College Football

Georgia Florida is a Big Deal

Working in Charleston I got a chance to come to Jacksonville to cover the Gator Bowl in the late ‘70’s a couple of times. After the 1978 game between Clemson and Ohio State (the one where Woody Hayes famously punched Charlie Bauman on the sidelines) I asked an usher on the way out, “What else do you do with this stadium?”

She looked at me like I was from another planet and said, “We have the Florida/Georgia game every year!”

As an out-of-towner I shrugged it off, not knowing the magnitude of the yearly contest. I also didn’t realize that just by saying, “Florida/Georgia” she identified herself as a Gator fan.

So when I moved here, I quickly realized there’s not much agreement across the border about the annual matchup, from how many times they’ve played to even what the game is called. I decided I’d list the current winner first after that, so this year, it’s Georgia/Florida.

There aren’t many games like it, if any. Perhaps Texas/Oklahoma, but that has the state fair going on at the same time so it’s not a fair comparison.

Georgia/Florida is a big deal. We need to make it a bigger deal.

Playing the game at a neutral site is unique, but between Jerry Jones in Dallas and Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, we have some competition when it comes to neutral site attractiveness.

And don’t think the game isn’t on other cities’ radar. Or that the two universities wouldn’t listen to suitors, or even think about keeping it in their own backyards. Their stadiums are plenty big and their fans plenty anxious.

Jacksonville has been the host since 1933 (except for 1994 and ’95 when it went home-and-home because of stadium renovations here). The current contract has a few years left on it so now’s the time to ramp it up and show what we can do. There’s about $14 million in direct spending on that one day in Jacksonville just from the game. The actual economic impact is well over $30 million. For one day. Imagine if we created a three-day festival around the game and really had some fun?

As big as this game is for the city I still don’t think we do enough as the host. It’s one of two days a year (the other being Gate River Run) that people come downtown for an event, some with no intention of going to the game, or running. And when it’s over, we just basically tell them to go home.

Aren’t city leaders always talking about how to bring people downtown?

Gator Bowl Boulevard is already closed to traffic, why not line it with street vendors and live music and make a real festival of the day just like we did when the Super Bowl was here? We ought to invest in some big custom balloons and fly a Gator over one end of the stadium and a Bulldog over the other.

A few years ago the city put up big screens in the parking lots to accommodate the fans who weren’t going to the game. Then-Florida President Bernie Machen nixed the idea saying it promoted drinking. I applaud Machen for the work he did in brining attention to the issue of over-indulgence at the game. But getting rid of the big screens wasn’t the solution. When they didn’t appear the next year all you had was crowds of people jostling for position around all of the little screens already in the parking lot. Bring those big screens back.

With the loosening of some of the alcohol restrictions at NCAA events, selling alcohol in our stadium at Georgia/Florida not only makes sense but it’s coming. It will take away some of the time-honored tradition of how to sneak cocktails into the game (my favorite is the bandoliers of shots strapped to your body that you can buy at liquor stores now. What ingenuity!) But it will also keep fans from chugging anything and everything before they get into the game.

We’ve taken steps to create a safer environment for our guests in town that weekend for the game. The JSO walks a fine line between keeping the peace and understanding what’s going on here and they do a pretty good job of it. The city has created safety zones for fans at the behest of both schools. There’s a better understanding I believe among the people who are going to the game of the pitfalls regarding the over-use of alcohol.

If we’re always talking about taking the next step in the city’s development, why not build on something we already have here?

I know it’s politically incorrect to call the game “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” but that’s what it is. When former Jacksonville Journal Sports Editor Bill Kastelz coined that phrase he knew exactly what he was talking about. And I’ve been to plenty of cocktail parties where everybody had a great time and nobody left drunk. So it is possible.

We need to think bigger. And do it fast. The sirens call of big money from other cities could easily block out the tradition that’s uniquely ours.

Don’t let that happen.

In 1994 and ’95 our stadium was being renovated so the game went to Gainesville and Athens. It was at that ’95 game in Athens; won by the Gators 52-17, that Head Coach Steve Spurrier called a trick play at the end of the game to add insult to injury.

“Calling timeout and running that trick play at the end of the game is the single most unsportsmanlike thing I’ve ever seen,” I told the HBC as he boarded the bus outside Sanford Stadium late that afternoon.

