Exactly 15 years ago today, then-34-year-old head coach Billy Donovan led the Florida Gators to the first Final Four victory in program history.
The 1999-2000 Gators were a special group, which included four NBA players (three of whom are still in the league), a young but hungry coaching staff (every assistant went on to be head coaches elsewhere) and a 10-man rotation that allowed Florida to be relentless on both ends of the court throughout entire games.
Those Gators captured just the second Southeastern Conference regular-season title in school history, played in the national championship game for the first time in school history and were ranked wire-to-wire that season for, you guessed it, the first time in school history.
It was a transcendent Florida team that came together to overcome tremendous obstacles, including a overall No. 1-ranked team in Duke – with Shane Battier, Jay Williams, Carlos Booser, Chris Carrawell and Mike Dunleavy – that would go on to win the national title the following season.
OnlyGators.com wanted to tell the story of these Gators through the eyes of those who were actually there. As such, we reached out to guard Teddy Dupay and forward Brent Wright to recount one of the biggest moments in program history on its 15th anniversary.
With the 2014-15 Final Four being played in Indianapolis – the same site as the 1999-2000 Four – and featuring two of the same teams (Michigan State, Wisconsin), the stars could not be better aligned for a look back.
Florida’s players fitting together like a puzzle was not an accident but rather a plan, and it started nearly half a decade earlier, well before most of the players on that team were even thinking about playing in a Final Four game.
Dupay: “I knew all the guys real well; we all knew each other well. I knew Brent Wright since he was a freshman in high school and I was in middle school. I knew Udonis [Haslem] since early in our sophomore year. Major [Parker], obviously for a very long time, AAU through high school. We all knew each other and what we were about. We all went to Florida for a reason – so we could play together – because we knew what each other could do. Then we started adding other pieces that really made it exciting because we knew that guys like Mike Miller – that’s a big-deal guy, that’s a real big deal. Donnell Harvey, Matt Bonner, these are big-deal guys. Our team was huge, we were deep, we played the style of play that we wanted to play.”
Wright: “Teddy was like a brother to us. We had known Ted since we were 13-14 years old. Playing AAU, we used to go up to Ted’s house when we were younger. We used to scrimmage Ted’s team. At Miami Senior High, we would drive up to Fort Myers and scrimmage him. We became really close. Ted is like a brother to me; I love that guy. He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with; he’s a true competitor. Major Parker as well; me, Teddy, Major, Udonis, we all played in high school and in AAU together. I was in Coach Donovan’s first class with Major, so we had a special bond there, and we became roommates in college. We were such a close group; we were all competitors. The relationships started early and just really developed from there. We had a bond that no one could take away. He’s right, we knew what each other could do it and it make a lot of sense to play together.”
It was also a time of growth for the Gators’ head coach, Billy Donovan. At 34-years old, Donovan was in his sixth season leading a team (fourth at Florida) and finally coming into his own. Though Donovan often acted and coached 10 years his senior, he and UF’s coaching staff related to the players exceptionally well because of their relative youth.
Dupay: “He was just one of the guys. He still played in the 3-on-3 tournament on campus. They’d have a campus-wide 3-on-3 challenge with the winners getting to play against [assistant coaches] John Pelphrey, Anthony Grant and Coach Donovan. No one ever came close [to beating them]. It was absurd how good they still were. The coaches were so engaged with the school. The Rowdy Reptiles helped create that incredible setting. Billy created a culture at Florida. It is easy to build a program, but creating a real culture is hard. So when you look at coach, yeah, he was young then, but he learned from Rick Pitino, and he was coached by Frank Morris in high school. He got some life experience well before Florida; he went out and saw what it was like outside of basketball. Him coming in, he might have been young, but he wasn’t inexperienced.
“He knew what was going on, and he knew how to run a program. He understood how to hire a staff, get a director of basketball operations, have an assistant trainer, what things you need your assistant coaches to do, how to plan, how to organize recruiting, how to organize film exchange – at that time, it wasn’t as easy as it is now. There’s a lot of things that go into having a culture, a winning culture, a winning program, that are far removed from Xs and Os, basketball, recruiting players, teaching players. There are so many parts of the program that have to be systematized for you to be successful, and he was able to accomplish that.”
