College Football

Coaches and QB’s Make the Difference

When it comes to where the University of Florida and the University of Georgia football programs have gone in the last ten years, it’s apparent where the success or failure in Gainesville or Athens comes from. To win in either of those places you need a coach with an offensive philosophy and you need a quarterback to get the job done.

That’s nothing new in the last thirty years in the Southeastern Conference. Steve Spurrier brought that idea to a defensive minded “Don’t make a mistake” SEC in 1990 and revolutionized how to win in the conference and in turn in college football. Dubbed the “Fun ‘n Gun,” Spurrier’s offense put up numbers, touchdowns and wins at a record pace. He made no apologies about scoring and not worrying about out-scoring the opponent. When you’d ask Steve something about the Gators’ defense during his mid-week press conference, he’d say “You’ll have to ask Coach (Bobby) Stoops about that.” And Stoops would have his own press conference when Spurrier was done.

Going back thirty years, the two schools’ football programs are dominated by two coaches: Steve Spurrier at Florida and Mark Richt at Georgia. Both were offensive-minded coaches who were willing to spread it out, throw it around and recruited quarterbacks to do it. Spurrier had Shane Matthews, Terry Dean, Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Rex Grossman running his offense. Richt recruited David Green, D.J. Shockley, Matt Stafford, Aaron Murray and even Jacob Eason although he never played for Richt.

SEC passing records and conference titles followed both coaches and their quarterbacks in Athens and Gainesville. Since Spurrier’s departure nearly 20 years ago, Florida has had only one real offensive run under Urban Meyer. Meyer’s another coach who’s looking for skill players who can run, throw and catch.

Neither his off-putting personality nor his penchant to recruit players on the edges of eligibility and the law stopped Meyer’s offensive juggernaut. He wanted to score points and recruited players to do that. While Ron Zook brought Chris Leak to Florida, it was Meyer who won a National Championship with Leak behind center. And when Leak committed to Florida, it opened the floodgates for other skill players to make their way to Gainesville.

Meyer convinced Tim Tebow to join him in Gainesville, outdueling Alabama for the quarterback’s services. Another National Championship followed along with a laundry list of quarterback records amassed by Tebow.

So what’s happened since then?

Once the Meyer era ended the Gators turned to Will Muschamp to lead the program. Muschamp is a solid coach, but he’s willing to win games 21-17. Not only does that not work in the SEC any longer, it also doesn’t please Gator fans.

“We just didn’t win enough games,” Muschamp said at his departure press conference. He was exactly right but an inspection of his quarterbacks probably reveals why. John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, Skyler Mornhinweg and Treon Harris all started for the Gators under Muschamp. With Muschamp’s philosophy, none flourished in Gainesville. Brissett, Driskel and Murphy all transferred. Brissett and Driskel are still in the NFL. Murphy starred in his final season at Boston College.

With the promise to revive the offense, Jim McElwain arrived in Gainesville to much fanfare. His problems started when Will Grier became ineligible and transferred to West Virginia where he had a stellar career. Gator fans then watched Luke Del Rio, Malik Zaire and current placeholder Feleipe Franks drive the points and win totals down. Turns out McElwain was part of the problem, not the solution and his acumen for recruiting quarterbacks remains in question.

Georgia’s quarterbacks in the last twenty years also follow their success. Joe Tereshinski, Joe Cox, Hutson Mason, Greyson Lambert and Faton Bauta all started games of varying degrees for the Bulldogs but without much success.

Both Dan Mullen and Kirby Smart fill the role needed to win in the SEC and on the national stage in today’s college football climate. Mullen has stuck with Franks and Smart inherited Eason but recruited Jake Fromm and even Justin Fields to Athens.

Mullen is quick to point out that 17 of the top 25 quarterbacks in Franks’ recruiting class have already transferred.

