, she was known “Sarah Barrcuda” while leading her team to the state basketball championship. She then after bounced around to four colleges before finishing up at IU with a degree in journalism and in 2008 became the most famous women on the planet ... for a few months.

Friday August 22, 2014 Scholarship Surprise for McNeely & Velez

Updated: 1:30pm, August 22

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you happen to be at the Publix on 34th Street Sunday and see a short but stout young man bagging groceries, give that kid an “Atta Boy!”

It’ll be the second-best thing Michael McNeely received this weekend.

McNeely, a wide receiver, and placekicker Frankie Velez lived out childhood dreams Friday when Florida coach Will Muschamp announced after practice the two walk-on players would be placed on scholarship this season.

Immediately, the pair was mobbed by their teammates.

“I didn’t cry, but oh my gosh,” an emotional McNeely said mere moments after he learned his tuition would be paid for. “I was overwhelmed there.”

Scholarship surprise (Frankie)“It’s like the greatest day of my life,” said Velez, who was hoisted into the air by a mob of a fellow Gators (pictured right). “This is insane.”

Not according to the UF coaching staff. McNeely and Velez have put their value on tape. And in games.

McNeely, a fourth-year junior from Clearwater, Fla., played in all 12 games last season on special teams and will be a key member of the kicking-game squads again. Velez, a fifth-year senior out of Ocala., Fla., went 6-for-8 on field goals and converted all six extra-point attempts in 2013 and is in a battle with Austin Hardin to be the team’s starting placekicker when the season opens Aug. 30 against Idaho.

Muschamp made it clear. This wasn’t a gift, but a reward.

“My favorite day of the year,” said Muschamp, who tracked a similar path as a walk-on safety from Rome, Ga., in the early 1990s, eventually earning a scholarship at the University of Georgia. “Those guys certainly deserve it. They’ve put their time in and there’s nothing I enjoy more than giving a guy a scholarship. In life, it’s about earning respect and that shows you’ve proven yourself to your staff and to your teammates. This is a statement.”

Is it ever.

Velez recalled his first visit to the UF football office after a decorated career at Ocala Trinity Catholic. He was told the chances of ever getting on the field for the Gators were 1 percent.

Now there’s a 99 percent chance he will play -- and 100 percent on scholarship.

“My mom and dad have always given me what I needed, but it’s going to feel good this year to actually help them out with that -- and not have to ask them for money,” Velez said before leaving the field to call his mother with the news. “She’s going to freak out.”

With the opener a week away, Muschamp gave the Gators the weekend off, with some players heading home to be with their families. Others will stay in town.

One is scheduled to work at Publix.

“If you come by Sunday afternoon,” McNeely said, “I’ll be there.”  

He’ll be the one with the mile-wide grin.

Ulmer then GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The list of the 15 Florida student-athletes who graduated Saturday included quarterback Jeff Driskel, track and cross country standout Cory McGee, and national-champion gymnast Marissa King.

It did not include Jeremy Ulmer. Oh, but he counts.

Rather than take part in commencement ceremonies at the O’Connell Center, Ulmer spent the day with his family and friends at his home on the Suwannee River.

At 44, that was the celebration that felt right.

“I’m looking forward to hanging that diploma on my wall, though,” Ulmer said.

More than 22 years after taking off his Gators basketball uniform for the last time, Ulmer, a seldom-used reserve off Lon Kruger's first team, completed work toward his UF degree in sociology this summer. Hey, Kruger always put a heavy emphasis on academics and graduating players. And Billy Donovan just sent six of his 2013-14 players across the stage.

So what if Ulmer was a little late to the party?

It took a little prodding from a former academic advisor, but give credit to Tom Williams and UF's Office of Student Life for encouraging and motivating Ulmer to finish what he started. And, of course, credit Ulmer for rolling up his sleeves and getting the 30 hours he needed. Some classes he took at night, making the hour-plus drive after long days overseeing his construction business; others were done on-line. In the end, it was all worth it.

Jeremy and son Now Ulmer hopes to fulfill his goal of becoming a teacher at Live Oak Suwannee High School, where he already serves as head basketball coach (pictured right, with son Blake).

“I could not have done this without Tom Williams helping me through the very complicated process,” said Ulmer, who ran into Williams at a high school tournament in 2010 at nearby Santa Fe Community College and got to talking about going back to school. “I’m fortunate to have been a scholarship athlete at UF and fortunate that UF cares enough about its athletes to help them so many years later.”

Even the most rabid and longtime Florida basketball fan may not recall Ulmer.

He was a 6-foot-9 junior college transfer from California when he signed with UF in 1990. Kruger, who was hired in April of that year, needed to scramble to add players to his first roster late in the recruiting season. Enter Ulmer, who averaged 12 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks a game at Sacramento City JC, and was part of a six-man signing class that also included Craig Brown and Martii Kuisma.

Mug Ulmer didn’t play much during his two seasons (he totaled 22 points and 25 rebounds in 22 games) but he was a favorite of the student section for his likeness (see left) to “Vanilla Ice.” More importantly, he was part of a program that Kruger raised from the ashes of NCAA probation and led to the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament -- and a date with Virginia at Madison Square Garden -- in just his second year. That season helped lay the groundwork for the historic Final Four run of 1994.

Once out of school, Ulmer played professionally in Cyprus and Sweden before returning to North Florida, marrying his college sweetheart and settling in Live Oak, where he started a construction business. His work with the local youth sports leagues there eventually got him the job as varsity hoops coach at Suwannee.