“Lawson (Holland, an assistant on the Florida staff) told me nobody’s ever hung half a hundred on them here so I called timeout,” Steve explained. “And we did.”

“I don’t care,” I said

“Come on Sammy, they’ll get over it,” Steve called over his shoulder as the door closed.

No they haven’t.

Just like some Florida fans still remind everybody about the 1942 game, a 75-0 drubbing at the hands of the ‘Dogs. And the ’68 game when Georgia won 51-0. Or the Mark Richt –inspired end zone dance in 2007, which begat the Urban Meyer timeouts in 2008, and on and on and on.

It’s an unparalleled rivalry. I liked it better when the stadium was split into quadrants but understand the “half and half” nature that was necessary after the stadium was reworked.

Being part of the game, Florida Head Coach Dan Mullen calls it, a “healthy” rivalry.

“A lot of times in college football and college sports there are some rivalries that are not as healthy,” Mullen said regarding what he’s seen in his career. “They’re tough, they’re nasty; they’re a great rivalry, but they can become unhealthy. I think this is a healthy rivalry between the two fan bases.”

But he couldn’t help but fuel the fire on both sides of the border when asked about the matchup at his first SEC media days appearance as the Gators head coach this summer.

“Listen, making it to one SEC Championship Game doesn’t make you a dominant program, you know what I’m saying?” he said referring to Georgia’s appearance in the Atlanta game last year. “I mean, two out of the last three years we’ve still been to the SEC Championship Game. So even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.”

Mullen knows Kirby Smart isn’t creating a “blind squirrel” situation in Athens and I took his comments as evidence that he understands the game.

Should be fun.

Anatomy Of A Pick: Jaguars Take Bryan At 29

It wasn’t flashy or a big splash but rather described as a “value pick” as the Jaguars selected defensive lineman Taven Bryan with the twenty-ninth pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.

Bryan is listed at 6’5″ and 291 lbs and was projected to “become an instant starter” by the NFL scouts at the combine.

So how did the Jaguars get to Bryan?

They were a little surprised that three offensive linemen were picked so early in this draft. They knew G Quenton Nelson and OT Mike McGlinchy would be gone before their pick but going in the top 10 was a bit unexpected. That shifted their focus to other players, and once the Raiders took T Kolton Miller at 15, it shifted their focus to the next four players on their board.

“We felt like we solidified a lot of needs in free agency so we could take our highest rated guy. And we did,” General Manager Dave Caldwell said.

Of the nine picks before they were on the board, the Jaguars had four players rated about the same. Leighton Vander Esch, the linebacker who went to the Cowboys at 19 probably wasn’t in that group because the Jaguars, and much of the league, thought he’d be gone before then. Back to back centers were taken at 20 and 21, not on the Jaguars radar. They might have liked Rashaan Evans, the Alabama linebacker taken at 22 by the Titans but he was gone. Not a pressing need.

Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn, listed as an offensive tackle was a nice player but not rated that high by the Jaguars. Probably not big enough. Listed at 6’3.” He went to the Patriots.

The next three picks are probably players the Jaguars were considering if they fell to them at twenty-nine.

“We thought with about 10 picks to go, one of the players we liked would come to us,” Jaguars VP of Football Operations Tom Coughlin said.

It might not have been a top-heavy draft for receivers but D.J. Moore from Maryland was getting a lot of late attention. Even with third and fourth string quarterbacks he had plenty of production for the Terps. And he’s fast. Not unexpected the Panthers needed just that and took him at twenty-four.

Local product Hayden Hurst was a favorite in town and emerged as the top tight end prospect in the last several weeks. He would have filled a need, and at 25 years old, he’s got the maturity to step in and play. He spent two years in the Pirates organization as a pitcher before going to South Carolina to figure out a football career. Quite a story for a first round pick, the first ever out of Bolles. The Jaguars would have liked him, but the Ravens took him at twenty-five.

Was it possible Alabama’s Calvin Ridley would fall all the way to the Jaguars? Even though he dropped through the top twenty, there were still too many teams in front of the Jags to expect to get receiving help. In a surprise, the Falcons took him at 26, despite having Julio Jones, another Alabama receiver, and Mohamed Sanu as their starters. He was projected as an excellent slot receiver and could be that for Atlanta. Even if the Falcons hadn’t taken Ridley, he probably wouldn’t have gotten by the Seahawks or the Steelers, picking right before Jacksonville.

