You don’t exactly need to have an ear to the ground to pick up on the sentiment in Gator Nation after the Miami loss. It ranges from disappointment to annoyance, to depression to rage. In the short term, all are understood to some degree. Over the long term, some are not so easily understood. They cover the gamut from frustration over giving the game away to an inferior opponent, to dissatisfaction over the entertainment value of the offensive scheme, to general ennui over the mystification of where this program is on the scale of progress and when it will be fully restored to elite status. But of all the discussions currently making the rounds, the one that is most puzzling is the question of whether Will Muschamp is an elite head coach. So I will try to provide some context for assessing this question in 2013.
The Gators have been very fortunate in that they have been fortunate enough to have two of the elite head coaches of a generation call Gainesville home over 18 of the last 23 years. Naturally, Gator fans would like (and some even expect or demand) to have a third nationally elite coach in the last four. The mistake some are making in this assessment is comparing Will Muschamp of 2013 to the Steve Spurrier of 1996 or 2001, and to the Urban Meyer of 2006 or 2008. If we are to compare these men and their careers, we must strike for an apples-to-apples approach…or at least two kinds of fruit rather than apples and lobster.
It is still painfully fresh in our minds how Muschamp struggled in his first year at Florida. But so did Urban Meyer. Although Muschamp lost more games than Meyer, it was Urban and not Will who broke down and wept in front of the media after a mid-season loss. Of course Spurrier flourished in his first year at Florida, going 9-2 and winning the SEC (I do not acknowledge the travesty of the SEC denying a clean program the title, nor the cowardice of the UF administration for not standing with their new coach when Spurrier begged them to file a simple appeal that had a decent chance of success).
But you can’t compare Muschamp’s first year to Spurrier’s. Firstly, of course, is the fact that Spurrier was left with a loaded cupboard on both sides of the ball and Muschamp was left with a half-empty cupboard that had been pulled by the screws out of the wall. But primarily, you cannot compare Champ to Spurrier for the same reason you cannot compare any coach to Spurrier. Because Spurrier was special. Even among elite coaches, he was special. He won the only ACC title at Duke in the last 51 years. That doesn’t happen. He won the SEC title on the field in his first year at Florida. That REALLY doesn’t happen. Do you know the number of other coaches who won the SEC title in their first year with a school? Two. The first one was College Football Hall of Fame coach Bernie Moore at LSU in 1935. That was 78 years ago. The next was Mississippi’s legendary Johnny Vaught a mere 66 years in the past in 1947. Then there was Spurrier in 1990. That’s it. The SEC has been playing football as a league since 1933 and Spurrier is only one of three coaches to ever win or finish first in the conference in his first year at a school – and the only one to have done it in the last half-century and change.
Spurrier was a once-in-a-lifetime coach. Don’t ever expect to see another Steve Spurrier at Florida, in the SEC or anywhere else in the NCAA ever again. So we can excuse Will for not approximating Steve’s success in Year 1.
Mapping the Progress
It is much more helpful to try to gauge where Muschamp is in the current season – Year 3 – as he has had at least a small window in which to overcome the wreck of a program he took over.
Spurrier won the SEC in Year 1, won 10 games and won the SEC (officially this time) in Year 2, then struggled in Year 3, losing 4 games. Though nine wins was still a monumental accomplishment for the Florida program back then, it is significant to note that it was the only time in Spurrier’s first seven years that he did not win the SEC title. It was the worst season of his Florida coaching career (he also went 9-4 in 1999 but finished 7-1 in the SEC, while in 1992 his SEC record was 6-2; both seasons ended with losses to Alabama in the SEC championship game).
Urban Meyer struggled in Year 1, won 13 games and a national title in Year 2, then struggled in Year 3, losing 4 games just as Spurrier did in his Year 3. It was the worst season for Urban Meyer at Florida other than his final season – but he was not really coaching the team that year; more of a wondering figurehead watching a gaggle of assistants trip and fall over each other.