“It’s great to have built a successful program,” Ulmer said. “It’s rewarding to pass my knowledge down to these players.”

Now he’ll have even more knowledge to give.

And the official paperwork to prove it.

Monday August 11, 2014 Mike Peterson dives into coaching career

Updated: 10:57am, August 12

Mike Peterson GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After the 2012 season, Mike Peterson walked away from a 14-year NFL career far from certain what was next in his life.

More football, as it turned out.

Like so many former players, Peterson (left) was drawn back into the game he loved and now is looking to pursue a career in coaching. His latest career track began as an undergraduate student assistant at UF in 2013, which led to an NFL internship this summer.

“Best move I could’ve made,” he said.

Heading into Gators preseason camp, Peterson was fresh off spending two weeks with the St. Louis Rams as part of the Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellowship, a 27-year-old program that temporarily pairs aspiring coaches with NFL teams for the early stages of training camp.

Peterson as a Gator One of the most respected Florida defensive players of the 1990s, Peterson played middle linebacker for UF’s first national championship team in 1996, blossomed into an All-Southeastern Conference performer and an eventual second-round draft pick. His NFL career took him from Indianapolis to Jacksonville and Atlanta, with 883 tackles, 21 1/2 sacks and 19 interceptions over 196 games along the way.

Peterson, 38, got his first taste of being on the staff side last season during his grad assistant stint, but was promoted to the strength and conditioning staff during the offseason.

He got a head start on it during his internship with the Rams, which he spent alongside John Simon (former Tennessee Titans running back now on staff at Southern Miss), Tony Brown (Titans defensive tackle now at Tennessee-Chattanooga) and Pierson Prioleau (former safety with five NFL teams, now a high school coach in Virginia).

Worth noting: Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh), along with Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay) and Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati) all came through the Walsh Fellowship program since its inception in 1987.

Here’s Peterson on his time with the Rams:

Q: What compelled you to do this?
MP: “Well, I’m trying to get into that arena. Being two years removed from playing, I’m trying to do it now versus sitting out for three or four years and trying to get back in.
So I’m just getting in there and looking to learn as much as I can and meet as many people as i can.”

Q: Who pushed you toward the internship?
MP: My coach in Atlanta. Mike Smith. He said it was a great program. I did my research and saw who all had done it. Once I saw some of the names to go through there, I realized it was something I really wanted to do.”

Peterson as JaguarQ: What did you get out of it?
MP: “The best part about it, you get a chance to see everything. I mean all of it. You’re involved in parts of the team that you’d never do as a player. Like breaking down tape and making cut-ups. They involved you in the personnel side and guys on the draft board. They talk to you about evaluation and how they rank guys. Just watching and listening to how they form their roster and go about about their day-to-day work. As a player, those are things you really never see. ... Coaching is not for everybody. You get a chance to see, ‘Can I handle this? Is this something I want to do?’ I think that’s one of the great things about this internship and why guys so give it a try, see what it’s about about before you dive into this thing.”

Q: What about Rams coach Jeff Fisher?
MP: “Great guy. First-class guy. You could tell why so many guys love playing or him. I played against him twice a year for so many years [in the AFC South Division with Indianapolis and Jacksonville] and all I’d ever said to him was, ‘Great game, Coach.’ I respected him so much as a competitor, but now I respect him so much more just seeing how he runs an organization.”

Q: I have to ask. What was the Michael Sam training camp experience like?
MP: “You know what? All the buzz was more from the media side of it then the players in the locker room. Once everybody was there, it was football. All that other stuff we put off to the side. The media coverage hanging all over the team, that was crazy, but Coach Fisher wasn’t going to let that get out of hand.”

Q: What about him as a player?
MP: Well, we saw him last year. ... [Note: Sam had 3 sacks vs. the Gators in their loss at Missouri] ... He’s a get-off guy. Off the ball fast. Got a good motor. But the defensive line up there is loaded, so he’s going to have to sit back and do some learning early on. Probably a special teams guy.”

Q: What kind of coach do you want to be?
MP: “I don’t want to put a limit on it. I just want to get into this thing and see where it goes. It’s no different than when I got into it as a player. I just wanted a shot. As a coach, once I get in, I’ll be committed to it and take it as far as I can.”

Q: Plenty of your former Florida teammates have gone that path: Ike Hilliard, Jacquez Green, Johnny Rutlege, Zach Piller and Mark Campbell, for example.
MP: “You play the game so long and you think, ‘Well, I’m going to go as far away from it as I can -- but then you find yourself getting pulled right back in. It’s what we all know, man. We know the game so much. We love the game. The hardest part is breaking down that barrier with coaches who might think, because we played the game, we’re this or that way and can’t do this or that -- or don’t want to do it; don’t want to do the really hard part. And coaching is hard. But I’m just trying to work as hard as I can and learn as much as I can about hot do this. All this, right here, is the ground work.”

Thursday August 7, 2014 UFO at UF football practice ... and working for the Gators

Updated: 5:15pm, August 7

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Dizney Lacrosse Stadium, site of Florida’s preseason football practices, doesn’t have room in the north end zone to set up a crane or tower to film practice.

Not that the UF video staff needed to an excuse to play with its new toy.

