I don’t know about you, but I am tired. Exhausted, really. Tired of losing. Tired of building up my energy every Saturday and having it beaten down bit by bit. Cheering, yelling, holding my breath all game long, watching the Gators’ chances hang in the balance for nearly sixty minutes, only to have them fall short – again. And again.
I can only imagine how the players and coaches feel. After all, they have been knocking themselves out (often quite literally) for most of twelve months for these dozen games.
And I think about that when I read the criticisms. The attacks. The relentless campaigns. The ugliness. And it make me tired. And I wonder how much more weary the players and coaches are from the attacks from their own fans. But enough pondering the mysteries of the universe – the Gators have suffered a historic loss; someone must be punished.
How Did That Happen?
But let’s stay honest here, Gator fans. We cannot look at Muschamp and say, “How could you lose to GSU with X?!,” where “X” is the legend and mystique of the Gator program. All we can demand of him is that he optimize what he has left of this season. Was that done against GSU? No. But if we are honest, we must acknowledge that losing to GSU by 6 points is not falling significantly short of maximization of the resources right now.
And we must be honest in acknowledging that this is not the first week of the season. It is the next-to-last clash at the Little Big Horn that has been the 2013 season.
It should have come to no surprise to us that the team was not able to crush GSU and their novel offensive scheme on the defensive side. The team is in the psychological state of a boxer who has been unable for some time to raise his gloves to protect his face, but the referee has allowed the pugilist to continue to have his face and skull battered to an unrecognizable pulp. This may not be a beaten Gator team, but it is beaten down. Outside and especially inside. The questions fly around the Internet: “How can the Gators be so up and play with so much intensity and emotion as to nearly beat top-10 South Carolina and once-top-10 Georgia – both away from the Swamp … and yet could not muster an ounce of energy or fire to play Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern at home?” However, the question should have been, “After leaving it all on the field against Georgia and Carolina, and playing so far beyond their capabilities only to suffer the crushing demoralization of defeat in the final moments, how could they possibly have had any energy or fire left to get up once again to face lightly-regarded Vandy and the Eagles from the FCS?”
How many combined years did Spurrier and Meyer roam the sidelines of teams with all the talent to go undefeated? And yet they never did. Not one time. Never. And most of the time, the seasons were blemished with at least one loss to a clearly inferior opponent. Fans always respond aghast, asking, “You only play a dozen games or so, how can you come out flat for one of them?” The people on the other side of the fence – the ones who play and coach the game – tell us quite to the contrary that it is in fact extremely difficult to get a team to play with its highest intensity for twelve or more weeks in a season. Especially when you are Florida, and every single opponent treats your game as their Super Bowl.
And I think it is because they live and understand the rigors of the preparation, strength and conditioning, practice, media pressure and every other element of stress and exhaustion that comes to bear on their shoulders. We fans have only to face disappointment and little ribbing from rival fans if they lose. The players and coaches go through the same exacting machine, every year, every week, every day, whether they win or lose.
So when Coach Muschamp says, “It’s on me. We’ll get it fixed,” and fans explode with ridicule and derision over the perceived absurdity of the words, Muschamp and his team believe it. Because they are inside the machine. They were there last year when they didn’t have one shy of an entire starting team miss time with injuries and a couple bogus ejections. And they know what they are capable of when they do not have every force of the natural and supernatural world pitted against them.
And despite how inevitable it may seem after losing six games in a row, capped off by the first loss in school history to an FCS team – and despite how physically, mentally and emotionally beaten down the coaches and players are – do not expect that Muschamp is going to lose this team. If that were going to happen, it would have happened weeks ago. The “us against the world” mentality is a very powerful force in unifying a team. It is even more powerful when one of those forces of the world that is against them is their own fans. And that isn’t reserved to the coaching staff. Just check out the social media feeds when a player has a bad day. Ruthless. And you can sit in your chair-back seats and rain boos down onto Florida field and tell yourself that you are booing the coaches. Even tell yourself that the players know that. But ask a player when they are out there trying their best, and a play fails, and they get booed – ask *them* who they think is getting booed.
As the mantra of the Florida basketball team has gone this month: “We’re all we’ve got.” That’s what Patric Young told the media, and he didn’t pull it out of the ether. It is the battle cry of any team that loses a huge portion of its roster and feels like everything is against them.
It’s a war cry as old as the hills, and the hills of Gainesville will be alive this week with that very cry as they prepare to make their last stand against the Semis. And personally I cannot wait to see how this unity and will to survive will carry into the spring and next year when we likely won’t repeat the most injury-devastated season in the history of Gator sports – and probably in all of college sports.
And if you don’t think Gainesville has hills, just try riding your bike up some of the streets around Shands.
What Should Be Done
Assuming there is no Fletcher Christian among the Gator boosters who are against Muschamp, Foley and Machen will stand by their word and stand by their man when this season concludes. Then the question becomes: what now?