Will Muschamp struggled in Year 1, won 11 games in Year 2 and was one terrible officiating oversight in the Notre Dame-Pitt game from playing Alabama for the national title, and is now 1-1 in Year 3. Through two years, Muschamp has closely mirrored elite predecessors Spurrier and Meyer, only without the Year 2 hardware they brought home. This is Muschamp’s Year 3; it’s his Spurrier-1992; his Meyer-2007.
I suppose I should not be too surprised that Muschamp is being attacked by a faction of Gator fans as not up to the task. After all, Spurrier got the same blowback in 1992 and Meyer got it even worse in 2007. For Spurrier, the mantra was that he had lost all the great defensive talent he inherited and was finished. For Meyer, the mantra was the same: he had lost most of the Zook recruits he inherited and now he was through. For Muschamp, since he inherited so little by comparison (at least on the offensive side), the mantra is different: all he can do is coach defense and now that the lack of offense has caught up to him, he’s a goner.
However, if we look under the mantras, we’ll see a much more nuanced dynamic at work. Specifically, if we compare his Year 3 situation to that of Spurrier and Meyer, the historical perspective tends to point to good things in the future.
The Year 3 Dip
To understand why Spurrier and Meyer had such uncharacteristic dips in Year 3, one needs only to look at the team that was left to them. Spurrier inherited a program coming off its second probation in rapid succession. Though he inherited some great talent, the roster was top-heavy and thin because of scholarship limits imposed in the previous years. The recruiting bubble popped in 1992. That’s when the class gap on the depth chart had to be bridged with far too many young players in one year. While he still had Shane Matthews and a stable of strong wide receivers, he had only Errict Rhett to carry the ball and he suffered the only significant injury of his career, one that lingered and limited him throughout the season. Where the Gators really suffered, however, was on defense and on the line of scrimmage. While Ellis Johnson and Kevin Carter were anchoring the defensive line as talented true sophomores, they were complemented with true freshmen Johnnie Church at end and Dave Barnard at tackle. Behind them, starting at linebacker, were redshirt freshman Ben Hanks and true freshman Dexter Daniels and thanks to the complete washouts of heralded defensive backs Pete Archie and Carlton Pouncy, it may as well have been Larry Kennedy all by himself back there. But things were far more dire on the offensive line, where the Gators famously had to start a true freshman at both tackle spots. In the SEC. And they paid the price.
In Meyer’s third year, it was the same tune, different positions. While not suffering the aftermath of probation like the Spurrier teams, the three prior years of top-heavy and uneven Zook recruiting classes had left huge probation-like holes on one side of the ball. While the offense was a high-powered machine on Tim Tebow’s Heisman-winning campaign, the defense was in full rebuilding mode. Alongside junior Derrick Harvey and two of the weaker Gator defensive linemen since the early ‘80s, there was true sophomore Jermaine Cunningham seeing his first real college action. At linebacker, there was three first-time starters all in their second year in the program (Dustin Doe, Brandon Spikes and A.J. Jones), and then came the real gut-punch: two true freshmen and a true sophomore all starting for the first time in the same secondary. Cornerbacks Joe Haden (Fr) and Wondy Pierre-Louis (So) started 12 and 13 games respectively, while true freshman Major Wright started half the year at safety, splitting time with Kyle Jackson across from Tony Joiner. It was a real tribute to the talent and athleticism (and coaching) that this defense only lost four games in 2007.
Then we have Will Muschamp’s Year 3 roster situation. He was not hit with a probation-created scholarship squeeze like Spurrier was, or the probation-like squeeze resulting from three years of unbalanced recruiting like Meyer was. No, he got far worse. He got the perfect storm of following a few years of uneven recruiting, complete loss of discipline and control of the program by the previous coach and a resulting exodus of players during the coaching transition that left his roster far more depleted than Spurrier’s or Meyer’s ever dreamed of. While both of them had serious depth issues forcing them to rush many young players into service, at least they had a full hand from a stacked deck from which to play. They didn’t have a huge chunk of the program walk out the door. Here’s a look at what Muschamp has had to overcome (here, “lost” players are those who either quit football, were kicked off the team or transferred for various reasons, most of them discipline- or attitude-related):
Recruiting class of 2008 (ranked #3 in the nation): lost 9 of 22 players (41%)
Class of 2009 (#11): lost 4 of 17 (24%)
Class of 2010 (#1): lost 12 of 29 (41%)
Class of 2011 (#5): lost 8 of 19 (42%)
Class of 2012 (#2): lost 4 of 23 (17%)
Over the course of one player’s eligibility, Muschamp lost 37 players. And of the two classes that should make up the majority of this year’s two-deep (2010-2011), 42% of the team has departed. And while 25% to 30% attrition over the course of an entire class’s eligibility is not uncommon these days, most attrition is historically in the later years from players who are nearing their eligibility without having made an impact on the team. However, most of the attrition for Muschamp has been early in eligibility and from many players who were being counted on to be major contributors.