From the bleacher seats during the team's upcoming open practices -- which start with Thursday night’s 7:40-9:40 workout -- Gators fans will see a UFO-looking device hovering over the offensive and defensive line drills. If they pan the field, they’ll also see Reuel Joaquin, who heads up football video operations, with his eyes to the sky and operating a remote control flying camera drone that provides coaches with a unique perspective for their film study.

“It’s the first time, so we’re kind of just getting used to it,” Joaquin said during Wednesday night’s practice.

His “test flight” was a success.

With a Go-Pro camera Joaquin mounted to its belly, the drone cranks four propellers to keep it airborne. From the ground, Joaquin uses a mobile device app on his iPhone to view the video feed and guide the drone to who and where it wants to film.

From 30-40 feet above -- and, yes, it can go much, much higher -- the drone footage provides a much broader variety of angles that give coaches different, birds-eye views of the spacing between linemen, rush lanes and pass protections, all of which can be rolled into it their evaluations.

Joaquin said he worked with the device over the previous four days before launching it Wednesday and sending it over the heads of Will Muschamp’s players and staff. The vertical moves weren't as difficult to master as the lateral ones. Either way, Joaquin made sure he had confidence in his remotve-control piloting skills before putting the drone into live action.

After all, the last thing center Max Garcia needs while calling out line protections is a flying saucer crashing on top of his helmet.

Didn’t happen. Not even close.   

“I told Coach Muschamp we were thinking safety first,” Joaquin said. “I’m keeping it out of harm’s way.”

When its mission was done, Joaquin brought the robot down to the turf for a very soft (and impressive) landing. Good stuff.

And Thursday morning, Muschamp raved about the football during his staff meeting.

Towers, it seems, are so yesterday.

Tuesday August 5, 2014 Battle 4 Atlantis bracket falls in line with Donovan's scheduling commitment

Updated: 11:16am, August 5

Billy D and SliveGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The official release of the Battle 4 Atlantis bracket Tuesday morning, with Florida facing Georgetown in the opening round, is further evidence of Coach Billy Donovan’s commitment to playing challenging and attractive non-conference schedules.

Not to mention his making good on a promise he made to the guy in charge at the Southeastern Conference office.

The 2009 NCAA men’s basketball tournament included three teams from the SEC. That trio did not include Kentucky, the league’s traditional blueblood, or Florida, which was a mere two years removed a second straight national championship. By end of that tourney's first weekend, the three SEC teams -- LSU, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt -- were out, with two eliminated in the first round.

That’s when league commissioner Mike Slive (pictured in the center of 2013 team photo above) went to Donovan, then and still the dean of conference coaches, and made an impassioned plea to take the lead in the SEC’s effort to upgrade non-conference basketball schedules in an attempt to bolster RPI ratings and get more teams in the March Madness postseason party. The Gators, admittedly, had put together relatively soft schedules after saying goodbye to Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, et all, and the SEC’s first back-to-back national championship program of college basketball’s modern era.

Slive said that needed to change. Not just at Florida, but across the league. And not just for a few years, but annually.

UF’s six schedules since have reflected Donovan’s willingness to take on some of the marquee programs in the country, as well as appease the SEC within the confines of the UF coach trying to keep his non-conference sanity. Three games against nationally recognized programs in November balanced with five days Thanksgiving week at Paradise Island the Bahamas should address both fronts this preseason. [Note: Travel package information available here.]

There's also that road game at Kansas. And a neutral-site date against Wake Forest.

Oh, and that home game against Connecticut.

Here’s a list of Florida’s biggest non-conference games since the edict Slive sent down from the SEC office five years ago. The list does not include the always-tough showdown against rival Florida State that has been played annually since 1978 and is on the schedule this season for Dec. 30 at Tallahassee. It does include several of the Orange Bowl Classic games in South Florida, which vary as far as the strength of the opponent.

And while we're on the subject of Florida basketball, deadline to purchase UF 2014-15 season tickets is Aug. 15.

Parsons prayer 2009-10
* vs Michigan State (Legends Classic, Atlantic City, N.J.) -- W 77-74
* vs Rutgers (Legends Classic, Atlantic City, N.J.) -- W 73-58
* vs Syracuse (Tampa, Fla.) -- L 85-73
* vs Richmond (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.) --  L 56-53
* at North Carolina State -- W 62-61 (OT)
Comment: The game against NC State, won by Chandler Parson’s 60-foot prayer at the buzzer (right), actually was contracted two years earlier as the return game of a home-and-home series. After two straight trips to the NIT, this schedule helped the Gators, who went 21-13 that year, earn their first NCAA berth in three years. 

Xavier 2010-11
* Ohio State -- L 93-75
* vs Kansas State (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.) -- W 65-52
* vs UCF (Orlando) -- L 57-54
* at Xavier -- W 71-67
Comment: Playing UCF about 10 miles from its campus wasn’t very neutral, even though Gators fans out-numbered Knights fans that night. But former Donovan assistant Donnie Jones pulled off the upset. Maybe that helped Billy D get his players attention three weeks later when UF ended the nation’s second-longest home winning streak (30 games) by upsetting Xavier at Cincinnati. The Gators went on to win the SEC regular-season crown and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA field.

* at Ohio State -- L 81-74
* at Syracuse -- L 72-68
* Arizona -- W 78-72 (OT)
* at Rutgers -- L 85-83 (2OT)
Comment: By early February, when the Gators went to Kentucky and got drilled by 20, they’d already played the Nos. 1 (Wildcats), 2 (Ohio State) and 3 (Syracuse) teams in the country. That Florida team finished in a three-way tie for second in the SEC and went on to advance to the Elite Eight.  