The most impacting change is something Muschamp cannot control, and the assumption is that practically the entire starting team will not be sidelined again next year, so that will be remedied simply by time, convalescence and physical rehabilitation.
The most pressing need then is to make a change at the offensive coordinator position. This is not exactly cracking one of the great esoteric codes of life, but it is not assured that Muschamp will make this move. After all, Brent Pease didn’t injure 19 starters, and knock seven of them and half a dozen more 2s out for the season, either. He didn’t signal in “Broken Leg Play” on that second drive against Tennessee that lost his quarterback for the year. He didn’t poison his starting running back with a tropical virus. He didn’t go Shane Stant on the knees of two of his offensive linemen nor did he tear the pec muscle out of a third. And he certainly wasn’t the one who signed so few offensive linemen in a damaging 2-year stretch a few moons ago.
However, the offense is and has been missing critical elements since Pease arrived, even when Driskel was taking the snaps. One missing piece is the every-down threat of multiple vertical routes. A second critical missing element is the motion and multiplicity that we finally saw only in desperation against Carolina. I know Muschamp on a certain level wants to be able to line up and run what the defense knows is coming and just physically beat them and make it work – like all the great teams do. But we’re no great team yet. We can’t just line up in the same formations and run plays in the same sequence and tendencies – both of which broadcast what we’re going to do to the point where even the uninitiated know what is coming on every single play- and expect to find success against SEC opponents with our current personnel.
Whether Pease understands this or not, he has not put it to use in his two years except in far too infrequent occasions. And if you have knowledge and don’t use it, it is the same result as not having the knowledge.
His replacement harkens to a terrible old Billy Idol song. It has to be a home run hire as far as creativity and ability to develop personnel and coach them up in his system. But at this juncture he also has to have fan appeal flair to placate the faction of the base that go into a blind rage when they sniff a hint of the conservative. Ironically, they will like Muschamp more (or hate him less) if he loses with an exciting offense than if he wins with a boring one. Just as importantly, he needs to connect with the players on a mentor level and be a demonstrative force in recruiting the offensive talent – two things that are absent in Brent Pease. That is the man for the job, however there is no telling who that man is. He is currently watching our program closely, whoever it is, eyes without a face.
Offensive Line coach Tim Davis can stay. He might even need to stay. He has worked wonders in a few late games with the OL after gaining a tiny bit of personnel stability. The performance of his unit has been poor to middling since the Vanderbilt game last year, which marks the last time he had a remotely healthy unit to work with. But when evaluating a go/no-go decision on Coach Davis, you have to consider the circumstances. I know that is not a popular approach these days – the visceral, angry, punitive approach to decision making is more and more favored as the season trudges on and the losses mount – but I think it is the best path. Davis has proved his worth over a successful career and it is unlikely he suddenly lost his abilities. He presided over two national champion offensive lines at USC, he coached the line that opened the holes that produced a Heisman Trophy for Ran Dayne. In the NFL, his lines were responsible for consecutive rushing years that were the highest totals for the Miami Dolphins since the 1980s. And most recently, his o-line cleared the road in Utah for John White to break the single season rushing record for the Utes. He is also a good recruiter with experience as Director of Player Personnel at mighty Alabama when they scored a #1-ranked recruiting class.
But that’s just his resume. He still needs to perform at a high level at Florida. So let’s look at that. Of all the player groups taken over by the Muschamp staff members, Davis got perhaps the worst/toughest challenge. He took over a huge box of damaged goods – both physically and developmentally. The Gator offensive line under Addazio were trained as zone blockers in the spread option. Then when John Brantley became the quarterback, they were switched to man blocking, and then back to zone. And then in 2011 Muschamp favored hiring Tim Davis, but newly signed Hollywood offensive coordinator Charlie Weis insisted he bring OL coach Frank Verducci in with him. Verducci never seemed to invest in the program, or maybe when Brantley was injured in Game 5, he abandoned the program mentally and started looking for his next job, just like Weis did. Muschamp fired him when he learned that he had interviewed with the Kansas City Chiefs. Then Davis came in as the line’s third position coach in three years, in its third offensive scheme in three years.
The Tim Davis era certainly looked like it was off to a great start when he turned this rag tag group into the unit that dominated the elite LSU defense into the ground last year. Things were derailed when so many starters were significantly injured at midseason, but when a modicum of health returned, the OL dominated the statistically elite FSU defense in their own house.
Then came 2013, and more derailment. A line that was relying on two new players who had never taken a snap for the Gators (one of them who had not even played football for a year), had near zero margin for error lost Chaz Green. He was a strong player, but the injury hurt because it forced a line shuffle that left right tackle at a sub-SEC level. Then he lost his best run blocker for a few games and he played the rest of the year with a torn pectoral muscle. An ejection, a poke in the eye, another season-ending knee injury and a whole lot more shuffling and filling in with sub-SEC backups later, the line still played nearly lights out against Georgia and South Carolina late in the year.
