Second Florida crown is one for history books

The first national title was for them. The second one is for the Gators' legacy as a great all-time team, writes Gene Wojciechowski.

Originally Published: April 3, 2007
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- A tournament official carrying a worn, taped-up cardboard box walked to the second row behind the Florida bench and placed the package under the press row table. This is where the national championship trophy sat for most of the final 6 minutes and 17 seconds of Monday evening's Final Four title game: under a blue-curtained table and under the watchful eye of a security guard as the Gators put the finishing touches on hoops history.

It wasn't the greatest championship game you'll ever see, but it was one of the greatest teams you'll ever see win it. Not goose bump great. Not plays-of-the-day great. But the kind of understated, elegant greatness that comes when five players act as one.

A two-peat, the first since Duke did it in 1991-92, will have to do for now. That's too bad because the Gators could have been -- probably would have been -- good enough for the Chris Berman special: back, back, back. Think about it: three in a row. That hasn't been done since Bill Walton was employed by UCLA in the early 1970s.

Billy Donovan
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyAfter almost taking a job with the Orlando Magic, Billy Donovan decided to stay put and go for the three-peat at Florida.
Sadly, Florida's run is finished. It doesn't have to be. Joakim Noah is still a junior. So is Final Four Most Outstanding Player Corey Brewer. So is Al Horford. So is Taurean Green.

"With the Gators, you never know," said Brewer on the Georgia Dome court a few minutes after Florida beat Ohio State, 84-75. "If one of us stays, we all stay."

They're not staying. Noah, Brewer, Horford and probably even Green will be in NBA unis next season, not Gators blue and orange. They did their three tours of duty at Florida and leave with two championship rings. In fact, Brewer all but made the farewell official when, long after midnight had come and gone, he sat outside the Gators locker room and amended his earlier statement.

"If one of us stays, we all stay," he said. "If one of us goes, we all go."

That's how the Gators do things. They're a package deal. It was that way last year, when they stunned you, me, the NBA and maybe even Florida coach Billy Donovan by returning in unison. Now they'll leave Gainesville as a foursome -- a fivesome, if you count senior starter Lee Humphrey. Or a sixsome, if Kentucky somehow convinces Donovan to leave Gainesville. (Post-it note to Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart: You might want to consider Candidate Plan B.)

"I sit up here very, very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time," Donovan said. "I'm not saying they were the most talented. I'm not saying they were flawless. But when you talk about the word 'team' … they have got to go down and be considered, in my opinion, one of the best teams to ever play."

He's right. A two-peat these days is worth at least a three-peat, maybe a four-peat, in UCLA's dynasty days. There ought to be an asterisk next to Florida's name in the 2008 NCAA Final Four Records Book. It should read: We can't believe they did it, either.

Nobody stiffs the NBA, first-round picks and millions of bucks for that schmaltzy "One Shining Moment" song. But Horford, Noah and Brewer did. They jumped on the scorer's table and held up two fingers, as in two-peat. Later, they took turns climbing an aluminum ladder and snipped away at the net as if it were Noah's ponytail.

"I remember when I was telling people, 'I'm going back to school,' and they're like, 'Huh? What? Are you crazy?'" Noah said. "But you know what? I feel like now all of a sudden people understand that it's more than money. It's more than that. Now you guys are going to write about history … one of the best teams ever. That's special. That's something that everybody in this locker room will never forget."

Noah gets it. Legacies count for something. Multiple rings and rafter banners count for something. You don't feel what he and the rest of the Gators felt here Monday night when you beat Golden State in the dead of winter.

"Money doesn't always buy happiness," Noah said.

This two-season run by the Gators has its own currency. Florida's players understood that after they won their first championship.

"It just goes to show we love each other," said senior center Chris Richard, who was part of a tag team with Noah, Horford and Marreese Speights that was assigned to Ohio State's Greg Oden. "We're not selfish at all. We think outside of ourselves."

That's a nice way to put it. Corny, but nice.

Brewer was the Final Four MOP, but it could have been Horford, or even Humphrey. That's the thing about the Gators: They combined quality with selflessness. Just like John Wooden's UCLA teams used to do.

"If it wasn't for those guys, what does MOP mean?" Brewer said.

I asked Brewer, Noah, and Green if there was any scenario in which they might consider a return to Florida. You know, the three-peat and more history? The short answer -- although they never came right out and said it -- is no.

"I'm not even thinking about it," Green said.

Nope, we've witnessed the end of what qualifies as a basketball era. It won't happen again anytime soon. Maybe that's why Donovan lingered on that ladder when he held up the net with his right hand. Or why Noah and several of his teammates sat smiling on the floor of the temporary stage as the stadium big screen played the "Shining Moment" video.

Last year was for a ring. This year was for history and something as simple and pure as a teammate's respect. That's a legacy.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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