Navy game * vs Georgetown (Navy-Marines Corps Classic, Mayport, Fla.) -- Cancelled  
* Wisconsin -- W 74-56
* Marquette -- W 82-49
* at Arizona  -- L 65-64
* at Kansas State (at Kansas City) -- L 67-61
* at Yale -- W 79-58
Comment: The game against the Hoyas on a naval destroyer outside Jacksonville was a wonderful idea that was poorly executed. Scheduling a tipoff for 9 p.m., with the threat of condensation at that time of year, was insane. The game was cancelled at halftime with the Gators leading by four. A month later, UF went to Tucson to play in one of the nation's toughest venues. If you’re not impressed by a road game at Yale, go there and ask how many annual Top-10 programs would agree to play in 100-year-old gym that seat 2,500?

* at Wisconsin -- L 59-53
* at Connecticut -- L 65-64
* Kansas -- W 68-62
* vs Memphis (Jimmy V Classic, New York) -- W 77-75
* Richmond -- W 67-58
Comment: Wisconsin joined the Gators in the Final Four. UConn, which won on a second-chance buzzer-beater, went on to defeat UF in their Final Four rematch and upend Kentucky in for the national title. Kansas had the Nos. 1 and 3 overall picks in the NBA draft (Andrew Wiggins, right, and Joel Embiid). Memphis at Madison Square Garden had the feel of a Sweet 16 game. Great schedule that prepared the Gators for that remarkable, school-record run of 30 straight wins.

* Nov. 17 - Miami, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)  
* Nov. 26 - vs Georgetown (Battle 4 Atlantis, Paradise, Bahamas), 9:30 p.m. 
* Nov. 27 - vs either Wisconsin or UAB (Battle 4 Atlantis), 3:30 or 9:30 p.m.
* Nov. 28 - TBA (either Butler, North Carolina, Oklahoma or UCLA).
* Dec. 5 - at Kansas
* Dec. 20 - vs Wake Forest (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise, Fla.)  
* Jan. 3 - Connecticut
Comment: A home-and-home series with the Hurricanes starts in Gainesville. Later in the month, the Gators can settle that incomplete battleship fiasco in the Bahamas, with possible games against two top-20 teams (maybe top 10) after that. Then the Jayhawks. Then the Demon Deacons. Did we mention there's a home game against reigning national champion UConn on the schedule, too?

Friday July 25, 2014 Culpepper, Gators fans ready for Rays' 'Chomp at Trop'

Updated: 11:31am, July 25

Brad and son GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Brad Culpepper got the call, he was a little flattered. Also a little floored.

He wasn’t sure what to think.

“I’m old news, man,” Culpepper said. “I’m not a football player anymore. I’m Monica-from-‘Survivor’s’ husband.”

Not Saturday, he won’t be.

Culpepper, an All-America defensive tackle on Florida’s first Southeastern Conference championship team and one of the most decorated student-athletes in UF history, will be front and center Saturday night as he throws out the ceremonial first pitch when the Tampa Bay Rays host the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field.

It’ll be “Chomp At the Trop” night at the dome in St. Petersburg, a promo courtesy of the Rays and in conjunction with the Gator clubs of Tampa and Pinellas County.

“I asked them, ‘I get the first inning, right?’ ” said Culpepper, who was an all-state pitcher and still holds records for career wins and strikeouts from his days at Tallahassee Leon High School. “And I’m not going out there just to throw a lollipop. I’m firing it in there.”  

If you know Culpepper (pictured right two years ago with son Judge), you understand. The guy has never shied away from the limelight.

He played nine seasons in the NFL, including six strong years for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Culpepper’s post-football life has kept a fairly high profile, too. His mug adorns billboards throughout the Bay area pitching his Culpepper/Kurland personal injury law practice. In 2012, his wife, Monica, appeared on the television show “Survivor” and last year the two were paired together in a couples version of the series.

CulpepperBut if you know Culpepper you also know he cherishes his UF roots and jumped at the opportunity to be a part of an event that will bring two fan bases -- Rays and Gators -- together to cheer on the home team.

Some proceeds from the event will go toward the Gator clubs' scholarships and be shared with Gator Boosters for athletic endowment.

“We’re always looking for creative ways to get out in the community and provide value to the region,” Tampa Gator Club president Sam Vranish said. “And this could be a good and fun day for the whole family.”

Though the event's 1,000 designated tickets sold out Thursday, the Bay area Gator clubs are encouraging fans to come to a pre-game gathering at Taps & Tequila (across from the stadium) starting at 3 p.m.  A special designated parking area will be set up, with free parking to the first 100 fans either wearing Gator garb or with their alumni ID card. T&T will offer free hot dogs and drink specials. 

Fans who bought advance game tickets will get a special orange-and-blue Rays cap.

The lid should go nicely with a uniform Culpepper had specially made for the event: a Rays No. 66 jersey with “Zimmer” on the back, in honor of late baseball icon Don Zimmer, who died last month in his 10th year as a senior advisor for the Rays. 

“I was thinking about wearing my old baseball pants, too. The whole deal,” Culpepper said. “I used to pitch batting practice for my sons and I can still get it over the plate, believe it or not.”

Guess we’ll find out Saturday.