Coughlin said he took some calls from other teams but decided to stick in their spot. Bryan was the highest rated player remaining on the Jaguars board when they made their pick.

“Outstanding value,” Coughlin noted. Which means he thought Bryan would go higher.

‘He showed athleticism at the combine, that’s for sure,” Jaguars Coughlin said late on Thursday. “His 40, his vertical, his direction changes. He’s a solid young man.”

Running under 5 seconds in the 40-yard dash is impressive for a player his size, but it wasn’t just the “measureables” that convinced the Jaguars to take Bryan. Coughlin has always liked players who compete in the weight room as well as on the field and Bryan fits that bill.

“He’s a weight room guy,” Coughlin said with a big smile. “If I was a young guy like Bryan, I’d be getting Calais’ coffee to learn from a great pro like him.” Coughlin on Bryan’s personality.

“Is that what he said? Bryan said with a laugh on a conference call with local reporters. “I don’t know. I will have to see when I get there, I guess.”

With the success they had on defense last year, Bryan thought he might go to any team but the Jaguars. And he thought he’d go higher in the first round.

“Yes, honestly I was really surprised,” he noted. “I thought there was no way the Jags were going to pick us. You guys already have a bunch of Pro Bowlers and a bunch of great players. I was, ‘Well, they are definitely not picking me.’ Then you guys called me and it was awesome.”

Bryan said all of the right things you’d expect a rookie to say coming into a new situation in the NFL.

“It is a great opportunity. Those guys are Pro Bowlers. There is a mix of old and young guys. They are definitely good at what they do, seeing this past year. I’ll come in and try to learn everything I can from them and try to pick their brains as much as I can and try to do as much as a I can to help the team out.”

Jaguars Draft is Wide Open

As long as he’s been involved in the NFL and personnel decisions, Tom Coughlin has had very specific ideas. He likes big players, he believes in solidifying the run game and he wants a defense that can control the line of scrimmage.

“The first round might have thirty-two selections,” he recently told me, “But there might not be thirty-two first round players.”

As the VP of Football Operations for the Jaguars, Coughlin will have the final say on which players the team selects in this week’s draft. With the 29th overall pick, it’s doubtful Coughlin believes the player available there is a bona fide first rounder.

“You draw a line where you think the first round ends and you go from there,” he said. “Some years it can be twelve, others it can be twenty, or more.”

So nothing is predictable for the 2018 draft when it comes to the Jaguars. They could trade up, or down, or they could stay put if one of the players they like looks like he’ll be there at twenty-nine.

There’s plenty to like about the Jaguars defense the way it is so it would make sense that they spend their early draft picks on offense. It’s clear they’ve wanted to upgrade their receiving corps from 2018. They’ve done some of that through free agency and if one of these four wide receivers is available through either a trade up or they fall to the Jaguars, they should take him.

Calvin Ridley WR Alabama – Doubtful Ridley could fall to 29 but if the Jaguars believe in his production, they might try to move up to take him. Alabama pedigree is a proven plus. He’s 6′ and 189 lbs., but runs a 4.4. He’s from Ft. Lauderdale and will go in the first round. .

Courtland Sutton SMU – Sutton is a big wide receiver, 6’3″ and 218 lbs. totally different than anybody else among Jaguars wide receivers. He’s listed as about the same size at Allen Robinson. He runs a 4.5 and was plenty productive the last two years for the Mustangs. Was the competition tough enough? He could fall in the first round.

DJ Moore WR-KR Maryland – Moore is a possibility if the Jaguars are determined to take a WR with their first pick. But he doesn’t check all the boxes that would help add him to the wide receiver room He runs a 4.4. but at 6′ and 210 lbs is solid enough to run back kicks in the NFL as well. Tough competition in the Big 10 and was the conference receiver of the year. He’s probably a second round pick.

Christian Kirk WR Texas A&M – Kirk is another big receiver at 6’2″ and 200 lbs. He runs just under a 4.5 but his production is off the charts. He’s projected as a second round pick since he doesn’t have the explosiveness a lot of teams are looking for but a trade down out of the first round would be a good fit.

There was a lot of talk at the pre-draft luncheon about tight end. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins as an off-season acquisition the Jaguars still might be looking in the first round to add to this position. The only player of first-round talent at TE is Mike Gesicki from Penn State. At 6’6″ and nearly 260lbs, Gesicki is considered a pass catching tight end more than a run blocker. He’s considered such a great athlete that he’ll be gone by twenty-nine but if they love him, he’s first round talent.

