Why The Tone of Surprise? After a Decade of Sustained Success, the Gators' Dynasty continues to be underestimated, And they keep Collecting Titles.

Dynasties are hard to root for. Competitors and rival fanbases, are envious of their seemingly never-ending success. Even setting allegiances aside, they are flat out boring. Who wants a predictable outcome from a world of infinite possibilities?

A dynasty is like a monster truck barreling down city streets, flattening underdogs, demolishing Cinderella stories, eradicating the element of surprise. Cheering such dominance is like rooting for Darth Vader, or Voldemort. Villains are supposed to be worthy adversaries, not the ultimate victors. Seeing them actually win (and win repeatedly) would be soul crushing.

When you are the dynasty, though, it is hard to understand how anyone picks against sustained greatness. It is baffling, almost frustrating, how the slightest speed bump is a sign of impending demise in the eyes of prognosticators and those wishing to upend the establishment.

That is all Florida head coach Mike Holloway heard this season, and the chatter amplified ahead of last weekend’s NCAA Indoor Championships.

Pre-meet projections favored Texas Tech and Wisconsin. Texas Tech had the most entries and, based on seeding, the highest-scoring team. Wisconsin represented the anti-establishment, taking half as many entries as Florida and Texas Tech and relying almost entirely on two distance stars.

Both were sexier, certainly more entertaining picks.

Making predictions according to seeding alone, however, would be like picking a Super Bowl winner based on Madden simulations. Sure, percentage-wise, it produces the “right” pick. In actual competition, though, there are far too many variables in play. And leaning too heavily on just a pair of athletes, talented as they may be, has rarely, if ever, been a championship-winning formula.

Many believed Florida was over-reliant on superstar Grant Holloway, with some estimating he would score twice as many points in his three events as the rest of the Gators combined. Others pointed to the fact only three of Florida’s 10 entries aside from Holloway were, on paper, expected to score.

Boy, did those folks get quite a surprise.

The Gators ran away with their ninth national championship – a fifth indoor crown to pair with four outdoors – since 2010, officially clinching the title before the meet’s penultimate event.

Following Friday’s near-perfect night of qualifying, eight different Gators and the team’s 4x400 relay amassed 55 points. No one else managed more than 44, and both pre-meet darlings finished 25-plus points out of first.

This was not just a title defense. It was a bludgeoning. Holloway may have swung a sledgehammer in comparison to his teammates, smashing his way to 27.5 points (the second-highest total in history), but practically everyone in a Gators uniform took a turn clobbering the one-man-team narrative.

“I’ll be honest, I took offense to some of the things that were said over the last couple of weeks about how we were a one-man band, and we were just Grant Holloway,” Coach Holloway said during the trophy presentation. “Grant’s a phenomenal athlete; he does phenomenal things for us, but you can’t discount our jumpers, our throwers, our other hurdlers and sprinters.

“We are a track and field team. We’re not just a one-man band.”

He could not understand the tone of surprise in the building. Since 2003, his first season as men's head coach, Florida’s track record (pun intended) is producing its best performances at NCAA meets. Of the 33 NCAA Championships within that span, the Gators won the title or finished second 22 times (for perspective, no other program has more than nine top-two finishes in that span), including 18 of the last 21. Florida’s five indoor national titles alone put them in rarefied air, as only seven other Division I teams have won five-plus titles since the start of the 2009-10 athletics season. Two teams on the list are familiar to most: Alabama football and Connecticut women’s basketball.

Why did anyone expect this year to be any different?

It has been this way ever since Florida broke through and won its first championship in 2010. The Gators were second at six of the previous 14 NCAA meets, and they were just two points short of winning outdoors in 2009.

Photo: Cheryl Treworgy

“Once we won that first one, then we all knew it could be done,” Coach Holloway said in a radio interview earlier this week. “There’s a confidence, kind of a swag, as people like to call it, that we walk in the building with. We’re not cocky. We’re not overconfident. But we walk in knowing if we do our jobs, we have a chance.”

Florida followed its 2010 national title with victories at the NCAA Indoor Championships in 2011, 2012, and 2018. The Gators also won the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2012, 2013, 2016, and 2017.

Coach Holloway walked into the Birmingham CrossPlex a little more juiced up than usual last weekend.

There was a notion he lost his touch coaching the sprints. At last year’s NCAA Indoors, Florida did not have an entrant in the 60 meters, 200 meters, or 400 meters for the first time since 1996, when he joined the staff as an assistant coach for sprints, hurdles and relays. Bear in mind, they won the meet anyway. Still, detractors saw world-class speed in Hakim Sani Brown, a former elite high school recruit in Ryan Clark, and a stable of talented quarter-milers. How could all of them miss the 2018 field?

Clark (above) and Sani Brown (below) both joined the Gators with high expectations following standout prep careers.