“He’s stuck it out, and he’s continued to work and stay through different adversities, to continue to grow, to continue to develop,” Mullen said of the Gators projected starter for 2019. “And he’s starting to reap all of the rewards of that now with how he finished last year.”

At 6’6” and 227 lbs. Franks is a prototypical quarterback that wins in college football these days. He can throw and run, something Mullen has encouraged him to do. He made the outlandish statement, “I want a fourth statue,” at the SEC Media days referring to the three Heisman winners already immortalized outside of Florida Field.

Smart, despite his defensive background as a player and a coach, has had an embarrassment of riches at quarterback since becoming the ‘Dogs Head Coach and his 24-5 record reflects that. Having Jake Fromm entrenched at quarterback the last two years continues the skill player talent pipeline to Athens. The Georgia Head Coach referred to that when talking about emerging star wide receiver George Pickens who picked the ‘Dogs over Auburn.

“He knew what style offense he wanted to play in,” Smart explained. “He saw an opportunity when he saw two guys declare early for the draft. I know he wanted to have an opportunity to play with a quarterback like Jake Fromm.”

So you want to win in Athens and Gainesville? Get a coach who loves points and a quarterback who can get them.

Georgia is there. Florida might get back there, but currently the Gators are playing catch up.

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.

Florida/Georgia Issues

I spent part of last week in Gainesville and part in Athens putting together a show for the annual Florida/Georgia game in Jacksonville. Both are great college towns and both seemed to be content that the match up between these two SEC teams won’t be coming to their stadiums anytime soon. Georgia fans do feel like it’s a bit of a road game, while Florida fans see it as a chance to see the Gators close to home.

In the Vince Dooley era, it was much different and had a more contentious feel because Georgia won 15 of 20 games while he was the head coach. Gator fans grumbled that it should be a home and home series. I haven’t heard that much from the Bulldog faithful, but after now 15 of 17 wins by Florida, I’m sure it’s getting a bit tiresome.

At the same time, moving the game to Athens probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome of any of those games as evidenced by the 52-17 the Gators enjoyed there in 1995.

Dooley treated the annual Georgia/Florida game as a home contest, telling me “we just considered Jacksonville South Georgia and treated it that way.” Dooley and the ‘Dogs also recruited pretty heavily in South Georgia and in Jacksonville at the time so it helped to say you’d play close to home every year.

Steve Spurrier started his building of the Florida football team by concentrating on beating Georgia, a pivotal game on the SEC schedule and a starting point for the Gators to take some pride in the program. Florida won 11 of 12 games under Spurrier against Georgia, never letting the ‘Dogs get in the way of a run at the SEC title.

Urban Meyer is now 2-0 against Georgia, but neither game has been convincing or impressive. Last year Florida hung on for a 14-10 win and this year the defense proved to be the difference in the 21-14 victory.

I haven’t heard much about the “spread offense” that is good and even Meyer said after the Georgia game that he “hasn’t felt this way about an offense in six years as a head coach.”

Of course he feels that way. Soon he’ll figure out that he’s asking Chris Leak to do things that aren’t playing to his strengths and that defensive players in the SEC are just bigger, faster, stronger and better football players than at the two outposts he was stationed at before Gainesville. And Time Tebow isn’t going to be a magical fix for the spread either. He’s going to be a good college quarterback but not a dominating one in that offense in that conference.

Talk about Alex Smith all you want. Good player in the right situation on the right team in the right conference against the right opponents. He might not have made it through four years in that offense in the SEC considering the pounding he’d be taking every week.

This year’s Florida/Georgia contest was all about defense and most of it about the Gators defensive squad. They forced five turnovers in the game by Georgia and completely shut down the ‘Dogs offense and freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford in the first half. Head Coach mark Richt said he didn’t give Stafford a good enough plan, but the dropped passes and missed blocks didn’t help either. Stafford looked like a freshman at times, but he also made some excellent plays, only to be let down by his teammates.

