Well, I’ll start with the really bad stuff. Let’s get that unpleasantness out of the way. Losing to Vanderbilt cost someone his job. I don’t know just who that someone is, although there is a very short list of candidates. A very short list. But it is done and it will be carried out, probably at season’s end. That is certain. Because one of those lines were crossed.
There has been as we know a significant number of extremely loud Gator fans who have been demanding that Muschamp be fired at the end of this year, at the end of this week, at the end of this sentence. But the driving force behind those who are demanding satisfaction is not any assessment of Muschamp’s historical track record, present capabilities or future possibilities. Make no mistake: it is about retribution. Things were taken from them: enjoyment of Saturday afternoons in the fall; entertainment dollars; the ability to ensconce themselves in a feeling of superiority, to brag to the fans of other teams, to spread the Gator dominance across a hotel room bed and roll around in it. Whatever it is, they feel it was stolen from them and they want vengeance to be theirs.
The University of Florida Athletics Department does not operate on the basis of medieval reckoning. However there are certain things that trigger automatic responses. Putting the university’s image and standing in peril by committing NCAA violations spells instant dismissal for employees, and expulsion and indefinite ban from the football facilities for players. A head coach cannot survive losing three straight years to teams from Mississippi. And when the Florida Gators lose to Vanderbilt or Kentucky, someone has to lose his job.
Choose Your Next Steps Carefully
It is not a MENSA brain teaser of the month that reveals the most obvious target for the firing squad, but the question of who would replace him – if indeed it is him who goes – and how would UF go about enticing him, looms large and fuzzy.
If the memo has not yet circulated to your office, rest assured Will Muschamp will not be leaving the program at the end of the year. And by that I mean by the end of the year 2014. There is no reason to go over the substance of that decision – it’s been discussed and debated ad nauseam already. Just consider it on a simple cost-benefits basis and it is clear that even if Muschamp didn’t have the full support of the powers that be (which he does), they would recognize the disaster a 2013 dismissal would be to the program. The Florida coaching post has a quarter century of history of driving head coaches away. Steve Spurrier cited our spoiled fans for making it “no fun anymore” for him to coach UF; fans were and have been shockingly brutal on Ron Zook and Muschamp since before they even coached a game; and the pressure of expectations gave Urban Meyer a nervous breakdown. Fire the head coach this year, and the message from the Champ and Zook tenures is that any new head coach at Florida has three years to win a championship or they will be fired – and this next part is critical: no matter what happens. Fire Champ this year and we tell any prospective head coach that they have to rebuild the program comprehensively and they will not be given any time to do it. Wave the magic wand for immediate championships or be fired. How are we going to sell that job to an elite head coach out there right now?
So back to our reality. Suppose if you will a Gator assistant is let go at the end of the year, as is as likely as the sun setting in the west. Florida does not pay their assistant coaches a living wage and they will have, for instance (apropos of nothing) burned through two high profile, pedigreed offensive coordinators in three years. One had no quarterback; the other had no offensive line. And neither had much else to work with, either. So if the program does go out and secure a new offensive coordinator (let’s say for sake of completely hypothetical argument), the fourth year players will be working with their third OC of their UF careers, the fifth year players will be on their fourth OC, and Andre Debose will be on his tenth. And given the context of the hire that I just described, be confident that there are no dial-a-genius options available.
The Big (Slow) Reveal
While the understanding of this season has been infuriatingly muddied by an endless list of constantly changing impacts, ironically the churning topography of this lost season has provided several big reveals. It has just taken some time to become evident.
Reveal One: If Tyler Murphy is in fact out for the rest of the season, many have said that this would be the final nail in the coffin of the UF season. But what we have found through this year is that the season ended when Driskel and Easley were lost for the season within a couple games of each other. Tyler and the rest of the team have fought their butts off to try to save the season, but as the injuries kept mounting and the toughest opponents hit the schedule, there was nothing they could do, really. Too many body blows to recover.
Reveal Two: The most talented team is not the best team unless it is the best team. The Vanderbilt game put a very fine point on this. Going into the game, the prevailing idea was that despite all the injuries and turmoil of shuffling positions and stunted development, the Gators would still win on talent alone. After all, despite the ragged season of injuries, many of the original starters were in uniform Saturday and even our backups are better athletes and were much more highly recruited for their talent than 80% of Vanderbilt’s starters. I sure bought into that. But the truth that was revealed is that the best team is almost always the best team. The history of sports – particularly football – tells us that playing together as a cohesive unit is far more important than being the most talented, and is most often what separates winning from losing. And in 2014, the Gators have never at any time had the chance to play together as a cohesive unit. The defense largely began the year that way, but after losing Dominique Easley, the physical and emotional glue that held the team as a fluid, dominating machine – in the words of Walter Sobchak, the rug that really tied the room together – the defense was laid raw and vulnerable, and the mounting injuries eventually broke that side of the ball into pieces as well. Vanderbilt – under-manned and out-talented all over the field – has been playing as a cohesive unit for a couple months, and the last few weeks it has started to pay dividends against two much more talented teams that have been torn asunder by the ortho bug.