I don’t know if Davis will be offered up at the fiery altar of sacrifice as punishment for the offense’s ineptness this year, but my fear is that if he does, we are letting one of the best line coaches in the country walk out the door.
One coach who will likely accompany Pease on the road out of Title Town is Jeff Choate, coach of special teams and outside linebackers. Special teams have bordered on awful all year when compared to historical Gator clubs, and the linebacker play has hurt the defense all year.
One of the questions hanging in the air over Florida Field is whether Muschamp will be able to attract a top offensive coordinator, given the air of uncertainty over his tenure. Well, he got the most prolific offensive coordinator in recent NFL history to leave the NFL and join UF. He out-sold Nick Saban and Alabama to get Pease. If he needs any foundational push, his boss is the guy who convinced Urban Meyer to take less money to pick Florida over Notre Dame. I may be wrong but I don’t think Muschamp will have a hard time selling the position to anyone he wants.
And as for a hot shot OC candidate not wanting to work for him … why wouldn’t he? Champ is a defensive genius. Any OC with half a brain would look at the UF resources and see the opportunity to put his offensive genius next to Champ’s defensive genius and create a career-defining dynasty.
Another lingering question, at least on the minds of those who want Muschamp fired, is why his supporters are still behind him. Well, I can only speak for myself, but I support him because he is the head coach and I want the Gators to succeed. Of course that is not enough to secure my support, because I supported and advocated the firing of Zook after his second season. There has to be more substance than simply holding the job.
My substance came in 2012, when I saw him execute what I believe was one of, if not the best coaching jobs in the history of the program (obviously limited to the seasons that I have been a Gator). I thoroughly believe that he will compete for the SEC title nearly every year if he is not saddled with otherworldly setbacks like the injuries this year that have never hit a program in this proportion in my memory or studied history in any sport. Muschamp may not be the next great coach at Florida, but we cannot determine that off of this season. You can’t judge the Andrea Gail’s stability based only on what happened when it was caught in the perfect storm.
However, even if I doubted his capacity to become an elite head coach at Florida, even if I wanted him replaced at the helm, I would not and could not support his termination at the end of this year. This for many reasons.
Primarily because it would be tantamount to dropping an atomic bomb on the program. The program is at a very critical juncture as far as the roster is concerned. We are transitioning between the Meyer leftovers and the Muschamp new blood, trying to do our best broad jump over the talent and depth gaps that occurred because of Meyer’s poor final class of 2011 and the mass exodus of approaching a third of his leftover players (many of them projected starters and stars). It is a gap rarely experienced by programs not coming off of three years of severe NCAA scholarship reductions. If we were to cut Muschamp loose now, we could probably kiss most of the stud commitments in this year’s signing class goodbye, as well as many of the stud signees that Muschamp has brought into the program the last two years that are to make up the foundation of the program for the next three seasons.
Anyone who thinks that Florida has the depth or talent on the roster to withstand another coaching transition right now without setting the program back another five to seven years simply is not absorbing or acknowledging the magnitude of the precarity on the current roster. Even if Muschamp is not the long-term solution, Florida desperately needs him to stay and recruit the roster back to a full boat, and improve the talent significantly. No new coach will be able to do that starting from scratch, especially after predictably losing so many defectors from the signing class and the current team.
And what’s more, there are no home run hires out there right now, and may not be next year either. Trading this Muschamp for another one is just change for change sake. A worthless move. Even if there were a home run hire, firing Muschamp now would make attracting an elite head coach as difficult as jumping the Grand Canyon on a pogo stick. Coaches pay attention. They know Muschamp won 11 games last year with a weak hand, and then this year had both his hands cut off. Few people want to work for an employer with that sort of myopia. The previous coach had a nervous breakdown on the job. The coach before that was fired in the middle of the season. The coach before that was the biggest legend in the history of the program and even he was driven off by the administration (though the key irritant is long gone, the stench remains). And great coaches want to play for great fan bases. While fans almost everywhere go after struggling coaches, you have to look long and hard to find anyone this side of Bill Curry-at-Alabama who has endured the magnitude and volume of ugly, vitriolic attacks as Ron Zook and Will Muschamp have. And it is likely that no coaches in college sports history can approach the level of acidic bile they have had hurled at them by their previously adoring fans immediately after resigning their positions as uber-successful champions than Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. When Florida coaches struggle, Gator fans swarm and bury them with venom and violent assaults until they leave. When Florida coaches dominate the competition and win SEC and national championships at an amazing pace, Gator fans swarm and bury them with venom and violent assaults as soon as they leave.
Gator Nation is a tough room. A really tough room. And I fear that fewer and fewer of the best talents out there want to play that room. We should be very lucky if Muschamp is our elite coach of the future – a guy with a lifetime connection and love for UF. We should hope he is the guy.