“I had some people poking at me, telling me I couldn’t coach the sprints anymore,” Coach Holloway said. “I’m a competitor. I took it personally.”

What nobody saw were the hardships each dealt with behind the scenes. The quarter-milers were victims of a historically fast season. Clark struggled with his diet for the better part of three seasons, an issue he’s since put behind him. Sani Brown was, according to Coach Holloway, “a little fragile, a little dinged up,” upon his arrival in Gainesville.

“It would’ve been unfair for me to rush him into doing the things I know he’s capable of doing,” he said of Sani Brown. “I promised his mom I’d be patient with him. The goal was for Hakim to be ready in ’19 and be ready in 2020, because the Olympics are in his backyard. It wasn’t about the University of Florida. It had to be about Hakim and his career.”

All three Gators – Clark, Holloway, Sani Brown – made the 60 final, 25 minutes after sophomore Benjamin Lobo Vedel became a 400 finalist.

Grant Holloway finding out all three Gators advanced to the 60 final (top left); Lobo Vedel and Holloway congratulating each other on advancing (top right); Holloway and Sani Brown sharing the joy of qualifying for the 60 final (bottom).

“I wanted to get three guys in the (60) final,” Coach Holloway said. “That group set the fire for the rest of the meet. From the moment we put three guys in the final Friday, the rest of the meet took off right there.”

At that moment, the meet turned into a one-sided chess match. The Gators had too many high-value pieces left on the board, and they were a handful of moves away from declaring checkmate. Barring mistakes of their own creation, Saturday would serve as an anti-climactic coronation rather than a point-for-point battle through every event.

True to form, Florida was nearly flawless.

Fifth-year senior high jumper Jhonny Victor, who entered tied for the 13th seed, took eighth place for a point. Lobo Vedel, ranked 12th on the entry list, nabbed two points with a seventh-place finish in the 400. Florida’s weight throw duo turned in two of the three best NCAA Indoors performances in school history, as redshirt senior AJ McFarland and sophomore Thomas Mardal combined for seven points with fourth- and seventh-place finishes, respectively. Sani Brown took third and Clark finished sixth in the Florida-filled 60, securing another nine points. The clincher came from junior Clayton Brown, who outperformed his No. 10 seed by five places and scored four points in the triple jump.

L to R: Victor, Lobo Vedel, McFarland and Mardal, the 60 trio (Clark, Holloway, Sani Brown), and Brown.

“Those are the guys that put us over the top,” Coach Holloway said. “It’s not the superstars that win the meet.”

While that group proved the Gators were more than a one-man band, Grant Holloway belted out one heck of a solo.

The junior finished third in Friday’s long jump, despite passing his final three attempts to preserve energy for his pursuit of 60-meter hurdles and 60 meters titles. He departed the competition in first place, but fell to third late in the fifth round and ended up two centimeters shy of the eventual champion.

“My proudest moment from him this weekend was when he came back from the long jump, and he never asked me to go back out there,” Coach Holloway said. “He said to me, when he got pushed to third, ‘I’m not worried. I know my boys got me.’”

History came less than 24 hours later.

Holloway broke a 32-year-old American record to win a third consecutive 60 hurdles title. His time of 7.35 seconds was also the fourth-fastest in indoor track and field history, put him at No. 3 on the world all-time list, and demolished his previous collegiate record of 7.42.

Roughly 40 minutes later, Holloway won the 60 and tied the 10th-fastest time in collegiate history (6.50) to join Terrence Trammell and Willie Gault as the only other men to sweep those titles.

Holloway’s combined time of 13.85 seconds marked the fastest single-day 60 meters-60 hurdles performance in the sport’s history. He then capped it all off with a leg for Florida’s 4x400 relay, helping the team of Lobo Vedel, Clark, and Chantz Sawyers to a bronze medal.

“Showtime Grant,” Victor labeled him after the meet. “That man’s always putting on a show.”

As the Gators passed around championship hats and t-shirts on the infield, Coach Holloway stepped away from the celebration for a moment of prayer. Then a congratulatory phone call from Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin came through. Opposing coaches paid their respects, joking that one of these times they would get the better of his squad.

Finally, it was time to hoist the gold-plated trophy. Once Coach Holloway handed it off to Clark, ESPN’s John Anderson asked how it felt to experience yet another title, to extend Florida’s reign over the men’s track and field landscape. His answer made the Gators even harder to root for. Well, unless you’re an Orange and Blue supporter. Because while this dynasty annoys or bores virtually everyone outside Gator Nation, the man engineering it wants to keep the monster truck rolling.

“It never gets old.”

Story by Zach Dirlam, Assistant Director of Communications (University Athletic Association).

Unless denoted otherwise, photos by Alex de la Osa (UAA Communications).

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