Butler has brought new energy to UF program


Published: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 10:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 at 10:49 p.m.

It started with the first day, when she met the team and explained that things were different now. This was not coach-speak from Amanda Butler, but her way of life.

Back in April 2007, she was not speaking to the players as their newbie coach.

She was speaking to them as a Gator.

“If you and I are going to get along,” she said, “you need to understand how important that is to me.”

Since then, the Gators have won 36 games, are now ranked 15th in the country with a bullet, and Florida women’s basketball has returned to relevancy. Once again, Jeremy Foley went young and dynamic and pulled out a winner.

Because you don’t get the sense that this is a fluke, a one-hit wonder that will fade with time. If you do, you haven’t spent any time with Butler.

“Her confidence radiates,” said Carol Ross, who coached Butler at Florida. “You can see it coming from 100 miles away. Her team is playing with a confidence and a swagger. All the things she is, they’ve become.”

Ross had several conversations with Foley during the hiring process. She knew Butler was the best choice, maybe the only choice for the job after Carolyn Peck was let go. She knew Butler would kill in the interview process.

Because there is this fire in Amanda Butler’s soul. You can’t see it but you can feel it. It burns so hard you’d better join or get out of the way.

It’s been burning for a long time.

Back when Butler was a point guard for Ross in the early 1990s, it showed up every day. Butler used to have a shoulder that kept popping out of place in practice. When it would happen, Ross said, her fiery guard would yell at the trainers to stay away from her.

Then, she would walk over to a wall and smash her shoulder against it until it popped back into place.

Or there was the time she smashed her nose so badly she was out for a game against FSU. UF ordered a Bill Laimbeer mask to protect her nose, but it didn’t arrive in time for the game. Butler played anyway.

“I told her not to drive or hit the boards,” Ross said. “She told me, ‘If I play, I’m going to play the way I play.’ ”

And she coaches the way she played. Fierce, demanding, passionate.

Florida needed that. It was a program that had regressed mightily from the days when Ross’ teams were regulars at the NCAA Tournament.

The players needed discipline. They needed conditioning.

Mostly, they needed to win.

In Peck’s final season, the Gators had lost 14 straight games and finished 9-22.

“I don’t think they got tired of losing,” Butler said, “as much as they enjoyed the taste of winning.”

Her first season produced 19 wins. It was after that season she knew it was sinking in.

“It would have been easy for that team to pat itself on the back,” Butler said. “Instead, there was disappointment that they didn’t reach the NCAA Tournament. That was the springboard.”

And that’s why she’s confident this will not be a team that will be fat and happy with a 17-2 record and top 15 ranking. Why not go for 14th? Why not try to be a top five team?

Why not?

Because there is always something out there to reach for as a team. The ones who fail are the ones who are satisfied. And Butler is never satisfied.

The trick for any coach is to instill that in their players. Butler has always been confident, but how do you make a team that is undersized (no starter 6-feet tall) play tall? How do you make a group of players who were embarrassed and dismissed as the black sheep at UF feel like they can play with anybody?

How do you make a 9-19 team competitive in the toughest conference in women’s basketball?

“The biggest challenge was getting them to understand how hard we had to work to be successful,” Butler said. “I told them two things I needed to see. One, whether or not I could trust them, and two, I wanted to see how hard they could work.

“It’s a great group. The biggest accomplishment is the level of confidence this team has risen to. You can’t fake confidence.”

It keeps building. The win at Florida State. The win over Arizona State in the Bahamas. The win over Pittsburgh. All ranked. All burned by the fire.

“One of the Pitt players told one of our players, because we were enjoying it so much, ‘Act like you’ve done this before,’ “ Butler said. “I told her that I hoped she said, ‘We haven’t.’ ”

And the fire is only getting hotter.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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