Thursday July 17, 2014 Gators mingle with the stars at ESPYs

Updated: 9:56pm, July 17

Hannah and Rock GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Assistant softball coach Jennifer Rocha had a simple request for her All-America pitcher.

Rocha is a big fan of actor Dwayne Johnson -- better known as “The Rock,” (and soon to be "Hercules," as in coming July 25 to a theater near you) -- and he happened to be on the list of celebrities with whom Hannah Rogers would be hobnobbing Wednesday night at the 22nd ESPY Awards in Los Angeles.

Rocha told Rogers, “If you see ‘The Rock,’ please get a picture.”

Rogers did one better. Way better.

She got one with “The Rock.”

“And he was super nice,” Roger said.

While millions watched the ESPYs, Rogers, alongside UF gymnasts Alaina Johnson and Mackenzie Caquatto, lived the ESPYs. The standout senior trio of student-athletes represented the Gators in being honored for winning the Capital One Cup as the nation’s top overall women’s program. Rogers, who led Florida to its first NCAA softball championship at the Women’s College World Series, and the duo of Johnson and Caquatto, who helped the Gators capture a second straight national title, got the star treatment this week, including a walk down the glitzy gala’s red carpet at the Nokia Theater.

“It was crazy,” Johnson said. “I never thought I’d be a part of something like that.”

The UF party was treated like royalty upon arrival. The ladies were picked up at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday in a Cadillac Escalade -- “with really, really dark tinted windows,” Johnson said -- and whisked about the city.

Joined by their counterparts, Max Lachowecki (soccer) and Garrett McGrath (fencing) from Notre Dame’s Capital Cup-winning men's program, the athletes spent Tuesday visiting spots like the Santa Monica pier, Beverly Hills and Hollywood to pose for photo ops with the cup.

Their driver also took the athletes through neighborhoods of mansions belonging to the stars.

Gator Chomp at ESPYsWhen they arrived at the event, they hit the red carpet for -- of course -- a Gator chomp (left with former UF pitching star Stacey Nelson) and not long after the parade of stars began.

From Cameron Diaz to Kevin Durant to Kiefer Sutherland to Jessica Alba to Richard Sherman to Michael Sams to Clint Dempsey and, of course, the host of evening, Drake.

Rogers got a picture taken with former Arizona superstar pitcher and fellow WCWS Most Valuable Player Jennie Finch. Later, the UF contingent posed with former Gators swimming star Dara Torres, who Rogers joined this year as one of just four in school history to be named Southeastern Conference Female Athlete of the Year.

By the time the actual show was ready to start, the ladies had taken so many pictures their cell phones were dead.

When it came time to leave the event, the Florida contingent went to the front of the theater looking for its transportation. A driver approached them with a question.

“Are you with the Floyd Mayweather group?”

Yeah, it was that kind of night.

“It was all so cool,” Rogers said. “I can’t really describe it.”

Here are some pictures and tweets to help her do the job.


Alaina strikes a pre-ESPY pose.


Hannah and Jennie

Hannah with Jennie Finch.

Santa Monica pier

The girls at the Santa Monica Pier.

Billy GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan last week was named the best college basketball coach in the country by a 45-member panel of experts at

Makes you wonder where he’d rate in the world rankings.

The University of Florida coach two weeks ago led Team USA on a rampage through the FIBA Americas U18 Championship at Colorado Springs, Colo. The Americans won their five games -- over Uruguay, Mexico, Argentina, Dominican Republic and Canada, respectively -- by an average margin of 56.8 points, with a couple 34-point victories making for the closest contests.

Donovan’s record as a USA Basketball head coach now stands at 19-0, to go with his three gold medals, including last year’s run to the U19 title in the World Championships, a competition Americans had won just three times over the last 26 years.

Like the previous two championships -- he also led USA to the 2012 U18 FIBA Americas gold -- this one made for a rewarding summer excursion.

“Getting a group of talented guys who all could have a chance to one day play in the NBA and getting them to see the bigger picture -- a chance to play for something bigger than themselves -- I really enjoy that,” Donovan, pictured above with USA assistants Sean Miller (Arizona), Ed Cooley (Providence) and Mark Daigneault (UF), said last week. “My goal with these kids, first and foremost, was to win the gold medal. After that, you want to give them an experience where they can grow and develop and accomplish something they’ve never experienced before.”

Given the lopsided outcome, winning the gold sounds easy.

But don't tell Donovan that.

While basketball is truly America’s game, the USA goes about fielding teams differently than its international counterparts. The programs in other countries establish a system, overseen by a committee, that moves its athletes through that system -- same offense, same defense, oftentimes the same personnel -- from age group to age group over the years, with the idea of being at their competitive peak in time for the World Championships and Olympics on the four-year cycles.

By the time the major competitions roll around, those teams know their systems and teammates like the back of their shooting hands.

The USA, meanwhile, issues invitations for tryouts annually and crunches its teams into a short periods under different coaches playing different systems.

And it has to come together in a week to 10 days.

While clearly superior on the athletic front, Donovan believes it’s the style of play -- in his case, chaos, uptempo and pressing -- that can prove to be the equalizer.

“Sometimes, when you end up playing these teams in the halfcourt, the game can get bogged down and [the opponents] are very capable of keeping it close and out-executing you because they’re a lot more organized,” Donovan said. “So you try to take a group of kids and utilize the talent level of strengths of these 12 guys in a short period of team by implementing a style that is totally disruptive and totally chaotic.”