The 1999-2000 Florida team began its season coming off a tough Sweet 16 loss the previous year. But the Gators stuck together, fighting through a tough nonconference slate to win the SEC regular-season title and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Dupay: “You talk about all the adversity we went through during the year. I remember going out to Maui; we didn’t play well. It was a really tough stretch. We had a game Friday night at home to open the season, crushed Florida State [96-61], and then flew out to play in Maui – bang-bang-bang [three games in three days]. So we had to travel all the way from Florida to Maui, big games, we just were not sharp. I remember coach was just on the warpath out there, really trying to get us to play the game the right way. We started the season off, not real good. I think Purdue beat us, and I think we probably beat Georgetown but it wasn’t pretty. It was just an up-and-down season from there and then we just really caught fire at the right time.”
Wright: “We were very confident; we were a very confident group. We practiced hard every day. Practice was harder than the games so we got accustomed to playing hard and doing those types of things naturally. When it came time for the games, the games were easy – to tell you the truth – because we had five guys that could be swapped in at any moment.”
Dupay: “You think about our team, we were absolutely loaded with talent; we really were loaded with talent. I think it was tough for coach to figure out exactly what to do, but he got everybody to buy in at the right time.”
Underseeded at No. 5, Florida played in a loaded East Regional, opening up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, against No. 12-seed Butler. The contest went to overtime, and the Gators won 69-68 when a prayer – in the form of a floater off the hand of Miller – was answered.
Wright: “I have been thinking about this recently, when Kentucky won that close Elite Eight game against Notre Dame over the weekend. Every team that wins a championship or plays for a championship, there’s always a game that scares you or gets your attention, wakes you up. That game for us was the Butler game. That was a great team. They played us hard, had nothing to lose. Mike made a tremendous shot. That game right there let us know that we were good enough to make it to the Final Four and have an opportunity to win any game. That was a game that got everybody’s confidence and energy going.”
Dupay: “Butler was really good. People didn’t realize how good Butler was then, but they were really, really good. They played us in a tough game, but we were right there. We made a lot of plays to win that game. People talk about Mike’s shot at the buzzer, which was amazing – I remember I jumped right on him and did a push up to keep the dog pile from literally hurting and smothering him. I remember him saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m choking.’ But that game, at the end of regulation, Udonis Haslem – after just missing a free throw – hit two nothing-but-net clutch free throws. Kenyan Weeks driving down the middle, clutch bucket. Brent Wright, moving the post, just moving the guys out of the ways completely, forcing a basket in. We made a lot of plays down the stretch and then obviously had some good fortune. But coach did such a good job with his substitutions. We kind of found a rhythm there doing some offense-defense, not just five in, five out. We found some cool combinations in that game and then obviously Mike hit that shot – it’s a great moment in college basketball history, obviously Gator history, too.”
Miller’s shot advanced the Gators to the Round of 32 but it was much more impactful for Florida both in the short and long term.
Dupay: “It was amazing, oh my God. It ignited everything. That’s how fine the line is, that’s how tough it is [to win in the tournament]. If you saw the Christian Laettner documentary, they discussed Coach K in his early years [at Duke] and how he was sort of on the hot seat. I don’t know … if we lost that game … people at Florida wouldn’t have been happy. That Illinois game [in the Round of 32], we just came in on fire and played great.
“I vividly remember after that Butler game, Brent Wright was going to lead the prayer in the locker room and he couldn’t really say anything. He literally could not get a word out; he couldn’t make a sound. And he was the leader. He was amazing. He just started crying, ‘God, I love you guys.’ Everybody was crying. It was just an emotional moment. That’s not something you would see from him. It was very uncharacteristic of him, and it meant something to all of us. It was incredible, really incredible. From there, we just caught fire. We smoked Illinois and then we went up to Syracuse and got to play Duke in the Sweet 16.”
