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Saturday Morning Quarterback
Apr 24, 2007 12:00 am
Watching Amanda Butler shoot three-point jumpers against Gallatin and drive to the basket against Lebanon two decades ago, it was easy to see she was a great player.
But what made the Mt. Juliet star one of my favorites was her openness. She knew no stranger. It didn't matter whether you were a fellow student or a young aspiring sportscaster covering her games, she always made it a point to wave and/or say hello, including one occasion when we were driving past each other on Lebanon Road.
With her effervescent personality and talent, it was obvious she would go far. Back then, going far meant playing major-college basketball. In her case, it was the Florida Gators. Little did she know she would someday be coaching in the SEC.
As a Gator, she came to Vanderbilt one year on a Super Bowl Sunday for a game against the Commodores. Afterward, the former Friendship Christian elementary student was signing autographs for kids.
Whenever I saw her in subsequent years, she always said hello. Even as she climbed the coaching ladder, she maintained the relationships developed along the way.
And when she assembles her new Florida team this fall, she'll be imparting some lessons she learned long ago from her coach at the old Mt. Juliet Junior High, Bud Brandon; and Tommy Martin, who coached her at MJHS, where Brandon was also an assistant. I asked her what lessons she still draws from them.
"They were both fantastic coaches in different ways, and they had some similarities, too," Butler told me from Gainesville earlier this week. "[They taught us] how important toughness is. They taught us to be aggressive, they taught us to be physical. They taught us to respect your opponents, but not fear them."
They also taught her to respect the tradition of the team, in this case Mt. Juliet, she played for.
"They made us realize how important it was to respect that program," Butler said, summarizing those lessons as "pride and toughness. If your players apply those traits, you're going to win a lot more games than you lose."
Helping her apply those lessons is another coach who learned at the whistle of Martin, Susie Gardner, who is joining Butler's staff after four seasons as head coach at Arkansas. The pair graduated eight years apart from Mt. Juliet, but Gardner really launched Butler's coaching career by hiring her at Austin Peay. Lebanon's Rochone Dilligard was also on that Lady Govs' staff. Now, Gardner gives Butler updated knowledge of the SEC.
"She's definitely an old friend and colleague," Butler said of Gardner. "But above that, she's one of the best coaches I know.
"[Knowledge] and experience is something Susie brings us and we're excited about her being a Gator."
After 40 wins, an Atlantic 10 Conference Coach of the Year award and two WNIT appearances, Butler said she was happy at North Carolina-Charlotte. The opportunity to bring new life to a Florida program coming off a 9-22 season came out of the blue.
"Everything happened very, very quickly last week," Butler said. "I was really shocked at the timing of it. [But] I knew when the opportunity was presented to me, it was one I wanted to take advantage of.
"I was happy at Charlotte. We had a really good thing going there, a good group to coach, a good administration. It was going to take something special to get me away.
"This is the one that was a perfect fit for me."
Now she shares a campus with national championship teams in football and men's basketball. She said she's often asked if she feels pressure to bring the women's program to the level of the men.
"I don't think there's any greater pressure than my own pressure," she said, noting the immediate goal is to show improvement. "We've got to bring the players' level of expectations up to where ours are.
"[The football and men's basketball championships] are just bonuses for us. That is a huge asset for us as a recruiting tool... You look at the success of the other programs, I think it's all good."
I measure greatness in a player as one who isn't afraid to take, and make, the big shot. She had that quality as a player and she's shows that same drive as a coach, especially when you consider that of the many formidable obstacles in the SEC, one in Knoxville stands heads and shoulders above the others – Pat Summitt's Tennessee Lady Vols.
"I really look forward to it," Butler said of facing the reigning national champions. "Coach Summitt is the best that's ever been... When she says something, I listen. We want kids who are excited to play against the nation's best, not intimidated. It's something that we're going to be excited about and look forward to.
"She's a class act and I'm very fortunate to be able to call her a friend. But when it's time to lace them up, it'll be the Gators and the Vols."
Whether she turns out to be like another native Tennessean who went off to Florida only to come back and torment the Big Orange Nation [Steve Spurrier] remains to be seen. But it's impossible to envision her being as despised as the Ol' Ball Coach. As much basketball knowledge as she possesses, the way she maintains relationships and makes those around her feel important shows she knows something far more important than Xs and Os – the ability to deal with people with love and respect.
That's what has made her successful.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 17 or by e-mail at email@example.com.