Only four of Donovan’s players were bound of college this fall: forward Justus Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones, headed for Duke; Arizona forward Stanley Johnson; 7-foot center Myles Turner, headed for Texas.

The remaining eight players -- while all very good players -- were entering their senior year of high school.
“We sold our guys on having the depth and a number of guys we can play,” Donovan said. “Other teams were playing maybe six guys the majority of minutes and bringing two or three off the bench. Their best players were going a few minutes against some of our guys, then in comes another, then another, then another, and over a period of time they got worn down.”

That’s not always the case in international play, especially facing some of the Eastern European countries, but the depth, skill and a 94-foot game plan worked to the USA’s advantage and thus furthered Donovan’s global hoops profile.



Closer to home, Donovan had some thoughts about a certain other basketball team.

His next version of the Gators.

After saying goodbye to a four-man senior class that went 36-3, won a second straight Southeastern Conference title and posted 30 consecutives wins en route to the Final Four, UF returns just one starter in guard junior Michael Frazier II, plus another two players who averaged at least 22 minutes per game in junior forward and SEC Sixth Man of the Year Dorian Finney-Smith and sophomore point guard Kasey Hill.

How the rest of the lineup shakes out -- and certainly sophomore center Chris Walker, Michigan transfer Jon Horford, Duke transfer Alex Murphy, plus a combination other role returning players and incoming freshmen will factor heavy in that equation -- is something to be determined in the offseason and preseason.

Florida opens the 2014-15 season Nov. 14 against William and Mary.

“One of the thing that can a happen is that a player can create a level of expectation in their mind based on someone not being there anymore and getting their minutes. That’s a mistake,” Donovan said. “We have a lot of guys who are good players, but are they willing to accept roles? There’s not one player on our team right now who will be a similar role to what they were in last year.”

The player who needs to make the most significant jump from last season to next just might be Hill (pictured above). That’s not an indictment of his freshman year performance. Hill, despite ankle and groin injuries that cost him seven games, had some terrific moments, including 10 assists in the Sweet 16 round victory against UCLA, and gave the Gators a nice look in allowing senior Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, to come off the ball.

Hill did struggle to shoot last season (40.7 percent overall, just 14.3 from 3-point range), but his focus needs to be on doing everything better than he did a year ago; and do it all with more consistently.

And he has to emerge as one of the leaders of this team.

The start of the Summer B semester last week meant strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene’s offseason program is in full swing. NCAA rules allow players to get two hours of work per week with the coaching staff for individual instruction, plus another eight per week training and conditioning.



Last month, in the hours before UF was to face Alabama in the second game of the Women’s College World Series championship round, Donovan called his softball coaching counterpart Tim Walton.

What was supposed to be a quick "good-luck" chat morphed into a 30-minute conversation.

Walton clued in Donovan of his plan not to start ace pitcher Hannah Rogers (with Walton left), who was unbeaten in seven NCAA games, including a win over the Crimson Tide the night before. Rogers, the senior and four-time All-American, had never beaten Bama twice in the same series and Walton planned on going with junior Lauren Haeger, with Rogers ready in relief.

But Walton also knew the decision would be questioned and second-guessed ... which it was.

“My point to him was that he had to sell it to the team,” Donovan said. “If they believed it and trusted his decision, nothing else mattered.”

In fact, Donovan relived for Walton his decision heading into the 2007 NCAA title game against Ohio State when he chose to put Joakim Noah on Greg Oden -- with no help in the halfcourt -- in an effort to eliminate the 3-point line.

The tact was different than how the Gators had defended teams most of the season, but Donovan thought Al Horford so thoroughly outmatched the Buckeyes on both ends; he also saw how Oden, OSU's All-America center, and been saddled with foul trouble in the semifinals against Georgetown and the public outcry that followed. 

"Everyone was talking about the best player in the country being on the bench too much of that game," Donovan recalled. "I knew [Oden] was going to have maul guys to have fouls called against us."

As such, the Gators were willing to concede a big night for Oden.

Better yet, Noah accepted the challenge.

Oden got Noah in quick foul trouble, which the Gators were able to absorb through depth. Though Oden finished with 25 points on 10-for-15 shooting, the Buckeyes went 4-for-23 from long distance.

Florida won 84-75 to claim a second straight NCAA title.

“I told Tim that he knew his team better than anybody and whatever he thought he should do to do it, but to go to your team and explain it to them and make them understand,” Donovan said. “I don’t know anything about softball, but it was clear from listening to all his players that their heads weren’t spinning wondering what he was doing. They trusted him and they all said so after that game."

Billy D in locker room


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The votes were tallied long before the 2014 NBA Draft last week.

You know, the draft that went two rounds and 60 picks without any of Florida’s four seniors being selected. You know, the four seniors that led the team to a 36-3 record, an historic and unprecedented 21-0 mark against the Southeastern Conference, plus a 30-game winning streak that ended in the Final Four.

Billy Donovan is the No. 1 college basketball coach in the country, according to an ESPN panel of 45 experts spanning the field. began counting down the nation’s Top 50 coaches in May, a list that began with a tie for the No. 50 spot between St. Mary’s Randy Bennett and Baylor’s Scott Drew.

Some names along the way: Georgetown’s John Thompson III (46), Texas Tech’s Tubby Smith (39), Oklahoma’s Lon Kruger (31), Ohio State’s Thad Matta (20), Villanova’s Jay Wright (19), North Carolina’s Roy Williams (16) and VCU’s Shaka Smart (13).