As a coach you hope young players make enough positive plays in order to offset their mistakes. Stafford is moving in that direction. Georgia’s defeat was as much at their own hands as it was at the Gators’.

“That’s right,” Stafford told me post-game on Saturday night. “You can’t make mistakes like that and expect to win. And when you get chances, you have to take advantage of them. We didn’t do either.”

(By the way, Stafford is incredibly poised for a guy who just turned 18).

Georgia is going to be all right in the long run, but they’re taking their lumps right now. Florida has some high expectations, but getting out of the SEC should be their first priority. “We still have the SEC East to look at,” Meyer said after the game when asked about moving up in the polls (USC lost).

Vandy and South Carolina are up next with Spurrier coming to The Swamp on November 11th. Success there puts them in the title game the first weekend of December in Atlanta. If they want to get to the next level, Meyer is going to have to tweak his offense. This is the second week in a row the offense hasn’t scored in the second half.

And if they have National Championship hopes, he better have a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

Gators, Present and Future

Tebow vs. the Russian Army?

Tebow.

Tebow vs. a nuclear blast?

Tebow.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Tim Tebow. Nice kid, works hard, studies hard, respects the game and the people around him but to listen to Gator fans, he can walk on water. In their only loss of the season, Florida had their share of mistakes to go around, but it seems that Chris Leak is taking all of the heat. It goes with the position I suppose, but Leak is a solid guy and a solid player. He’s blamed for three turnovers at the end of the Auburn game, where only one, the bad pass, should be counted against him. But either way, Leak has done a magnificent job of not complaining, of putting up with Urban Meyer’s tepid support and even fans booing when he comes in the game in relief of Tebow’s stints. Sure, Tebow can run the ball and might in the future become a complete quarterback, but right now, Chris Leak gives Florida the best chance to win, week in and week out.

Admittedly, Tebow is a strong runner. When he takes the ball and heads toward the line of scrimmage, it gives the Gators an advantage of an extra man blocking and a very strong and determined guy running the football. I’m pretty convinced Chris Leak could do much of the same given the same blocking and the same opportunity (except for perhaps the real tough short yardage gains.) But something different happens to the offensive line when 15 is in the game. The block a little harder and longer. Perfect in certain situations, not perfect when trying to mix things up through out an entire game.

So lay off Chris Leak. They’ve done him a disservice in Gainesville by not publicly saying he’s the man from the moment a new coaching staff stepped on campus. Meyer and company have done a lot of good things for the Florida program, but their treatment of Leak hasn’t been one of them. Tebow might be the future and part of the present, but the BMOC should be Chris Leak. Leak vs. anybody in the SEC? I’ll take Leak.

Gators Open

It was a big celebration in Gainesville on opening day with the return of the 1996 National Championship team and its coach Steve Spurrier. The air was full of anticipation as the Gators are ranked in the top 10 and thoughts of and SEC title and a run for the National Championship are on the minds of the Gator Nation.

And then they started the game.

Southern Mississippi always has some good athletes, just not enough of them to compete against the elite conference teams. But the Golden Eagles got to work right away, picking off an early Chris Leak pass and taking a 7-0 lead.

Not good.

Florida’s first half was a little tentative and not sharp, but eventually they wore down Southern Miss for a 34-7 win. Even Tim Tebow got in the game and scored a touchdown. But the team seemed tight and stilted, not able to fully display how much talent they have.

It could be that it’s just early in the year or it could be a reflection of the coach. Urban Meyer is a very buttoned up guy, sometimes so buttoned up that it seems he can’t move. And that carries over to his team.

Meyer is confident in his ideas and convictions, sure that what he thinks is right and how much of his “spread” offense will work in the SEC. I still think it looks like a square peg in a round hole when the Gator offense takes the field. Maybe that’ll change over time with different personnel and a different style of quarterback. But Chris Leak is a very solid player and a very coachable guy. If Meyer isn’t willing to take advantage of that, there’s a flaw in his thinking, not in how the players can play.

