By Alex Gray
While it wasn’t the case for everyone, there were a number of upset fans.
When the news came scrolling across the ticker the night of Dec. 11 that Will Muschamp would be named Florida’s new coach, they wondered how arguably the best job in all of college football could be handed over to someone with no head coaching experience.
It didn’t matter anymore that UF athletic director Jeremy Foley had brought in the guy who helped Florida win two national championships in three years. All of a sudden, the fan base could only remember “this is the same guy who hired Ron Zook.”
And now it was happening again.
He played his college football where?
Gators fans have earned their reputation for a reason. They’re spoiled. Fans didn’t care Foley was so impressed with Muschamp that the Texas defensive coordinator was his first — and only — call. For fans, anything short of Bob Stoops, Dan Mullen or even Jon Gruden just wouldn’t do.
Muschamp was given a short leash by his critics from Day 1. Every move the young coach made was met with polarizing commentary on message boards and radio shows throughout the state.
He didn’t make any friends after he shut out the public from his first spring practice, and things didn’t get any better for Muschamp during his first season either.
Not after October.
Some may say, “Well, that was last year” — but in February, Muschamp was questioned about his recruiting ability after signing a consensus top-5 class.
Another spring with the gates of the Sanders Practice Field closed shut to curious eyes, coupled with a summer of indecision at quarterback, only led to the growing sentiment that Muschamp’s second
year in Gainesville could inexplicably be one of his last.
When it was finally time for Muschamp to show what his program would look like with his handprints all over it, Florida was taken to the wire in its opener against Bowling Green.
Amongst the thread titles in the Den immediately following the Gators’ close win:
“Texas A&M is going to kill us”
“Apologies to Charlie Weis”
“Is Muschamp the right guy for UF?”
Despite the dismal opener, the Gators took their show on the road the next week to Aggieland and after trailing at halftime, emerged victorious.
They did the same the following week in Knoxville, Tenn.
Suddenly, a small buzz began to grow in north central Florida. The two comeback victories in hostile road environments forced fans to reevaluate their stance on the Gators’ coaching staff.
All of a sudden, the idea of this new group in Gainesville having a slight clue of how to coach was increasing. Following a shutout home victory against Kentucky, the preseason notion of the Gators being unready to compete with the LSU Tigers seemed a little premature. Win or lose, this Florida team would be much better prepared for this game than they were last year.
After the Gators’ 14-6 victory against the then-No. 4 Tigers on Saturday, perhaps the difference the last four weeks have made on the fans — rather than the team — appears to be the real story.
Among the thread titles on the message board after Saturday’s win:
“It’s nice to watch a plan come together”
“So PROUD of this “tough” team”
“Has there ever been a better day?”
Muschamp has relayed time and again since he took over at Florida that it was going to take time to rebuild the program back up the right way. Surely, the Gators aren’t there yet, but the immense strides they have made since last year are evident. Last season, Muschamp said his team needed to get tougher and it would spend all off-season doing just that.
The Gators who showed up on Saturday definitely appeared to be a tough team. Going against basically the same offensive and defensive fronts which embarrassed Florida in the trenches last year, it was the Gators who overwhelmed the Tigers this time around. Perhaps the credit for UF’s turnaround in toughness belongs to its fireball of a strength coach in Jeff Dillman. Fans appeared to be optimistic after Dillman’s hire, once they learned of his background in Olympic-style lifting — the same method which conference measuring sticks LSU and Alabama used. Dillman has proven through the Gators’ fourth quarter dominance and all around physicality, that his hire was a home run.
A home run for Muschamp.
This Florida program does indeed have Muschamp’s handprints all over it now. The coach has taken a group of players recruited to run a spread-style offense and has transformed them into one of the SEC’s most physical downhill-running teams in just over a year’s time. The Gators attempted just four passes during the entire second half against LSU.
Indeed, Muschamp’s plan is coming together. However, for the fans who have already begun to plan a return trip to Miami in January — four years exactly since the last time the Gators hoisted the crystal trophy — their new favorite coach has a reminder:
“This is just one win,” Muschamp said on Saturday. “It doesn’t count for one-and-a-half, and it doesn’t count for two.”
Despite Muschamp’s statement, even he knew how big of a win it was judging by his emotional post-game celebration. Following the final whistle, the coach leaped into the arms of safety Josh Evans in a manner most would save for a championship. While it’s too early to say the monkey is completely off his back, there’s no doubting Muschamp was able to breath a sigh of relief as he walked through the warm night air, back into a festive locker room to a team waiting to celebrate.
Muschamp has surely heard the whispers questioning if he was the right man for the job, and according to him, he hasn’t been concerned about winning critics over.
“I don’t really worry about me,” Muschamp said. “I’ve got a bunch of friends out there.”
While he was referring to his actual friends — people who love him win or lose — there’s no doubt that Muschamp has a bunch of new “friends” after Saturday. The man, who had every decision met with scolding criticism by some outlet upon his arrival, is suddenly the most popular guy in town — Gainesville’s new native son.
The Gators aren’t completely where they want to be yet, and Muschamp will be the first to admit it. Down at the break against Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU, the coaching staff each time made the adjustments to own the second half. The vision that Muschamp had for this program upon his hiring is beginning to be reflected on the field — a line of scrimmage-owning, downhill-running, physical-defense playing outfit. However this season might end, it’s clear Muschamp has begun to impose his will on the program he grew up rooting for.
Florida still has a long way to go both internally and on the schedule, as a tough string of games await the newly minted No. 4 team in the country. There’s no question the Gators are better than they’ve been the last two seasons, but it remains to be seen if they are simply beneficiaries of an early season schedule full of pretenders. If they continue to win, those questions won’t matter. What matters is lining up and winning every game they play.
It’s obviously too early to tell if that will be the case for Florida, but it does appear the Gators are in a different position than they’ve been in the last couple of years. Rather than the hunted, Florida appears to be hunters. Fueled by its embarrassing performances from just a year ago, this team is hungry — and it starts with the Gators’ head coach.