Wright: “[Laughing in reflection] As a kid, you watch the NCAA Tournament every year. It was a big deal. It’s a big deal to be a college basketball player and be in the NCAA Tournament. You wait your whole life for that. My whole thing in the back of my mind was we just accomplished something great. Everybody back home was watching – our parents, our families, our friends, the Florida students and alumni across the nation – I just got so emotional that I couldn’t speak. And then I broke down. To this day, it’s a memory I can’t forget. All the hard work we did throughout the year could have gone down the drain, but we stayed together, we focused, we locked in on what we needed to do, and we came out with a victory. To me, that made us closer than ever and that gave us the energy to get all the way to the final game.”
The Gators did more than just “play” the Blue Devils. After routing No. 4 Illinois 93-76 in the second round, Florida took on the overall No. 1 team and fought tooth and nail … until late in the contest when UF’s incredible press defense wore down Duke and the Gators scored 13-straight points to end the game with an 87-78 win.
Wright: “As a team, that year we didn’t get a lot of recognition. We just played hard. We matched up very well with Duke from top to bottom, all five positions. We were just as good as those guys, and we just played harder. We played without fear, and we were in much better shape than those guys. Some teams could stick with us for 25-30 minutes, but the last 10 minutes of games, teams would just fall apart and have no energy at the end of the game. So we just kept our style of play and we kept playing it and playing it and playing it until they just finally broke down. It’s hard to play [such an aggressive style] like that for 40 minutes if you haven’t practiced or played like that all year round.”
Dupay: “The game was incredible. It was great because the year before that, my freshman year, we went to Cameron Indoor. Corey Magette, Elton Brand and all those guys, man, they were loaded [in 1998-99]. They were dunking all over us. They kicked our butt [116-86]. We were supposed to have a home-and-home with them, but for some reason, it didn’t happen. We decided, I guess in our own heads, that Duke didn’t want to come play us. We had that in our minds the whole year, so when we got to play that game … a lot of that, our team was very tough. We had a lot of tough, tough people on that team. We were looking forward to that game. We really were. Everyone was fired up and ready to play. We all bought in – all 10 or 11 guys that played. We all understood that we had to give up a lot to have a winning team there – a lot of personal achievements – but we did it and stuck with it through the end.”
After taking down the blue-blood Blue Devils, Florida’s dominating press defense and incredibly deep roster truly began gaining national recognition. All the Gators were doing was executing a plan Donovan laid out for them at the beginning of the season.
Dupay: “When we started day one, we had built-in rules. We knew what we were supposed to do at the beginning of the year. There were a lot of moving parts. We were pressing; we were still finding our niche. We never left the press; we always pressed. We always played aggressive, half-court defense. But also finding the right lineups was important, especially at that time of year. Guys like Brent Wright and Udonis Haslem, Major Parker, Donnell Harvey, Kenyan Weeks, Justin Hamilton. Those guys, look at them. Look at the length and just the physicality of that team. It was incredible, incredible what we had. Coach has maybe never had that much talent, even the teams that won it [in 2006-07] might not have had that much to choose from in terms of depth and lineup possibilities. Coach used it well. We pressed. You just don’t see it that much anymore.”
The Gators parlayed their momentum into another double-digit win, 77-65 over No. 3 Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight, winning their second-straight game in Syracuse, New York. That is when Donovan took his players aside to break down what it would take if they wanted to make program history.
Dupay: “He told us we had to impose our will, play our style of play, do what we do. Follow the script, follow the plan. We knew each guy’s strengths and weaknesses. We knew what we wanted them to do. We knew what our plan was for the game to win a 40-minute game.”
Wright: “Coach, he always put everything in perspective. And the players, we did a great job as well. We were happy that we won the Elite Eight game, but we always felt we were just as good as the guys we were facing. Coach did a great job of keeping us focused. If something wasn’t going right in a game, we would make a gesture – put our fingers on our heads to indicate that you need to be smarter on that play – it helped us stay together and stay focused.
“One of the best things coach did during that tournament was every game, we broke it down in four-minute increments, treating it like a boxing match. You go out there and play your hardest for that four minutes, you get tired, you get subbed out for someone fresh. That was our game plan. I think that helped us and prepared us because we were such a deep team that we were able to do that. It helped us play at an extremely high level for 40 minutes, allowed us to remain focused because we were giving it our absolute all and never had to worry about getting exhausted.”
