A few thoughts to jump start your Thanksgiving morning:
My Gator roots run very, very deep. People have asked me when I became a Gator but honestly, I can’t remember when I wasn’t. There has never been another team – college or pro – that really mattered to me. Oh, I used to be a diehard Orioles fan but Earl Weaver, Brooks and Frank Robinson and Jim Palmer all retired so that obsession ended. The Colts traded Johnny Unitas to the Chargers and moved to Indianapolis so that was that. I followed the Celtics when Bill Russell was there and again when they had Larry Bird. Now I couldn’t name you two players in their starting lineup. But the Gators? That’s totally different. Other teams were passing fancies. The Gators are a lifetime devotion.
My mother’s parents’ home was three blocks from the University of Florida. My grandfather’s cousin was Dale Van Sickle. My grandfather’s close friend for nearly 50 years was General James Van Fleet. He was Major Van Fleet when they met. My grandfather was Gainesville’s first motocycle cop. Major Van Fleet was the ROTC instructor/head football coach at the University of Florida. When it came time to go to college there was never a question where I was going to school. My uncle, father, sister, brother and cousins – there was never a question where they were going, either.
We were Gators. We were raised that way. You could almost say that being a Gator is in our DNA but I’m not sure how you’d test to find out.
During the early 1960s when Gainesville was a sleepier and much safer place than it is now, anytime I spent a weekend or a week with my grandparents I had the run of downtown and the University of Florida. The rule in those days was be home by six because dinner was at six and there were few acceptable excuses for missing dinner. By then my grandfather had the Federated Insurance agency and whenever a former Florida football player bought his first car – if a Ford from Shaw and Keeter; if a Chevy from Starling in Ocala – the next stop was my grandfather’s office for car insurance. When I roamed downtown, I could stop in Wise’s Drug Store on University Avenue, right next to the Florida Theater, and get a Coke and Mr. Wise would put it on my grandfather’s tab.
But the place I loved best was the Florida campus, and in particular, the athletic complex. That was sacred ground to me. The campus was where Gators went to school, the athletic complex where Gators played football, basketball and baseball.
When I was in the seventh grade, I started selling Cokes at Florida Field. The rules were different then and while you weren’t supposed to smuggle liquor into the stadium, probably half the people attending Gator games either did it or were with someone who did. I had a group of lawyers from Jacksonville who were my regular customers. They always bought two trays of drinks from me, one an hour before the game, the second just after the National Anthem was played by the band. I drank four of the Cokes from each tray per their instructions. What they wanted was the ice. Best of all, they gave me a dollar tip for each tray. I sold Cokes and hot dogs at Florida field on a late September night in 1963 when Steve Spurrier played his first game as a Gator for the Florida freshmen.
When we were exiled to Mississippi for three years, I got the chance to start writing sports thanks to Charlie Dunagin, who was the managing editor of the McComb Enterprise-Journal, and the sports editor, Charlie Gordon. By the time I was 15 I was writing about college football games. When we came back to Gainesville, I worked for the Gainesville Sun and then the Jacksonville Journal. Ralph Mueller and I covered the Florida freshman team in the fall of 1968. John Reaves and Carlos Alvarez had it even then.
In the 44 years since I first saw Reaves and Alvarez, I’ve written volumes about college football and basketball, but my passion has always been writing about the Gators. During the time I spent away from writing sports while working my own businesses and traveling the world, I still followed the Gators religiously.
They were, are and always will be the only team that matters to me.
So why I am writing all this? I am writing it because this is the most troubling time I’ve ever seen at Florida. I’m writing this because I’ve never seen a more divided Florida fan base than what I’m seeing now. If I thought the Gator Nation was divided when Doug Dickey was the head coach that paled in comparison to the three years of Ron Zook.
And the Zook era is starting to seem like a walk in the park compared to what is going on now when we have an athletic director digging in his heels and telling us that Will Muschamp is the coach who will lead the Gators in the future and the boosters and fans telling me their checks – or lack of – will tell Jeremy Foley just what they think about his decision.
It seems there is no middle ground on this issue. There are Muschamp supporters and there are those who wish Saturday’s game with Florida State would be his last.
I can’t tell you with 100% certainty what is the right or best decision for the University of Florida when it comes to Will Muschamp and I know this for a fact: whether I think he goes or whether I think he should stay another year won’t faze Jeremy Foley and whoever else is involved in the decision-making process. But whether I like the decision or not, I can tell you with 100% certainty that the only team that will ever matter to me is the Florida Gators.
I spent two-thirds of my life waiting for next year. My grandfather and father went to their graves just wishing for Florida’s first SEC championships in both football and basketball. I’ve gotten to see the Gators win multiple conference championships, three national championships in football and two in basketball and while I am perhaps a little bit spoiled by success, I also remember what it was like to be a “Wait Until Next Year Gator.”
It is because I’ve seen the good times and the bad times, that I can say that neither success nor failure changes that I am a Gator to the core. No matter who the coach is, I’ll support the Florida Gators and I ask you to remember that as you contemplate what is going on with Will Muschamp.
There is no requirement for any or all of us to agree with any decision that Jeremy Foley makes, but there is a requirement for us to remember that whether we favor Muschamp remaining on the job or think he should be terminated, that we respect each other’s opinions and whatever decision that is made by Foley and whoever else is involved in this process.
Although I hate the term “agree to disagree” I’m going to invoke it here. I think one of the worst things about our society today is that we tend to split into camps of disrespect where we think anyone who disagrees with us is as wrong as wrong can be. I believe that dissent is healthy. I’m one of those who is always concerned when anything is unanimous. If somebody doesn’t disagree eventually we become nothing more than a bunch of lemmings running for the cliff.
It doesn’t make you a bad Gator if you voice your opinion that you don’t think Muschamp can coach a lick, nor does it make you a superior Gator to stand up for the coach and say he needs at least another year, that everything will be fine if we are patient.
There is no requirement to agree. There is a requirement that we allow those with differing opinions the right to voice what they believe and respect their right to that opinion. I think we often forget that the guy who is 100% opposed to Muschamp actually wants the same exact thing as the guy who thinks Muschamp is the long term solution – what is best for the Florida Gators. It is entirely possible to love the Gators with all your heart yet disagree about who should be coaching the football team next year and into the future.
So, on this Thanksgiving, please keep that in mind. Gator Country is a forum for all opinions about the Gators and whether we agree or disagree, we can do it with a measure of respect.
Have a great Thanksgiving!
MUSIC FOR TODAY
I’ve been listening to David Sanborn much of the day, and since it’s late and I can’t decide on one single song to share, I’m going to simply share the entire “Straight to the Heart” album. This is Sanborn at his best, fusing jazz and rhythm and blues with a lot of influence from Marcus Miller on the bass and Hiram Bullock on guitar. There is some great backup work by the Brecker Brothers (sax and trumpet) and some cool vocals by the great Al Green on “Love and Happiness.” The album title song, “Straight to the Heart” is the best.