What Part of “Championship” Don’t You Get?

If it walks like a championship and talks like a championship and quacks like a championship, it’s a championship. For the first time in six years, Florida will be playing in the Georgia Dome in December. Based on the reaction to the Gators and their continued offensive struggles, however, you’d never know it. Time for a reality check.

Six years is a long time, folks. How different was the world when Jesse Palmer came off the bench to overcome a 21-3 deficit and beat South Carolina in the Swamp for a division flag? An electoral firestorm was just beginning to engulf the Sunshine State. September 11 was ten months away. Steve Spurrier was wearing Blue and Orange and standing opposite Lou Holtz. Florida State and Miami actually had decent football teams then. Georgia still couldn’t sniff a division title in those days, let alone a conference crown. LSU lay dormant. Mississippi State won more games than it lost.

You get the idea: the last time the Gators won the SEC East was a really long time ago. Six years? No division title? Florida? A destination spot on the college football map?

Yeah, it happened. But now the drought is over.

So why is there so little joy in Mud… I mean, Gainesville? Is mudslinging, not football, our favorite sport?

There are a few things a lot of fans need to realize in the wake of Florida’s advancement to Atlanta.

Can one expect to truly change the culture of college football? No. It’s simply a fact that life is hard and emotionally wrenching for many. This makes college football just as much an outlet for the venting of emotions as it is an oasis of entertainment and fun. School spirit is a big source of college football’s emotional appeal, but so is the opportunity to blow off some steam… even if that steam travels in the direction of coaches, players and hack-job, know-nothing sportswriters such as yours truly. This isn’t a pleasant reality to acknowledge, but it’s quite understandable: if a week of nine-to-fives for a nasty boss is a regular part of life, the ambience (and/or the social milieu) provided by a college football game is perfect for unleashing the frustrations and pushing out the bad energy that accumulated Monday through Friday. College football’s emotions, along with the physical force of the on-field product plus the tailgates that satisfy twin cravings for atmosph ere and quality food, provide the perfect arena in which to wash away the sour taste of a hard-to-like workplace. Especially for the young and attractive, a college football game is a time to let loose. That’s simply the culture as it exists, and it would be naive of me to think I can change it from a keyboard in Seattle.

But let’s make the valiant attempt to try and inject some cautionary notes into this discussion… even though they might not take. Those who are unsatisfied with the Gators’ level of performance need to realize some subtle but powerful truths about sports and, for that matter, life itself.

One fundamental truth about big-time sports is that while the presence of style points is sexy and thrilling, the absence of overly fatal flaws–while hardly laden with sex appeal or entertainment value–is a quality that often proves to be more valuable in the long run. For everything that’s wrong with the Gator offense this year, it’s what you don’t see that is making a positive difference. Florida isn’t running roughshod over opponents, but Chris Leak–for all of his deficiencies–is a less confused quarterback this year. No, that’s not a rousing advertising slogan–“Florida’s Offense: Less Confused, More Certain, Better at Minimizing Key Mistakes!”–but it does explain why this is a championship season… at least at the divisional level. Urban Meyer and Dan Mullen have clearly created a higher level of understanding throughout the offensive unit, and while big plays have been rare, it’s just as clear that enough big plays are being made–and enough big mistakes are being avoided–in timely moments. This reality–again, not sexy–accounts for the Gators’ success. The one time this team made a truly untimely error (Leak’s red-zone, pre-field goal fumble at Auburn), it got burned, but in every other game, Meyer’s offense produced a little bit more than it gave away. That’s not the stuff of highlight reels, but it is the stuff of winning football. Subtle, not uproariously awesome, but in the end, effective. Would that the culture of college football could praise such an attribute a lot more.

A fundamental truth about life–not just college sports–comes from the 19th century economist/philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill took great pains to explain the point many others have made in human history: experiences of different sensations and feelings enable human beings to sift the good from the not-so-good, and make appropriate choices. Being a pig (and this is no reference to a potential SEC title game matchup with Arkansas) would enable a person to realize what Mill himself said: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”

Gator fans, then, have had to live in the world of championship-free football since the 2000 season. Florida fans have tasted dissatisfaction after the awesome successes of the 1990s and then Y2K. Given this reality, one would think that the claiming of another division title after a long walk in the wilderness would be met with shouts of ecstatic euphoria.

Nope. Not even close. Post-Vandy sentiments–even with the LSU victory over Tennessee that punched the Gators a ticket to Peachtree Street–ran much more to the negative side than the positive. Yes, I know that college football (as referred to above) is pretty much the perfect forum in which to vent one’s frustrations and thereby reclaim mental equilibrium and emotional health. But still… Saturday offered a championship moment that, after the frustrations of 2001-2005, should have been welcomed the same way you’d welcome Danny Wuerffel if he knocked on your door and asked for help for Desire Street Ministries.

“Hey, Danny! What an honor it is to have you here! Please come into our home! This is a rich and special occasion, and we want to embrace what you’re doing while recognizing what you represent for our family and Gators everywhere!”

“Hey, SEC East championship! What an honor it is to have you here! Please come into our home! This is a rich and special occasion, and we want to embrace what you’re doing while recognizing what you represent for our family and Gators everywhere!”