North Carolina was the opponent for Florida in its second-ever Final Four game. The Gators were not threatened by the No. 8 seed out of the South Regional, despite starting the contest on an 18-3 run and holding just a three-point lead at halftime.
Dupay: “North Carolina, we jumped out on them. That was not really a close game. It was kind of in the bag early. We were real confident. We felt like they only really had one ball handler. We knew over the course of a whole game that he probably wouldn’t even be able to finish the game just from an overall conditioning standpoint to take our brand of attacking style for the full game. And we knew we could get the kind of things that we needed to get offensively against them. We got it when they were fresh, so I think really at that point in the game [halftime], you’re never completely comfortable, but I don’t think there was ever a point where … losing wasn’t even a thought.”
Florida may not have been worried about losing, but it certainly struggled where it matters most – putting the ball in the basket. Using a double technical foul that included a penalty on Parker midway through the second half, the Gators shook themselves out of a rut and jumped behind Nelson on the way to a smooth finish and 71-59 victory. Florida won a Final Four game in its second appearance ever and advanced to the national title game for the first time in school history.
Dupay: “You got to hit shots to win, you know? You have to hit shots to win. But that really wasn’t a focal point of our offense. Our offense was to get the ball into the paint, feed Udonis until somebody stops that. He’s such a good passer that we had a terrific high-low situation going with him, Brent Wright, Donnell and Matt Bonner. Plus Mike, who is 6-foot-9, into that high-post area to get some cool triangle action. If you look back over the earlier games, the amount of high-low buckets we got in big, big moments was awesome. A lot of that is spacing, having shooters out there so a team has to pick their poison.”
Wright: “We got to a point where we realized we had to give it all or nothing, like we had been coached to do. North Carolina was running some misdirection, made some shots, got us off our game a little bit. We needed a spark. When Major Parker got that technical, it got everyone’s attention. We got juiced. We needed it at that moment, him coming off the bench to give us that spark of energy – that was a big momentum-changer. We were a team where, if someone was not playing well or someone was not doing their job, we would get on each other. We respect each other because we know our job and we know what the other person is capable of doing. So if someone was not doing their job or not playing up to their capability then we as teammates, we would get on them. Major doing that, he woke everybody up. We went on that run and just ran them out the gym.”
Dupay: “Being able to take down a historic program like UNC, after just doing it to Duke, was motivating – without question. It was also validation for the program, really another signature win. When you beat Duke – but not just any Duke, that was a special Duke team, as we discussed – to go beat them was huge. It was huge for the Florida program to go beat UNC after that.”
The magic ran out for Florida two days later as Michigan State broke out of its shooting slump to break UF’s defense and earn an 89-76 victory and the 2000 national title.
Dupay: “I couldn’t even imagine us not winning. That thought didn’t even cross my mind, especially because Michigan State and Wisconsin played a real ugly, ugly semifinal on the other side [of the bracket]. Neither looked very good. And then we came out in that last game, Matteen Cleaves played great – he shot 75 percent from the three-point line; they shot 50+ percent from the three-point line, which, you know, it’s your job on defense to stop that. But they hit the shots; they made them when they counted. We had some foul trouble and we just never quite got in sync. That really wasn’t a close game either. I think we cut it to four once or twice. Michigan State’s strategy was to try and guard Udonis one-on-one down there, and he dominated them. Then they tried to close off any open shots. And they succeeded. That’s all I can say.”
Wright: “It’s been 15 years, and I still haven’t watched that game. It would be heartbreaking for me to watch that game. I look at it now like a lot of guys haven’t gotten to that point in their careers, and I had a great college career. It was a great opportunity to say I played in that game, we played in that game as a team. To look back today and be one of the teams that played in the final – not in the Final Four, the final game – it was a great opportunity and I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”
Dupay: “I would be willing to say the only people anywhere that are disappointed about that season, still to this day, are the guys that were in the locker room. And we still can say what a great season, because when you look back, I can tell you at the time it really felt like we failed. And looking back on it now, we didn’t. We were dumb kids. The idea of losing … it wasn’t just losing, it was this unthinkable thing had just happened. It was shocking. …You know, we didn’t win one, but they got one later [in 2006 and then 2007], so that counts!”