He did make some adjustments last year, hopefully he’ll have time to do the same this season. Deshawn Wynn’s injury doesn’t help much and even though they’re a heavy favorite, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on the Gators this week. Plus after seeing what Tennessee did to a previously ranked top-10 team, I wouldn’t be looking too far ahead either.

Florida’s got their work cut out for them this year. It’ll also reveal what kind of coach, and guy he is before too long.

Gators In Indy

Having seen Florida play a couple of times during the regular season, when they showed up in Jacksonville for the first and second round I wondered, “what’d they do with the Gators?” They played OK during the regular season, starting with seventeen straight wins but going 7-6 in the next thirteen games to become an afterthought when it came to the post season.

But along the way, the Gators became a team, defined by that philosophy, especially with their potential stars rejecting individual accolades. They played better and closer in the SEC tournament and became a big media darling in the tournament. Beating South Alabama was a given, and getting past UW-Milwaukee was a test of resolve based on the Panthers senior-laden team. All of the sudden, they were a team to be reckoned with and Georgetown and Villanova posed no threat to the Gators’ run to the Final Four.

Now they’re the favorite.

Seriously, when was the last time a team starting four sophomores and a junior was a favorite in the Final Four?

I’ve been here in Indianapolis for a couple of days and have been impressed with the Gators demeanor since arriving on Thursday afternoon. “People say we’re a youthful team,” Joakim Noah noted when asked about team play. “But we’ve been through a lot together. We’re not young as a team any more. We might be young in years, but not as a team.”

As I’ve said before, he’s the most improved athlete in one year I’ve seen in my entire reporting career. But he also is one of the most settled “young” athletes I’ve been around. He’s rejected his rock star status in favor of creating a “team” concept. He accepts his duties to work with the media and be a team leader, but says all of the attention “doesn’t help us win basketball games.”

His answers are polite and thoughtful and set the tone for the rest of the team. In fact, this team is fun to cover. They make it easy with their genuine answers and willingness to be a part of the process. A lot of credit for that goes to Noah who doesn’t separate himself from his teammates and never utters the word “me.” The rest of the credit goes to Billy Donovan for creating an atmosphere where Noah and the rest of the team can flourish.

Nobody’s talking about Florida here except as the team that George Mason has to beat to continue their Cinderella run. The Gators are the villains, not an unfamiliar role for them, but with all of the attention on Mason, Florida’s not the central focus they could be. In fact, if Mason weren’t here, the Gators would be the Cinderella story.

But I think the carriage will turn into a pumpkin before midnight tonight for the Patriots. Florida’s play against Villanova, especially on defense showed they can defend the three-point line without giving up a lot of easy drives to the basket.

One thing’s for sure; they won’t be awed by the situation.

Tebow’s Choice

More than anything I was glad that decision day finally came for Tim Tebow of Nease High School. Both he and his parents looked frazzled at the announcement in St. John’s County on Tuesday. Tebow picked Florida and the auditorium erupted with applause.

I couldn’t help but think what the reaction would have been if he had said “Southern Cal.” Would there have been groans and catcalls? Probably not but the reaction in Florida for a Florida kid to go to Florida was very positive.

There were about a half-dozen people there with Alabama hats on, and apparently Mike Shula made a big impression on Tebow and his father and that’s how the Crimson Tide stayed in the hunt for so long. And Pete Carroll was equally impressive according to Tebow’s father Bob.

“It was a tough decision, but it was his decision,” Bob told me after the announcement was made. “I finally told him in the parking lot, ‘It’s your decision and you’re going to have to make it.”

It must have been tough, especially on a kid like Tebow who never really has had to say “no” to anybody. “I didn’t have a wrong choice,” Tim said after some of the commotion settled down. “They were all great men with great programs, I just decided on Florida because that’s where I was most comfortable. They’re going to do some great things there.”