If they’re looking for offensive live help in the first couple of rounds, these guys will be coming off the board

Mike McGlinchey T Notre Dame – probably the first offensive lineman taken

Kolton Miller T UCLA – seems destined to a west coast team

Connor Williams G-T Texas – Another good athlete who would have to get bigger to play O-Line for Coughlin

Orlando Brown T Oklahoma – Huge at 6’8″ and 345, he’s the son of Zeus Brown who played in the NFL. His size is his biggest asset but most teams aren’t sure he’s a good enough athlete to play tackle in the NFL.

Starting at 7pm CDT in Dallas, eight o’clock here so the draft could have the Jaguars picking at 29 as early at 10:45 or after 11:30. Of the above players profiled, don’t be surprised if one or two of them is on the Jaguars opening day roster in 2018.

Mullen Is The New Gators Head Coach

Introduced as the Head Coach of the Florida Gators football program, Dan Mullen said his teams would play with “relentless effort, every Saturday.

“We might not be the biggest or the fastest but we’ll play with relentless effort I can guarantee that,” Mullen said in front of the assembled media, staff and supporters in the Florida Room of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Mullen was contacted by UF AD Scott Stricklin last Friday to gauge his interest in the job. They talked more on Saturday and hammered out a deal by Saturday night. They talked again on Sunday morning and Mullen said, “I was more excited when I woke up than the night before,” and since he already had a missed call from Stricklin, Mullen accepted the job. His contract is for a reported $6M a year for six years, making him one of the highest paid college coaches in the country.

“We’re like the Yankees,” Stricklin said during his introduction. “We attract the best and the brightest. Dan is the most qualified candidate to lead this program.”

While talking about the spread offense he’ll run, how he loves to score points and the importance of offensive production to the Gator Nation, Mullen paid homage to former Gator Head Coach Steve Spurrier whom he said he idolized as a young coach.

“At Wagner I wore a visor just like Coach Spurrier,” Mullen revealed. “To watch him coach, to see that in the sunshine, I said, “What am I doing here in New Hampshire? This is a dream job.”

Mullen said he’d welcome Spurrier’s input and was already in his office earlier on Monday.

“I went up to his office and he had the computer open with game film up. We’ll have some great discussions. I love ball and he loves ball. I expect he’ll come to practice and ask ‘Now why are we doing that?'” Mullen said to laughter in the room. He also mentioned that former players around the program would be a “critical part of our success.”

Much has been made of the intensity of the scrutiny of the Head Coach at the University of Florida and his family. Mullen’s wife Megan was recently quoted about how she could barely go to Publix when Mullen was the offensive coordinator for the Gators without being accosted by Florida fans.

“I’ve been a head coach in the SEC,” Mullen said in response to a query about the intensity of the job in Gainesville. “I have a perfect understanding of the expectations here. The pressure on you and your family. I’ve been a Head Coach in the SEC. To plug the network, ‘it just matters more.” The passion in the SEC isn’t unique to the University of Florida. But I understand the scrutiny you’re under.”

And regarding his wife’s comments?

“If Megan didn’t pick Florida, we wouldn’t be in Florida,” Mullen said with a laugh.

It’ll be after the first of the year before Mullen completes his staff although he’s already recruiting for the Gators.

“We have an early signing date coming up so that’s important,” he noted. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football.

Mullen has a reputation of developing quarterbacks but says he doesn’t have a formula.

“If you look at the different quarterbacks I’ve had they’re all different shapes and sizes. There’s no prototype. It starts with mental and physical toughness. You have to be a tremendous leader,” Mullen on said about his quarterback expectations.

“Processing information is critical. Intelligence is important. I don’t want them to look over to the sideline. Throwing and running. Accuracy. Running is a bonus, it means you can improvise. In one word, winners.”

McElwain Departure “It’s Never Pretty”

From the beginning it seemed like the right move.

After Day One, it never felt like a really good fit.

After just 2½ seasons as the Florida Gators head football coach, Jim McElwain and the University say they’ve mutually agreed to part ways.

That’s a nice way of saying UF wanted him out of there and he wanted to leave but we’re still negotiating the buyout. Athletic Director Scott Stricklin confirmed Sunday night that they had agreed on the split but haven’t signed the deal.