Multiple Gators from that team went on to the NBA, others won championships internationally, some did not play basketball again after graduating. The tournament was a career-defining moment for Donovan, though, who remains at Florida to this day. Donovan became a made man in college basketball, but he did not let his success get to his head during the tournament or at any time afterward.
Wright: “To be 34 years old and doing that, coaching us, he did an incredible job. Now he’s one of the top few coaches in college basketball, and it speaks to how good he is what he does year in and year out, but he really did a great job with us. We worked hard every day, got better. He always taught us to do our part, stay focused, do the little things. As long as we did the little things, then we would be OK, everything would be fine.”
Dupay: “I had known Billy for four years before that. I committed as a sophomore when he was 30. I don’t want to say we grew together, but that’s a long time to know somebody at that point in your life. … The guy was just focused, confident. He knew we’d win, therefore we knew we’d win. He believed in us. He was going to push the right buttons. He was never wrong in his preparation of a team. He tells you a guy can do this well, can’t do this well, you don’t have to wait and see once – you know he’s telling you the truth. He knows what he’s looking at. The scouting report, you can count on it. It’s reliable; it’s real stuff. Our job was just to play. He told us what to do. He gave us the outline; we went and executed.”
Donovan’s mentorship has extended past his players’ time with the Gators and into their lives as adults, whether they became fathers, teachers, athletes or professionals.
Dupay: “We’re very close. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been really probably easier for me to ask him for help. When you’re younger, sometimes you feel like you want to try and do things on your own. You want to prove that you can, I don’t know why. Sometimes younger people are more stubborn; I certainly was. But when I started communicating with him, me getting into basketball was a conversation I had with him. It just started a dialogue that we’ve had probably non-stop for the past five years where I ask him for advice, I ask him for guidance. ‘What would you do in this certain situation?’”
Wright: “I talk to Coach Donovan all the time, before the season, after the season, during the season. I actually spent a month in Gainesville a year or two ago just to work out with the team and be there with him. We talk basketball always, personal often. He always asks how I’m doing. We talk about life.”
Dupay: “When I go up there, it’s great. I look at how successful he’s been and watching him through 500 victories – I feel a great sense of pride about that. I feel like I was a big part in helping build one of the best programs in America. I’m very proud of it. Everything we talked about when I was 16 years old, building a program, committing extra early and getting on the record, helping make it easy for guys like Brent and Udonis and Major to consider Florida. Remember, back then, everybody was down on the program. He was a young coach. He wasn’t ‘Coach Donovan’ yet. It’s all come true, everything he said. It’s been amazing. You can’t even find the words.”
It is no surprise then that these players who flourished under Donovan are still doing so 15 years to the day of that Final Four win.
Wright: “I played professionally in Europe and won something like nine championships in 13 years, so basketball did not stop for me and I had the privilege of a professional career. I had surgery on my back last year and am still recovering, and I’m hoping to be back to play soon. If not, I opened up an academy, a private school called B. Wright Leadership Academy. It’s a K-8 private school for at-risk kids, kids that need a better opportunity in life. We need to let kids know there’s a better way. It’s just me giving back to the community and helping the community. It’s coming along. This is the first year, there are about two months of school left and it’s going really well.”
Dupay: “We have the Teddy Dupay Basketball Academy right now in Tampa, Florida. We focus primarily on the mindset and the practice habits and routines of players, just making good choices, that’s really the basis of everything we talk about. … We have a non-profit facility called the The Prep of South Tampa. It’s a 5013c in Tampa serving kids, providing professional training for the body and the mind. … On July 15, I’m going to be breaking a world record in the Guinness Book of World Records for most three-pointers in 24 hours (10,381). I’m doing that to benefit Academy Prep education – it’s a charter school here in Tampa that works with kids in very difficult areas.
“As for me personally, I train on basketball and work on my shot every day, just like coach would want.”