In the last two weeks: Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim (12), Arizona’s Sean Miller (11), Connecticut’s Kevin Ollie (10), Michigan’s Jon Beilein (9), Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan (8) and Kansas’s Bill Self (6).

And in the last five days: Louisville’s Rick Pitino (5), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (4), Michigan State’s Tom Izzo (3) and Kentucky’s John Calipari (2).

No. 1 was released Thursday.

SEC It’s an excellent tribute to the Donovan, as well as his outstanding assistant coaching staff of John Pelphrey, Rashon Burno and Matt McCall.

Donovan, a 49-year-old icon approaching 500 career victories, is set to enter his 19th season with the Gators and now has to be considered not only the greatest coach in UF history, but the most appreciated and revered in UF history, given his something-from-nothing achievements and loyalty to the university.

I think even Steve Spurrier would agree.

Here’s some excerpted text explaining the panel’s decision to place Billy D at No. 1, courtesy of college basketball writer Eamonn Brennan.

“It's hard to think of a better testament to Donovan's current stature in the sport than this one.

In 2013-14, Donovan led the Gators to a 36-3 overall record with an unbeaten record -- an 18-0 regular-season and a conference tournament title -- in the SEC. The craziest thing about Florida's season was how little intrigue there was in a perfect conference record. Sure, the SEC (save, eventually, Kentucky and Tennessee) was bad. But Florida was also devastatingly good. The Gators held conference opponents to .93 points per possession while scoring 1.14. They averaged the league's highest two-point field goal percentage while simultaneously allowing the lowest.

The reward was the overall No. 1 seed, a champion's place in an overwhelming number of ESPN Tournament Challenge brackets, and, finally, a trip to the Final Four. When they arrived, they were the clear favorites, because they had everything: size, experience, balance and, most importantly, lockdown perimeter defense. That UConn upended the Gators -- and made us all wonder whether SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin wasn't badly injured, given how poorly he played on the defensive end -- may have been the biggest surprise in a tournament full of them.

Disappointing finish or not, 2013-14 was Donovan's master class. In October, the Gators were beset by injuries, illnesses and personnel problems. At the start of the season, the Gators had seven scholarship players available to practice. Wilbekin, after nearly being dismissed over the summer, was serving out an indefinite suspension. Eli Carter and Will Yeguete were still recovering from injuries. Michael Frazier II was being tested for mononucleosis. Chris Walker, the Gators' gem recruit, was academically ineligible. The Gators had forward Patric Young, three-year role player Casey Prather, and a whole lot of unknowns. ...

Billy D on sidelinesWithin a few months, a team that could have been an abject disaster was instead one of Donovan's best. ...

The most impressive thing about all this? The fact that Donovan has done it at Florida. Before Donovan, the Gators' baskteball history was almost nonexistent. In 1932-33, the Gators fielded an SEC basketball team for the first time. For the next 47 years, they finished higher than fourth in the conference standings just four times. The Gators didn't have a full-time coach until 1960, and their only sustained success (under Norm Sloan from 1980 to 1989) led to the Gators' first postseason berths ever, and also a major NCAA scandal.

That was five years before Donovan arrived. Now, 19 years later, Florida is one of the nation's elite college basketball programs. It is a perennial recruiting destination, a near-constant winner. Florida is, and always will be, a football school. Attendance hasn't always been great. But Donovan has been so relentlessly good that even the most stubbornly disinterested alum can't help but sit up and take notice.”

Tuesday July 1, 2014 A look at the O'Connell Center designers

Updated: 10:49pm, July 1

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Those were some pretty spiffy images Sports Illustrated published Tuesday, courtesy of the architectural firm NBBJ, of what the renovated O’Connell Center would like.

Just one problem: NBBJ was not chosen for the job, hence the images weren't legit.

Instead, the O’Dome bid went to Davis Architects, CPPI Construction Management and TLC Engineering, which held its first meetings with University of Florida and University Athletic Association officials this week. Together, they discussed the ambitous project that will be highlighted by a splashy new main entrance, premium club seating, new and more open concourses, new concession stands, renovations of all offices and locker rooms, chair-back seating throughout the arena, a center-hung scoreboard and replay screen, and updated infrastructure.

Davis Architects, a 102-year-old firm out of Birmingham, Ala., designed Auburn Arena, one of the most intimate and sight-line pleasing venues in the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers moved into their new building in 2010.

Here are some photos of that site.

Auburn Arena from above











Auburn Arena

Auburn Arena 2

Auburn Arena 3

Davis Architects also designed the football stadium at Alabama-Birmingham, the north end zone expansion at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium and the refurbishing of historic Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball park and home to the minor-league Birmingham Barons, having hosted the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean and Satchell Page over the years.

Closer to home, however, Davis made one happy Gator out of Coach Rhonda Faehn, who along with everyone associated with her gymnastics program has done nothing but rave about the $4.5 million renovation done to the O'Dome gymnastics (below), home to Faehn and her two-time reigning NCAA champions.

Gymnastics Studio 1

Gym Studio 2

Studio 3










For a look at some of Davis Architects other projects, click on this link to the firm’s website.

Construction on the O’Connell Center is scheduled to begin in March 2015 and take approximately nine months. While the work is being done, the volleyball and the men’s and women’s basketball teams will play their home games at to-be-determined venues, including several dates around the state.

