Word of the day

The word of the day, the one that everyone seems to say these days when they start talking about great teams, is chemistry. Great teams have it — or so we’re told — and the bad teams don’t. But just because a team is labeled great, does that necessarily mean the chemistry is there? And if you have a collection of great athletes, can’t you just insert the necessary ingredients and presto! You’ve got chemistry? If it’s that easy to build by simply adding a pinch of this and a dash of that, then why don’t more teams emerge from the doldrums to greatness?

Chemistry is an important word these days and times with the Florida Gators, who find themselves riding a wave that threatens to grow into the college football version of a tsunami as evidenced by the way they’ve wiped out everything in their path these last six weeks. As the wins have mounted and the margins of victory have expanded, chemistry has become Florida’s word of the day.

We’ve heard it in bits and pieces along this recent six-game tear but Saturday Urban Meyer made the most definitive statement yet about the chemistry that is building on his third-ranked football team that has games remaining with The Citadel (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Pay Per View) and Florida State before their December 6 showdown in Atlanta with number one ranked Alabama for the SEC championship.

As he closed out his post-game press conference after the Gators dismantled a proud South Carolina team, turning the Gamecocks into just another squashed bug on the Florida windshield that is the 2008 season, Meyer gushed, “They’re embarrassed at the way they played last year at the end of the season,” said Meyer. “I don’t see the selfish garbage that I saw. They all block for each other. They all care about each other. I made the comment to Chris Fowler earlier that the chemistry I see on this team borders on phenomenal. That’s a true statement.”

At his Monday media event, Meyer delved further into chemistry and why this concoction that has been building ever since that unexplainable what seems like light years ago loss to Ole Miss is transforming a very good team into one that could achieve true greatness.

As an example of what’s going on, Meyer recalled Joe Haden’s block of a field goal four minutes into the second quarter of the Kentucky game. Through the shock and awe of two blocked punts and impeccable offensive play calling, the Gators already had the game won. It was 28-0 when the Wildcats lined up for a field goal only to see their third special teams disaster of the game when Haden burst through the line to smack the ball away. Major Wright was there to scoop the ball up and run it back 37 yards.

The way the Florida bench reacted, you would have thought Wright had pulled off another Jarvis Moss.

“The entire entire team, led by the Pounceys, mauled him on the sideline because they understand the effort, they have an appreciation for what each other does,” said Meyer, who said he sees the chemistry building each day in practice where he describes the competition for playing time as “a dogfight.”

In this era of guaranteed contracts and me first athletes that fear injuries that could harm their free agent or draft chances more than they fear losing, these Gators are indeed a different breed. They don’t fear the competition for playing time. If anything, they embrace it.

That’s why Tuesday and Wednesday practices have become for lack of a better term, special. It is special when 100 kids arrive at practice with the same goal of going as hard as they can to (a) make the team better, (b) make the guy they’re competing with for playing time better and (c) make themselves better.

This is what happens when a team understands how precious it is to win in a league as tough as the Southeastern Conference. This is what happens when a team has that not so gentle reminder — does the name Ole Miss ring a bell? — that if you take even one play off or walk off the field even one time knowing that you didn’t leave it all out there for 90,000 people and a national television audience to see that bad things can and do happen.

Selfish teams, teams that don’t get it and don’t have something burning inside that is borderline insatiable — whether that is the desire to win or the fear of losing — blow off a loss like Ole Miss. They say things like “my bad” and “just wasn’t in the cards” and all those other cliché lines we’ve grown accustomed to hearing.

For the teams that have potential greatness ready to be penciled in on their resume, a loss like Ole Miss is akin to having an 11-inch stiletto plunged repeatedly in their hearts.

There is no magic formula for getting a team to react like this one has. Meyer admits that recruiting is part of the deal.

“You have to recruit character,” he said. “The first thing you think about is you have to have character on your team.”

Chemistry can be built but that’s a bit trickier.

“There’s no easy answer or everybody would build it,” he said. “I’ve been a coach for 25 years and you know how many great chemistry teams I’ve had? Three … four.”

Three or four?

But Coach, what about all those coaches out there who can’t seem to shut up talking about all the incredible chemistry on their teams? Do they know something? Have they found a short cut?

“I hear coaches say that but I watch them play and I think that coach is just babbling,” said Meyer. “There’s no great chemistry on that team.”

Great chemistry teams are like Meyer’s unbeaten 2004 team at Utah, one so eager to succeed that they chastised Meyer when he didn’t make practices hard enough. Great chemistry teams are like that 2006 Florida team that handled the adversity of a midseason loss to Auburn and then put together a series of gut-wrenching wins before they peaked at the end and won the national championship.

Great chemistry teams are the ones that are responsible and accountable, whether it’s on the practice field or in the training room. It’s not just about what happens on game day. It’s all those days leading up to the game when the little things start adding up.

So how do you separate the football version of the alchemist — the great talker that thinks his words can turn lead into gold — from the true chemist that has all the necessary ingredients to turn 100 kids into champions? And, if you have all the right ingredients, exactly what do you get when you blend them together properly?

“Unselfish play, guys that care about each other, guys that work each other in practice, guys that hang out together off the field and guys that have a little relentless effort … they’re not going to fail,” said Meyer. “That’s great chemistry. They’re not going to let each other down. You don’t hear me say this around here very often. I’ve done this a long time and you only have a handful … I can think of three, maybe four off the top of my head where I’ve had excellent chemistry on the football team.”

This 2008 team is one of those four teams. They haven’t achieved greatness yet, but if these last six games have taught us anything, it is that the desire to be great burns like an incinerator in their bellies. The desire is there. So is the chemistry.

If the focus remains the same, there is nothing that can stop this tsunami.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.