Do you remember the rock-bottom pain, the debilitating devastation, that characterized the aftermath of the bitter loss at South Carolina last year? Do you remember how much it hurt to lose the division to the man who once won so many of them (seven in ten years) for your school? Do you appreciate how delicious it is to face Steve Spurrier this Saturday with a division title already in hand, while the Head Ball Coach’s own squad limps into Gainesville with a 5-4 record and all his wins over tomato can teams? Do you realize how great a triumph this is for an ascendant Urban Meyer, whose project is very much on schedule… even if those damned style points (don’t you ever pay attention to CBS’ Tim Brando when he promotes the value of those evil style points on a Black Rock broadcast…) don’t yet exist?

The ultimate reason why this SEC East title doesn’t seem to be receiving the love it should is that American culture has come to insist on being number one to the exclusion of everything else. It’s no longer good enough to be very good at what you do, to try hard, to be sincere and possessed of uncommon integrity and charity. No, winning it all is the only thing that matters these days. So while the Gators have a division flag and will be favored to win the league on Dec. 2 in the Georgia Dome, all folks can think about is the national title race and why Florida still faces an uphill battle, which makes all of the team’s struggles an urgent matter worthy of criticism. People aren’t stopping to smell the roses anymore, and that’s sad.

Let’s gently point out one simple fact about the 2006 college football season: outside of Ohio State, everyone else is struggling the same way Florida is. Everyone. Sure, some teams are struggling a bit more than others, but fundamentally, all top-15 teams not residing in Columbus are producing (from a coldly analytical viewpoint) consistently mediocre football, especially on offense.

In my chair as a College Football News columnist, I’ve had to note that everyone other than the Buckeyes has consistently struggled this season. This has led me to pronounce, at one time or another, that Texas… and Wisconsin… and Arkansas… and Auburn… and Cal… and USC… and West Virginia… and Louisville… and Oklahoma… and LSU… and Tennessee… and Michigan (see how long this list is?) are not quite putting it all together, along with Florida. Fans of each team have seriously questioned if I’ve been objective enough in criticizing their teams, to which I have said, “hey, your team is hardly alone. Don’t feel picked on.”

I don’t know what’s been in the drinking water this year, but mediocre football (or worse) has simply been the prevailing standard for 118 of 119 Division I-A ballclubs. In this kind of a context, minimizing mistakes–particularly in timely moments–has been the key to winning, and eight times out of nine, Florida has done exactly that. If the Gators continue to follow this blueprint, they will likely win out because they will not face an offense in the remainder of their schedule that can punish them. Given that offensive perfection has been very elusive for the whole college football community this season (except for Ohio State on most, but not all, occasions), the Gators will lose another game before their bowl battle only if they commit more crucial mistakes.

Yeah, talking about football games this way isn’t aesthetically exciting or intellectually invigorating, but it’s reality. Florida isn’t racking up style points, but the Gators are winning games, they have a division title, and they’ll play for the SEC in a few weeks.

There once was a time when this scenario would have been met with the same reaction given to American soldiers in Paris in 1945.

Today, however, there’s just more venting about things that didn’t go right against Vanderbilt.

Perhaps the saddest commentary in all this concerns something other than college football: with all the frustrations so regularly vented here–and venting of frustrations is a very healthy emotional thing to do, it should be said–lots of folks must have very difficult jobs under the supervision of unpleasant bosses in the presence of unsympathetic co-workers.

Life is hard and quite unfair. If you’ve ever read Franz Beard’s legendary assessments and recollections of Vince Dooley’s dirty dealings, you’d know. But for precisely that very same reason, an SEC East title should be embraced with full-throated joy, no matter how many style points are regularly left on the field.

That would represent a change in the college football culture, so this writer can’t expect it to happen.

But one can always hope. And speaking of hope, there’s a lot more hope in the world of Florida football than there has been in a long time… not since Steve Spurrier coached a game at Florida Field, which is precisely what will happen once again this Saturday.

When Spurrier steps onto the gridiron inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, he’ll have to concede the fact that his opponent and former school is the one with the ring, the championship whose value (along with the league crown) Spurrier promoted much more than a national title that, on most occasions, is shrouded in political controversy and therefore outside the control of Florida or any other college football team.

The circle has therefore been completed over the oceans of time: in forgetting one of Spurrier’s greatest lessons, many Gators–by focusing on the negative even when a championship was won–have diluted the significance and specialness of Urban Meyer’s first landmark accomplishment as the coach assigned to lift this program back to the Spurrier standard.

A championship is a championship is a championship. When a ring is claimed, negativity–and the venting of frustrations–should be checked at the door. Will it happen? Not in the current cultural climate of college football. Change is needed to alter the landscape.

But hey: change has already come to Gainesville–the Gators have an SEC East crown once again, for the first time in six years. Now, if only people could celebrate it instead of dwelling on a lack of style points in a national title race where the Gators don’t yet control their own destiny.

John Stuart Mill wasn’t completely correct, in retrospect. While saying that dissatisfied humans are better than satisfied pigs, it’s clear that Florida fans should be satisfied humans these days, in the weeks before (perhaps) playing Houston Nutt’s satisfied Pigs.

Urban Meyer–and his championship (yes, championship) football team–can’t get no satisfaction. Too bad. Championships stopped being a regular occurrence in these parts, and so a division flag needs to be embraced as the tremendous accomplishment it is. After the next ugly win, one hopes that the victory will gain a lot more attention than the lack of style points.

You might recall Spurrier’s 2001 team, after all. Style points were abundant, but a division flag eluded that team’s grasp. This 2006 team couldn’t hold a candle to that bunch from five years ago, but it has the ring that Spurrier’s last Gator team couldn’t claim. When all is said and done, the ring’s the thing. Maybe this lesson–given to Gators by the coach who will oppose them on Saturday–will eventually sink in.

One can only hope.