Nease football coach Craig Howard thought it would be Gators all along, noting that Tebow’s room has been adorned with Orange and Blue since he was a kid. “He’s the most competitive player I’ve ever been around,” Howard said from the stage at Nease. “You can see his arm and his legs, but you can’t see his heart. That’s what separates him.”

Is all of the hoopla wrong for a high school senior announcing where he’s going to attend college? Probably. But it’s the way things are done. I like to call it the “ESPNification” of sports. Kids Tebow’s age have never known a world without fulltime sports cable television, so it seems normal to him and his peers. ESPN has raised the level of exposure so to compete everybody has to go along.

I can tell you whether ESPN was there or not, if Tim was making an announcement during our news at Channel 4, we’d have been there live. He was Mr. Football in the state of Florida and led his team to the state championship. Those credentials are enough to warrant big coverage.

I hope he makes it, he’s nice, grounded and doesn’t seem too affected by all of the attention. At least his Dad got it right when he said, “I told him you’ve got to go prove yourself again to your teammates, your coaches. It’s a joyous day, but it’s only a beginning.”

Amen to that.

Florida State Found

I just wrote a commentary called “Finding Florida State,” a little play on the “Finding Forrester” movie that concentrated on self-discovery. To put it nicely, Bobby Bowden’s self-discovery involved a little bit of the “evil eye” all week long.

In the twenty-five years I’ve known him, I’ve never seen Bowden as angry as he was last week. I know it was a little out of line, and it was particularly pointed because he thought the attacks against Florida State were personal toward his son, Jeff, the team’s offensive coordinator. But Bobby was mad, and he didn’t mind showing it this time around. He was surly with the media, and terse with his players. He was looking for that “something” that would make the difference between his team thinking they were just another team and thinking they were Florida State.

There weren’t a lot of niceties in Tallahassee during the week.

Apparently it worked.

When the Seminoles came out of the locker room, they looked like a different team. They looked like Florida State, not just another ACC team. The ‘Noles have built their reputation on a national scale, recruiting players from all over the country and garnering fans from Florida to California. Perhaps they were having a crisis of confidence, or maybe they just were too beat up and not good enough to compete in that three week stretch where they lost to N.C. State, Clemson and Florida.

They were losing offensive linemen to injury it seemed every series and they looked like they were feeling sorry for themselves. But they were transformed against the Hokies; even offensive play calling seemed to be hitting on all cylinders. Jeff Bowden was supposed to be run out of town but when he opened the game throwing the ball all over the place with a freshman quarterback, he looked like the “Riverboat Gambler” his father was when he was calling the plays in the ‘80’s.

Drew Weatherford showed poise, toughness and a strong arm all night throwing to receivers that were getting open. Where were those patterns three weeks ago? Perhaps they were there all the time, but Weatherford either didn’t have time to find them or the receivers were not running very precise routes. Virginia Tech has a fast, strong and physical defensive backfield, but the Seminoles didn’t seem to care about how good the Hokies were according to the stats. They just went out and played, and that looked like the difference.

Watching that game, I kept wondering, ‘how could not one of those FSU players be named to the All-conference first team? However; you look at it, whether Virginia Tech underestimated Florida State or the Seminoles got their act back together, the credit has to go to Bowden and the ‘Noles. They were a two-touchdown underdog! Two touchdowns?

One thing Frank Beamer said during the week really made sense. “They might be down, but they have good players and when you have good players you can get real good real fast.”

And that’s exactly what happened.

Leon Washington, Lorenzo Booker and the defense went back to playing like they were capable of. No tricks, no fancy stuff, just better blocking and tackling.

Now everybody likes Penn State to beat FSU in the Orange Bowl. Didn’t Penn State have all kinds of problems just a year ago? They’re better, but when you’re the best team in the Big Ten, how good are you, really? Hasn’t anybody learned? Don’t count Bobby Bowden and his team out until he says so.