Reveal Three: Time is a finite coaching resource. Despite the injuries and other obstacles that have confronted Muschamp this year, he has failed to excel at a high level in some areas of his job that would on first blush appear to be unrelated or independent of these uncontrollable impacts. For instance, his difficulties in coaching up the replacement starters (not to be confused with the movie The Replacement Killers, a movie I had to watch Saturday night to cleanse my mind of the ugliness on the field in Gainesville, giving me Replacement Images instead of the lovely Mira Sorvino) and in instilling discipline in his charges. Firstly, when they can’t motivate or coach up their starters, Nick Saban, Spurrier, Urban Meyer – all great or even good or bad coaches – coach with the bench. Muschamp’s ability to coach with the bench is very limited because much of his bench is usually already out on the field. Anyone who has ever run a company or taken a marketing or business class knows that no matter how hard a company or team works on a project – no matter that they have expended every last resource and haven’t solved a problem, and they have no more ideas and no more wherewithal to take it to another level – that company or team will immediately take it to another level when you put them in a bake-off. But Muschamp has almost nobody on the bench to pit in a bake-off for starting positions.
With respect to time, however, we have seen revealed the simple zero sum game of the coaching profession. With all the re-working and shuffling positions, that Champ and his staff have had to do; with all the tweaked, re-designed and re-conceived strategies and game plans required for each new injury and personnel shuffle; with all the increased energies put into not only boosting recruiting efforts but also addressing recruiting errors of the last two year; all of these hourglass lampreys have sucked away a huge chunk of Muschamp’s time. Time that was not originally budgeted for all of these diversions, tangents and reworks. This eats into his ability to apply the attention to detail that is necessary to coach at a high level. Consider every miscue you have seen on every Saturday over the last month, and imagine how many of them could have been attended properly during practice and preparation if Champ and the staff were not spending so much time and effort just trying to figure out how to field a team each week.
Reveal Four: Man gets weary. Something else that was revealed in neon lights in the last two games is just how mentally fatigued this team is. It is true that the talent is there to perform at a much higher level than we have seen the last three weeks or more. Because we saw it before this losing streak and we saw it in stretches against Georgia and Vanderbilt. There’s no telling how high that ceiling is, but I imagine it is nowhere near as high as most fans assume based simply on the fact that we are the Gators; however, it is certainly higher than our current waking state. But what has been revealed is that over the course of ten weeks – every single one of which added a new injured starter to the list of limping wounded – the constant barrage of bad news and re-initiated efforts has taken its toll. I said even before the Georgia game that I thought the team was shell shocked. Muschamp said after the Vanderbilt game that the team was very fragile and susceptible to negative momentum swings at the slightest bad break going against them. A team could be much more talented and deep than this one and still be on the verge of an emotional collapse after all the injuries that have impacted them. Because these players feel it much more than us fans do. They don’t just suffer an aggregate lower capacity for success; they lose a teammate. They live, eat, sweat, train, fight, bleed, suffer and celebrate alongside their 80+ brothers on the team every day of the season, every day of spring training and most other days of the year as well. When one of their brothers goes out for a game or the whole season with an injury, it hurts. They don’t just lose a tool to victory – they feel the sting of a friend and fellow warrior having their dreams of the season, perhaps of their career, being crushed.
And then next week, another one is crushed. Then two more. Then another. Lather, rinse, repeat. It takes its toll. Doesn’t matter how good they are. It’s just that much harder to play through the adversity.
And then there is the fatigue that Muschamp is surely feeling (along with his staff) and of which he has even shown a fleeting glimpse in the last week. Muschamp is trying to build a program, a bridge to the future of Florida football dominance. In 2012, he laid the framework for that bridge, but in 2013, for every plank he lays down and nails to the frame, one falls off behind him. He is out suspended over the river, and again every plank he lays down, another drops off behind – or two. Or three. This year, his platform has shrunk. And that has to beat down on any man. No matter how positive or professional you go about your business.
Reveal Five: It’s football, folks. This one is more abrupt than the others, though I have noticed many fans absorbed it gradually and earlier in the season. I don’t necessarily mean that it is “just” football. I don’t mean to marginalize its importance, since it is a great passion for Gator Nation and there is nothing small or minor about it. Although there is a grain of truth to that. The focus here though is that it is football: it exists because it is competition, it is fun, and it is a game that is played in pursuit of glory and the joy of winning or simply competing your best to the pride of your university. It is not about fear of losing and misery in failing to be the best in the nation every year. Or any year. But in a year where the reaction to losing has been rage and vile, hateful outbursts on social media, in the stands and on the message boards, it does bear mentioning the world going on outside the UF bubble. Monday was Veteran’s Day. It is not difficult to find the perspective when you are awash in depression and anger over losing a game to Vanderbilt – oh the shame, the misery, the disgust. Those terms lose their meaning in a football context when you consider the many who gave their lives for this nation to protect us from REAL misery and REAL shame. So many are going to lose their lives in service to the country over the next few years, months, days… This season’s misfortune has been hard to take…but it’s just football. And losing doesn’t change how great it is to be a Gator. And assigning to it comical levels of importance as if it were life or death, which we all do one time or another – I certainly do – well those histrionics are revealed as quite cartoonish when you consider you are watching your team play on a field that was dedicated in 1934 to the memory of Florida servicemen who died in World War I, and you are looking forward to making your memorial tributes just 48 hours later on their national holiday.