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A champion’s promise kept – Florida Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No one could ever say his time with the Florida basketball lacked for drama. Or success, for that matter.

Clifford Lett signed with the Gators out of Pensacola High and played alongside Vernon Maxwell, Andrew Moten and Ronnie Montgomery — and all that entailed. He was there for the arrival and ascension of Dwayne Schnitzius, then Livingston Chatman and Dwayne Davis, all under the often-circus atmosphere of Coach Norm Sloan. As a freshman, I have played in the NIT. As a sophomore, he played in the program’s first NCAA Tournament, the first of three straight berths.

Then came a senior season that not only marked his finest individual campaign, but UF’s first Southeastern Conference men’s basketball championship, as well.

“We made history,” Lett said Friday.

Saturday morning, Let’s make some more. This time, it was of the personal variety, when he walked across the stage at Exactech Arena during 2022 summer commencement exercises after completing work for a degree in Sociology —33 years later.

Plaques in the mezzanine of UF basketball facility honor the program’s championships in chronological order, starting with the 1989 team (left) that was captained by senior guard Clifford Lett. That’s Lett in the sweater, arms raised, during the celebration at Gainesville Regional Airport following the team’s return from its title-clinching win at at LSU. Also pictured: Dwayne Schintzius (signing autographs) and Dwayne Davis (dunking).

Lett, 57, made a promise to his father, Charlie, before he died in 2009. He kept it by keeping it in touch with longtime basketball academic advisor tom williamsnow an assistant athletic director at Hawkins Center, who played Lett’s “point of contact” through the process and helped see it all through.

“It’s been a long road,” said Lett, who worked off and on, between his job at the Brevard County Recreation Department and officiating high school sports, with on-line classes the last two years. “I promised my dad I was going to get it done, and bit by bit I chipped away at it. It feels good to finally have it behind me.”

Joining Lett’s wife for the ceremony was Kenny McCraney, the Sloan assistant coach who recruited Lett, which made the milestone all the more special. And nostalgic.

His name probably didn’t resonate much, if it all, with those in the building. But the ones who knew Lett, the UF student-athlete, understand how he got to this point.

“I just think it speaks volumes to his character,” Williams said. “That’s what Clifford Lett was all about. He was always consistent, always persistent, just a hang-in-there guy.”

On the court, Lett willingly deferred to Maxwell and company during those seasons, as Sloan rebuilt a team that won just five games during the ’81-82 season into an annual postseason participant. He started just three of 93 games and averaged 3.4 points over his first three seasons, but was always part of the rotation, a solid defender, and among the most respected in the locker room.

Lett never allowed himself to get drawn into the nonsense (or scandal) that often led to stories outside of the sports section.

Clifford Lett
[Gainesville Sun photo]

“We had some characters on those teams, that’s a good way to put it,” Lett said. “I always relied on my Christian faith. Sometimes it was tough. There was a lot of temptation in those days, but I stayed grounded. That’s how I was raised.”

As a senior and team captain on the ’88-89 squad, Lett was paired mostly in a backcourt alongside Renaldo Garcia. He started all 34 games, averaged 13.1 points on 46-percent shooting and led the Gators with 146 assists and 52 steals. His late-game 3-pointer to beat Vanderbilt 83-80 clinched a share of the program’s first SEC crown, which the Gators won outright four nights later with a road win at LSU.

Florida basketball, in time, rose to unfathomable heights long after Lett was gone. But only one team can call itself the “first champion,” and Lett was as key a player among those trophy-raisers as any.

Now he’s a Gator grad.

“We had some great times,” Lett said. “And we put Florida basketball on the map.”

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