And he hasn’t brought it up yet.

Finding Florida State

It’s Bobby’s fault.

No, it’s Jeff’s fault.

Wait a minute, it’s Mickey’s fault.

Actually let’s blame it on Chris Rix or even Jared Jones.

That’s the game that’s going on in Tallahassee: Who’s to blame? Perhaps the blaming should stop (it won’t) and the hand wringing could take a small break for a quick analysis of what’s going on with the FSU football team.

Start at the top if you like, with Bobby Bowden. He didn’t all of the sudden forget how to coach, or motivate or lead. He didn’t get stupid overnight. Bowden is still one of the best coaches in college football, seemingly ageless. Perhaps a little less patience with the media, but still a solid coach, leader and recruiter. Talk football with Bowden for about two minutes and it’s obvious he’s very involved, very much part of what’s going on when it comes to game planning, strategy the Seminoles mind-set.

If there’s one area that’s I’ve criticized in the past, it’s whether Bowden has the energy left to discipline a large group of young guys, particularly guys with the personality to play college football. Outside of that, Bowden has no downside, except that he’s created a situation where he’s nearly impossible to replace.

Bowden can call his own shots at FSU, stay or leave, coach or retire when he chooses and have a large hand in who his successor will be. Bowden isn’t the type who’s inclined to walk away when the going gets tough and will only leave with his legacy intact.

Bobby has come under a lot of criticism for putting his son Jeff in charge of the offense as the coordinator. The plays look fine and the sequences of plays aren’t the problem. The problem is execution and that’s where a coordinator takes the heat.

FSU likes to throw the ball downfield, and they’re still doing that. They like to try and hit the big running play, and that’s been hit or miss. Which brings the focus on the offensive line. The Seminoles will start their sixth different compliment of offensive linemen, having lost three starters since the beginning of the year. No team can be successful with that kind of change unless their skill players continue to be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

FSU has had a continuous flow of surprises at top positions, particularly at quarterback. The latest was Wyatt Sexton’s bout with Lyme disease that put him out of the lineup for the year. Drew Weatherford won the job, beating out Xavier Lee, and believe it or not could actually set all kinds of records this year for first-year quarterbacks in the league, eclipsing Phillip Rivers’ marks set at N.C. State.

Weatherford has taken a lot of heat, like Jeff Bowden, but as he said this week, when the plays work, they’re great, when they don’t, they’re not. It goes with the territory.

They could lose to Virginia Tech and possibly get beat in whatever bowl game they play in, finish the year 7-6 and out of the top 25. But they won’t panic and they won’t throw up their hands and walk away. They’ll get back to work; they’ll recruit harder, play better and return to the national picture with Bowden at the controls.

And that’s when he’ll walk away.

Urban Crisis

“Do you think we’ll still be running this offense five years from now?” one Gator fan asked me last week.
“If Urban Meyer is still your coach,” I answered.
The fan just rolled his eyes and walked away.

“Have you gotten on the ‘bash Urban’ bandwagon?” one Georgia fan asked me this week.

The point being, the honeymoon is over and there are a lot of football fans, Gators and others, wondering what’s going on in Gainesville. First, I don’t think Meyer had any idea what he was getting into when he accepted the job at Florida and joined the Southeastern conference. He complained this summer about going to too many Gator club meetings.

Wrong move.

He needs to embrace that, and rally the troops every summer. Some of my daughter’s (a UF grad) friends ran into Meyer backstage at a Jimmy Buffet concert this summer. “Hey Coach,” they ran up to him excitedly after recognizing him backstage. “We’re Gators!” they exclaimed. “Nice to meet you,” Meyer demurred. “No, we’re Gators!” they repeated, expecting some kind of communal response.

Nothing.

Just another sign that, at least in the beginning, Meyer didn’t get it.

