By JOANNE KORTH
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000
GAINESVILLE -- They said it couldn't be done, and Florida coach Billy Donovan doesn't think it has. Florida, he said, has not been turned into a basketball school.
And never will be.
"I just think we have great fans," Donovan said. "That's the bottom line. Florida is not a basketball school, nor will it ever be a basketball school. It has a great fan base and people love the Gators regardless of what sport they're playing."
Donovan, in his fourth season at UF, is the first basketball coach not to feel threatened by the school's football tradition. Nor should football be threatened by him.
"We weren't filling up the O'Connell Center my first two years here because we weren't competitive," Donovan said. "We did get to the NIT, which I thought was a great challenge with that cast of characters. But to me, it's the fact that we're competing at a national level right now that people are exited about."
The Gators are enjoying their time in the spotlight, and don't plan to step aside soon.
"It is great that everybody knows who we are now and being on TV and getting national exposure," said senior Kenyan Weaks, who was virtually anonymous his first two years on campus. "It's a great feeling, and I hope the program can continue it throughout the years to come."
COMFORT ZONE: Donovan said Final Four hoopla is one area in which Florida's lack of experience will hurt.
"Our guys are going to have to deal with the fact there's going to be ticket requests, media obligations, people in the hotel lobby, people calling, grabbing, tugging. They have no concept of what they're in for. And they're going to have to set aside all those distractions and stay focused if they want to win the national championship."
REDEMPTION: Eight years later, Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey is making his first trip to the Final Four. Pelphrey was a senior at Kentucky when Duke's Christian Laettner made a 16-foot jumper at the buzzer for a 104-103 victory in the 1992 East Region final.
"To have it all end so abruptly was very, very tough," Pelphrey said. "Not only did the game end and your hopes for a national championship end, but so did your career."
Though reaching the Final Four as an assistant coach does not replace the thrill of making it as a player, Pelphrey is at peace.
"I can walk in my kids' rooms at night and they don't care one way or another whether that shot went in or out," he said. "The way things turned out, I can't say my life would be any better right now had that shot not gone down."