Sunday, September 26, 2021

Gators Rise to Rarified Academic/Athletic Recognition


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — That the start of the one of the biggest Florida Gators football weeks in years would coincide with some of biggest University of Florida news in years seemed fitting Monday morning. 

“Aspiring to be a top-five school is one thing,” UF athletics director Scott Stricklin said. “Actually achieving the goal is really, really significant.” 

U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of the nation’s public universities was released Monday, with Florida moving up a spot and, for the first time, punching its way into the top five for the 2022 listings. Five years ago, the Gators weren’t even in the top 10 — No. 14 in 2017 — but Board of Trustees chairman Mori Hosseini and UF President Kent Fuchs made climbing the rankings a priority, to the point that even hitting an all-time best No. 6 last year begat a goal. A slogan, even. 

Rise to Five 

And here the Gators are. 

“When we say the best of both — academics and athletics — there are few schools that are in the realm of the University of Florida,” UF volleyball coach Mary Wise said. 

It’s a pitch every Gators coach has used often on the recruiting trail and one that now packs even more punch. The latest rankings look like this: 1) UCLA; 2) California-Berkeley; 3) Michigan; 4) Virginia; 5) Florida, North Carolina and UC-Santa Barbara in a three-way tie. UF is the lone Southeastern Conference member to show up in the USN&WR top 15. 

On Saturday, Spurrier/Florida Field will play host to the most hyped football game in more than a decade when 11th-ranked UF (2-0) faces top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama in the league opener for both teams. The stadium will be sold out with some 90,000 fans in the house. A portion of them will be hotshot recruiting prospects from a bevy of UF sports who will be reminded — by word of mouth and a multitude of signage across campus — the elite place the Gators now stand in both the classroom and arena.

Regarding the latter, the 2020-21 Learfield/IMG College Directors Cup final standings — which measure the overall strength of athletic programs across the country — released in July showed Florida at No. 5, behind only Texas, Stanford, Michigan and North Carolina. 

“The University of Florida athletics program’s tradition of success is due in large part to the caliber of student athletes it is able to recruit,” Fuchs said. “The combination of a top-five academic education and the opportunity to compete for championships is something very few universities can offer to students who participate in intercollegiate athletics.”

Now, if only weather could be factored into the rankings’ equation.

 

“The top-five ranking just further solidifies what a special place the University of Florida is,” UF football coach Dan Mullen said. “To pair a top-five academic institution with a top-five athletic program makes Florida the premier university for student-athletes in the world. No other coach can offer student-athletes what we offer here at the University of Florida.”

Stricklin praised the vision and direction of both Fuchs and Hosseini, whose leadership has spilled over to the athletic side and allowed the University Athletic Association to continue pursuit of a mission statement that extols a “Championship Experience with Integrity.” 

“Those guys are incredibly supportive of what we do in athletics and it helps the whole brand of everything we do, from recruiting to how we present ourselves,” Stricklin said. “We’re accustomed to being a top-five athletic program and now we can combine that with being a top-five public university. There’s — what? — three places in the country that can lay claim to that.” 

Yes, only three. And here’s how Gator student athletes did their part during the last year: 

* 70 percent of UF student athletes earned recognition on SEC academic honor rolls during 2020-21. Broken down, those numbers showed 301 on the Academic Honor Roll and 77 on the league’s first-year honor roll. UF is the only program in the conference to place at least 100 on the academic honor roll each of the last 24 years. 

* Florida’s combined student-athlete grade-point average in ’20-21 was 3.16. 

* A total of 127 student athletes graduated during the academic year, 29 of them with honors, with another 20 earning master’s degrees.

* A league-record 55 football players achieved honor roll status, one of five UF programs to establish SEC and/or program records. The others: baseball (22), lacrosse (27), softball (15) and men’s tennis (9), which in May also won its first NCAA championship in program history.

* Five UF student-athletes earned 2021 CoSIDA Academic All-America honors, giving Florida 155 all time. That ranks eighth in all of Division I.

The new dual achievement, frankly, is one that cannot be overstated. It was only a few years ago that UF aspired to break into the top 10. Once the Gators got there, they weren’t satisfied. 

Now Florida is in rarefied air, and the challenge is different. 

“Staying in the top five — or maybe moving up — is a goal that needs to continue to push us,” Stricklin said. “I think it’s important to have metrics with which you can judge yourselves. That’s why they keep score at ballgames. You want to have a way to evaluate how you’re doing. Obviously, at this university, we’re doing really, really well.” 





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