Or live long enough to see yourself become a villain
I went from the favorite to the most hated
But would you rather be underpaid or overrated?
— Jay-Z, "So Appalled"
Florida wasn't always a colossus in college basketball. But younger Gators fans, ones who don't remember Brent Wright or Christian Drejer, much less Dwayne Schintzius or Vernon Maxwell, probably don't see it that way.
In 1998-99, Florida was a fringe top-25 team at best, hanging out on the outskirts of the college basketball mainstream essentially by being nettlesome. 1997-98 Florida had taken down Kentucky at home, which was nice for Billy Donovan, but the last Gators fully of the 1900s were the first ones that played old school Billyball and won, topping 80 points 12 times and 110 three times. Yeah, there was a 30-point loss to Duke in non-conference play; yeah, those Gators fell to Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. But those things just made the Gators look more like a lovable underdog.
The 1999-2000 season sealed that image. Florida entered SEC play 11-1, tied for the regular season title, and streaked through the NCAA Tournament on gumption and shooting, making 34 threes in their six games and taking down Duke and North Carolina in the same tournament before succumbing to Michigan State.
But Mike Miller left after that season, as did Donnell Harvey, the 2000 Gators' Patric Young. (Miller is still in the NBA, and now has a ring; Harvey made 39 starts in five NBA seasons, and now plays for the Talk 'N Text Tropang Texters in the Philippine Basketball Association.) Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson couldn't keep up their play for their respective reasons: Dupay was gone before 2001-02 thanks to a gambling addiction, and Nelson spent it forgetting how to shoot and getting clocked in the eye before the NCAA Tournament by LaDarius Halton.
Florida went from underdog to overrated in a hurry. That 2001 recruiting class produced one four-year player, David Lee, who was never as truly great as his hype. Lee, Matt Bonner and Udonis Haslem toiled for teams that were run by Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh, and they all sealed Florida's rep as a team of chokers and chuckers with a 1-3 NCAA Tournament record.
Christian Drejer washed out and left. Halton never panned out. Ryan Appleby and Mohamed Abukar transferred away. Florida got hit with the "Too many white guys" criticism Duke gets, which lasted past those down years. Donovan looked more and more like a guy who caught lightning in a bottle with a hot team.
Then 2005 happened, and Florida got back to being great again, but got stuck in a ridiculously difficult bracket and failed to make the Sweet Sixteen. (2005's Syracuse Regional had three of KenPom's top six teams, five of its top 13, and six of its top 16. All three of the top six were in the top half of the bracket: No. 1 seed/No. 1 North Carolina, No. 5 seed/No. 4 Villanova, and No. 4 seed/No. 6 Florida.)
Then 2006 happened. Then 2007 happened. Then Florida rebounded from two consecutive NIT trips with two consecutive Elite Eight trips. Donovan righted the ship, and built better ones. Florida players kept making noise in the NBA.
All the talk of being an underdog is gone, and the titles silenced the "Overrated" charge.
All that's left is for Florida to be great. And every great team in sports is a villain in some way.
To someone whose first exposure to Florida was the Oh-Fours' two title runs, Florida is the most successful college basketball program of the recent era. Given the Gators' two titles, four Elite Eights, and five Sweet Sixteens since 2006, essentially every middle schooler and older is aware of Florida as a perennial college basketball power, knows Donovan as an architect of greatness, and sees an NBA dotted with Gators greats.
That's easy to hate, especially given that the flip side of Gators fans watching Florida dispatch Cinderellas is non-Florida fans lamenting the Gators stomping out the best stories of the NCAA Tournament. Joakim Noah was easy to hate: Gangly dudes who dance to their own drums and give exactly zero shits about what you think about that are always easy to hate, and doubly so if they're fantastic at what they do. Donovan is sliding into the phase of his Mike Krzyzewski-like career where his reputation as a leader of men, as well-earned as any, gets him opportunities to cash in on it, and those things are easy to hate.
This week, Florida faces the largest enthusiasm gap it has ever faced in college basketball. The Gators are the leviathan, the Cowboys Stadium-sized program playing in Cowboys Stadium against the team from a few hours down I-75 that captured the sports world's imagination by playing brashly and well and reveling in their moment. The people who want Florida to win Friday night's game are: Gators fans, who would have always wanted a Florida win; fans who want FGCU to go away, however few they might be; and statistically-minded writers and fans, who are going to have one hell of a time explaining Florida losing to this team.
Everyone else is rooting for the other side. The fans who rooted for the winning team in the night's earlier Kansas-Michigan game will want to see the Eagles. Every other team's fan base would love to see Florida knocked off and FGCU in its path. Almost every impartial fan will root for the upset over the restoration of order, because that's what you do during the NCAA Tournament.
That's fine with Florida fans, I think, because Florida fans have had two decades of experience with rooting for a David that became Goliath. Steve Spurrier's Gators were underdogs, too, as were the 2006 Gators that few believed would pull an upset in the desert. Spurrier became a hate-ning rod; so did Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer. Virtually all the Gators fans who became Gators fans in the last 20 years know is success.
And if the spoils of victory have spoiled us rotten, they've also made us experts in playing the favorite. We know how to be confident, how to brag, how to wear our colors with the swagger our athletes earn.
Imagine being a Florida State fan and
being able to read reading that last paragraph, and you'll get why people hate that, too.
I'm rooting for the villain on Friday night. We're rooting for the villain on Friday night.
We're just lucky enough to know that villains can be heroes at the same time.