It’s been funny to watch Meyer on the sidelines (same thing applies to Les Miles at LSU). Neither of them had any idea of the difference between where they were and where they are now, in the SEC. It’s LOUD in the SEC. You can’t wear those little earpieces or even just one-sided headsets. You need the big double cups to get by. You want to talk to somebody; you’ve got to get right in their ear.

It can be as loud as you want in Bowling Green and Salt Lake. Sorry, it’s not the SEC.

And that might apply to Urban Meyer’s attempt to run his spread offense at Florida. Either he’s trying to put round pegs in square holes, or the quality of athlete in the SEC isn’t going to allow that offense to work, or both.

It’s clear he’s got good players at Florida, left behind by Ron Zook and some recruited at the last second by Meyer himself. But Chris Leak is completely out of position as an option quarterback. But how do you bench one of your best players just because you’ve changed the offense? A good coach wouldn’t. He’d adapt his system to the personnel, and I was impressed that Meyer and his staff installed some more traditional formations and plays in the week off before the Georgia game.

But it’s just not enough, as evidenced by the South Carolina game.

I also think that running that offense at Bowling Green and at Utah might have been a bit easier because the best players in those regions play offense. In the SEC, there are plenty of good players to go around, on offense and defense. So some top-flight athletes end up on the defensive side of the ball, with the speed and smarts to stop the “spread.” Add top-flight coaches to the mix, and the “spread” might never have a chance in the conference. And it doesn’t have a downfield that Gator fans love.

The jury is still out, but they’re not going to deliberate long, that’s for sure.

Urban Challenge

After they beat Kentucky, I went on the air and talked about how the Gators were now Urban Meyer’s team. Not the remnants of the Steve Spurrier era, not a bunch of Ron Zook’s recruits but rather actually Urban Meyer’s team. The offense had the looks of confidence needed to run that spread option and the defense had a swagger that’s needed to win big games against SEC opponents.

Against Alabama, that all changed.

Again.

Perhaps they’re still Urban Meyer’s team but now the question is, “Is that a good thing?” If there’s been a little voice crawling around a lot of Gators’ fans heads, it’s been asking if the “spread option” is right for the SEC and the quality of player involved. As an assistant, Meyer developed this offense that took advantage of defenses that didn’t have speed on the edge and forced defenders to make decisions and exploited them.

It also was developed in a time before speed became the dominant factor on offense, before coaches figured out that you could throw the ball effectively with a good quarterback and a couple of receivers who could run and catch. It also was very effective at Bowling Green with the players plugged in to make it work and at Utah where even Meyer said he was lucky to have a “special player” like Alex Smith to run the offense.

Salt Lake isn’t Gainesville and Utah isn’t Florida and Wyoming isn’t Alabama. Or Auburn. Or Georgia. Or Tennessee. Or FSU.

If there’s another voice running around in Gators fans heads it’s asking if the offense suits the players on hand. One of the most impressive things about Don Shula’s career as a head coach is his ability to adapt to the personnel on the roster. When the Dolphins won in the early ‘70’s Bob Griese would throw the ball less than 15 times a game. Why should he? They had Csonka, Kiick and Morris to get the job done on the ground.

In the ‘90’s Dan Marino would throw the ball 15 times in the first quarter because the players on the field suited that kind of game and the game itself changed. So Shula changed with it, fitting his offense to the players available.

Not the other way around.

You can see how Meyer’s offense is supposed to work when Josh Portis steps in at quarterback and runs the ball. But he can’t throw it like Chris Leak, so he’s pretty predictable when he’s in the game. It’s a dilemma Meyer will have to solve, and soon. How is it that you’re Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback might not be the best QB on the team in the offense you want to run?

One loss isn’t a time to panic, but the Crimson Tide did expose a lot of Florida’s weaknesses in a short period of time. Don’t think everybody else isn’t paying attention.

Like Georgia. Like Auburn. Like LSU. Like FSU.