Consider what the 2013 Gator offense was supposed to look like:
Mike Blakely, RB (Jr)
Trevon Van, RB (Sr)
Jessamen Dunker, OL (So)
Gerald Christian, TE (Sr)
A.C. Leonard, TE (Jr)
Chris Dunkley, WR (Sr)
Ja’Juan Story, WR (Jr)
Javares McRoy WR (Jr)
Robert Clark, WR (Sr)
Adrian Coxson, WR (Sr)
All the issues with the offense may be working out a tad bit smoother if these players had stuck around and developed in the system and were leading the team, most of them as upperclassmen this year.
So although many Gator fans are predicting a 3 or 4 loss season this year, historically speaking that would keep him apace with Florida’s previous elite coaches Spurrier and Meyer.
A final inequity forced upon the assessment of Muschamp’s abilities is the comparison of Champ with his current peers in the SEC: Spurrier, Saban and Miles. But again, the mistake is made that he is being compared to them as they are today as old, seasoned veterans of the SEC wars. That’s simply not realistic.
Again, let’s not forget that Champ is just beginning his third year as a college head coach. Spurrier won the SEC title in his first year as the head coach of Florida, but that was his seventh year of experience as a head coach with his third team in college and the pros combined. Urban Meyer was in his sixth year as a head coach with his third team when he won his first SEC title. Nick Saban was in his eighth year as a head coach with his third team when he won his first SEC crown at LSU. And of course Les Miles didn’t win an SEC title until his seventh year as head coach with his second team. Will Muschamp is with his first team, in his third year. Also, when they won their first SEC titles, Meyer was 42, Spurrier was 45, Saban was 50 and Miles was 54. Muschamp is 42 – 3 years younger than Spurrier was, 8 years younger than Saban and 12 years younger than Miles.
So when fans try to project (or sometimes to pigeonhole) Muschamp’s current status as an elite coach, it is important to keep in mind that when we compare him to the benchmarks at Florida and around today’s SEC, that there is no fair comparison without some weighing added in. Judging Champ’s place amongst this group of elite coaches is a game of trajectory, not current state. And as fans, it is critical to take inventory of the consequences of churning the Gator coaching carousel while waiting around for the next lightning-out-of-the-gate Steve Spurrier. Because he is never going to reappear. That was a magical confluence of talent and timing that will never happen again. Even Spurrier was not the success right out of the box that he is remembered as, because he was honing his skills for years before Florida ever came calling.
So the wait for the next elite coach at Florida has to be a realistic one. We cannot simply judge Muschamp on only two years and two games into his head coaching career (and really, just one year and two games if you look at Year 1 for what it was: janitorial work). It has to play out a little longer. He has to at least be given the chance to get past the Year 3 dip, as Spurrier and Meyer were. And who knows? Muschamp’s Year 3 dip may not be nearly as bad as the previous two. There is no way to know but to see how it unfolds. Let’s try to make this assessment at the end of the year, or better yet – the end of 2014, Year 4, when Spurrier bounced back to win the first of 4-straight SEC titles capped with a national championship; Year 4, when Meyer bounced back to notch two-straight 13-win seasons for the only time in UF history, and win another SEC and national crown. Surely Muschamp’s great coaching job in Year 2 bought him the right to see his vision through to full fruition before Gator Nation passes judgment on his entire career just as it is getting started.