Thursday June 19, 2014 Surprise! Paintball Day for Gators football squad

Updated: 9:09am, June 20

Dante Fowler, Jr. and the Gator football team got a surprise trip to the paintball fields Thursday.

Dante Fowler, Jr. and the Gator football team got a surprise trip to the paintball fields Thursday.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Florida football team took a break from summer workouts Thursday afternoon for a little team bonding trip to some local paintball fields.

As the Gators gathered for a normal team meeting, George Wynn, who's in charge of football operations, broke the news to cheers from the players, who then filed into a bus and headed off to the colorful war zone.

“It’s important for our players and coaches to get together off the field, outside the stadium and the weight room,” UF coach Will Muschamp said. “We thought this was an excellent opportunity for our team to spend some time together in a fun, team-building environment.”

As always when football players get together, there was some competition involved. In addition to paintball, the players had some fun playing corn hole, horseshoes and even basketball.

"This is great for team chemistry, getting the players to come out here and do things outside of football and working out and getting tired of each other," junior Dante Fowler said. "This is just us coming out and mingling with each other, getting to know people and have fun with each other. I loved it. This was my first time playing paintball. A lot of people might not get to do stuff like this, so we were really having fun."

Billy D GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There’s a reason Billy Donovan’s name comes up when NBA jobs come open.

It has a lot to do with all those victories and championships the last 18 years, of course, but it has just as much to do with all those former Gators playing in the NBA.

Donovan reportedly rebuffed at least two NBA suitors -- the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers -- since UF’s run to the Final Four this spring. Those franchises obviously honed in the fact that heading into the postseason the nine former Gators on NBA rosters tied North Carolina for the most of any college program.

On Wednesday, an Insiders post by basketball writer Jeff Goodman reflected a survey of NBA executives asking which college coach best prepared his players for the next level.

Donovan, currently in Colorado prepping USA Basketball’s U18 national team for the FIBA Americas Championships, checked in at No. 1.

Obviously, there’s something to be said for an NBA resume that shows the likes of Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Chandler Parsons and Bradley Beal, along with the fact UF”s pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop offense, plus defensive concepts, are NBA-rooted and make for an easier transition.

“He runs a lot of pro stuff and integrates a lot of wrinkles,” said one NBA executive, wrote Goodman. “He has an innovative playbook. ... He just gets it.”

The entire list:

1) Billy Donovan (Florida)
2) Ben Howland (formerly of UCLA, but currently without a job)
3) John Beilein (Michigan)
4) Tom Izzo (Michigan State)
5) Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State)
6) Mike Krzyzewski (Duke)
7) Bill Self (Kansas)
8) Buzz Williams (Virginia Tech)
9) Rick Pitino (Louisville)
10) John Calipari (Kentucky)
11) Sean Miller (Arizona)
12) Tony Bennett (Virginia)

Friday June 6, 2014 'She was with us!' -- Gators played for Heather

Updated: 9:23pm, June 6

Heather GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As she fought back tears late Tuesday night, junior Lauren Haeger told of how she and some Florida softball teammates were standing in the outfield during batting practice the day before -- as in Monday; as in the first day of UF’s College World Series championship round against Alabama -- when a butterfly fluttered past.

Not just a butterfly.

"It was yellow," Haeger said. "It had to be a sign."

Heather Braswell loved yellow. Those yellow flowers the Gators wore as hair ties this season -- and were quite bright and prominent on ESPN the last couple weeks -- were in her honor. So were the "rally" Twizzlers the UF players twirled in the dugout. And the watermelon Sour Patch candy they chomped on.

Heather loved those, too.

And the Florida softball team -- this one and the five before it -- loved Heather. In 2009, Coach Tim Walton's program “adopted” her through the Friends of the Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that pairs pediatric cancer patients with college and prep athletic teams. She sat with them during games, visited in their clubhouse and threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the 2014 season (above) -- the one that ended with UF’s first NCAA softball title.

Heather, though, wasn’t there to see it. She died March 25 due to complications from a brain tumor. For more than five years, her cancer was in remission, but the disease returned last fall.

The Gators played in her memory.

“She was with us,” sophomore catcher Aubree Munro said. “Ask anyone on this team. She was here.”

The Braswell spirit was alive with the Gators; in more ways than one. Heather’s mother Terri was in Oklahoma City to watch UF win its five games by a combined score of 32-6 and sweeping Alabama in the best-of-three national championship series.

heather's momAfter UF’s 6-3 title-clinching victory Tuesday night, Terri was summoned into the middle of the post-game celebration and swarmed by the Gators (picture right).

“Heather was our friend and that’s what makes it so emotional,” Haeger said. “To have done this with her here would have been great, but we all really tried to focus on playing for something bigger than ourselves. That was our drive. Heather was that drive.”

When the team showed up at Pressly Stadium Wednesday night for its national championship pep rally, the initials “HB” were etched on the field behind the pitcher’s mound.

The last time those letters were on the field, the Gators held a moment of silence for Heather at their first home after her passing.

This time, she was part of a celebration.

A huge from-the-heart part.

“There was a power in just knowing that she was there with us. When we were struggling and someone got a base hit ... that was Heather,” sophomore second baseman Kelsey Stewart said. “I’m sad that it took something like that to find something bigger to play for, but if we had to have something inspire us it was going to be Heather and now we’re all thrilled to have done it for her.”

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