At his opening press conference, McElwain seemed like the exact right guy for the job in Gainesville. After years of an over intense Ron Zook, the unlikeable Urban Myer and a super intense Will Muschamp, the Gators program was looking for a glib, affable guy to lead the program.

You know, a Spurrier-like guy.

McElwain seemed to be the exact right person: An SEC pedigree, an offensive coach and a winner as the head coach at Colorado State. If they mixed up a formula for what the Gators needed, he seemed to be the solution.

He won his opening press conference.

He won two SEC East titles in his first two years and just a month ago the Gator football team was 3-1, ranked and seemed poised to win the East for the third straight year. Even though there were rumblings among the Florida faithful, you figured he’d get the offense straightened out, Feleipe Franks would come around and they’d compete down the stretch.

But the exact opposite happened.

Two late-kick losses at home started the ball downhill. The offense looked disorganized and without an identity. Georgia came in as a two-touchdown favorite and within six minutes in Jacksonville showed they were winning, and scoring, at will.

That morning the rumors of not just the fans but the UF administration’s unhappiness with McElwain also started to surface.

He didn’t listen to anybody. He rebuffed Steve Spurrier’s offer to help the offense. Twice. He commandeered the soccer field for practice one day without asking anybody. Complained publicly, and privately, about the Gators football facilities and he didn’t attend the all-school head coaches meetings, instead sending surrogates. And he didn’t buy into the UAA philosophy of one-for-all and all-for-one, kind of a loner, an iconoclast. But not in a good way.

One of my colleagues derisively calls him “folksy.”

And the whole, “death threat” thing was weird. Without prompting on Monday of Florida/Georgia week, McElwain talked about the “hate” and vaguely talked about him, his family, coaches and players being under duress and used the words, “death threats.”

When I first heard that I thought, “Oh, that’s a ‘Week of Florida/Georgia Motivational Ploy.” But when McElwain declined to elaborate to his bosses later in the day they issued a terse, non-supportive statement saying their head coach declined “to offer further details.”

At Wednesday’s weekly presser, McElwain again declined to offer further explanation but told us he’d let us know if the situation became “unmanageable.”

Which seemed even weird-er.

It’s clear now that the UF administration was looking for a way out and McElwain’s strange actions all week, compounded by the embarrassing loss to Georgia and his post-game admission that he didn’t know if he’d be coaching in Gainesville past that night confirmed it.

“It’s hard to speculate how this situation might have played out if last Monday hadn’t happened,” Stricklin said Sunday night.

When I talked with McElwain before his second season he was glib, friendly and said all the right things. But he had a somewhat detached air about him. You might have sensed it during his press conferences when he would talk about “us” as in “the Gators” and it seemed a little hollow.

I often joke that the most important words surrounding the Florida football program are “Before Nineteen-Ninety.” That’s because the twelve years of the Spurrier era were exciting and seemed relatively calm on the coaching front. Steve took the blame for losses and deflected the credit for wins. He was a Gator through and through.

But that was not the norm around Gainesville.

In the 40 years I’ve covered college football the intrigue and cutthroat nature of the business hasn’t changed. The hook has gotten quicker for coaches who aren’t winning but there’s nothing pretty about it.

When Charley Pell was elevated from Defensive Coordinator to Head Coach at Clemson, the man he replaced, Red Parker, had terrible things to say about him. Pell left Clemson for Florida, staying with the Tigers just long enough to create enough recruiting violations to put them on two-year NCAA probation. His tenure at Florida was a constant rumor mill of NCAA investigations, slush funds and illegal recruiting tactics. When he was finally forced to resign, 107 NCAA violations were left behind.

Gator fans exhaled when Galen Hall was named Pell’s replacement. He seemed like a calm in the storm, a regular guy. But out of the blue just four years later in 1989 he was forced to resign after an internal investigation turned up cash payments to both assistant coaches and players.

And everybody was like, “Here we go again!”

In the short term the Gators had arm waving, never smiling Gary Darnell who everybody knew wasn’t the answer.

And then Spurrier. In “1990.”

And even his departure was strange in that he was angry with then AD Jeremy Foley for not pursuing the Darnell Docket trying to break Errict Rhett’s leg in a pile during the Florida/FSU game. So he exercised his chance in his two-week window to take the Redskins job in the NFL.

So as strange as this departure was, it falls right in line with a lot of others at Florida and at most big time football universities.

It’s never pretty.