Meyer(ed) In Gainseville

It was electrifying. From the inaugural “Gator Walk” to the first run out of the tunnel through the alumni players, the hype was huge. The largest crowd to ever see a football game in the state, 90, 707 were in attendance to get the “Urban” experience. But when it finally started, when they actually kicked it off, it was as if a pin was inserted in the balloon of hype and deflated. It took Florida and Urban Meyer’s spread offense 12 minutes into the first quarter to make their initial first down.

“It wasn’t what I expected,” numerous Gator fans said to me as they walked the concourse at Florida Field. “It’ll take a few weeks to get the kinks worked out,” others offered in passing. Meyer wasn’t as gracious after the game. The new Florida Head Coach was very critical of his own team’s play, saying Chris Leak and the rest of the offense have a lot of work to do. Meyer admitted that he’s normally a negative person, so perhaps it’s not as bad as he originally thought but it’s certainly not the panacea Gator fans were looking for.

Leak completed 26-of-34 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns, broke Steve Spurrier’s school record for consecutive completions (17) and led the No. 10 Gators to a 32-14 victory over Wyoming. But Meyer wanted more from his junior quarterback.

“In case you’re wondering what the offense should look like, that wasn’t it,” Meyer said, sounding a little like the Ol’ Ball Coach. “We have got a lot of work to do. Chris Leak and the offense have a long way to go.”

I suppose that’s to be expected when a new, complicated offense is installed at any major football program. It had it’s glaring errors, from muffed snaps to blitzes that came free and demolished Leak in the backfield. But you could see that, over time, this king of offense presents all kinds of problems for defenses. Perhaps Wyoming was more aware of what an Urban Meyer offense could do based on the two years he was a conference foe at Utah. But the pressure the offense puts on the defense, particularly at the edges, creates all kinds of problems that aren’t easily solved.

The opening game also showcased freshman quarterback Josh Portis, giving Gator fans a glimpse of the future with a running threat handling the ball on every play. Leak is the Gators QB, but under Meyer, his lack of speed is a liability. That’s why you’ll see Portis in every game.

“Chad Jackson is the best receiver around here in a long time,” one observer of Gator football noted in the third quarter. “He’ll be the best NFL receiver to come out of here since (Carlos) Alvarez.” That certainly looks to be the case. Jackson made three touchdown catches and ran for a fourth to be the main scoring threat for Florida. But his third catch was something special, an over the wrong shoulder one-handed grab that left most in the press box at a loss for words. Which is hard to do. “We just have great chemistry together,” Leak explained when asked how he found Jackson so often.

The Gator defense was quick on the line, quicker than they’ve been in a few years. The defensive backs are the best collecting that’s ever been at Florida according to the coaching staff. Even if they did drop a couple of sure interceptions.

The special teams were any thing but special, resembling the out of whack units they were last season. Coaching can fix that, if they’ll focus on it.

Perhaps Wyoming was the perfect opponent for the opener this year. Good, but not too good. Enough to give Gators fans pause in their rush to the national championship. Enough to give Gator players a reason to go back to work and enough to give the coaches plenty of fodder to get the players back to work. Louisiana Tech won’t be quite as big of a challenge but it’s good that they’re on the schedule. Tennessee is in town in town weeks, and that’s when it really counts.

Meyer’s Florida

At 40-years old it’s no surprise that Urban Meyer was the most sought after football coach in America. He has the right pedigree, having been an assistant at Ohio State and Notre Dame (among others) and a successful head coach at Bowling Green and Utah. But he also has the media savvy, the self deprecating humor and a presence that successful leaders need.

Meyer strode to the podium on Tuesday after being introduced as the new Florida football coach and took his time gathering his papers and his thoughts. He spoke clearly and directly, addressing the assembled media and the boosters in attendance. He didn’t flinch, he didn’t stumble. He deflected the hard questions and hit the easy ones out of the park.

The only surprise was his revelation regarding his admiration of Steve Spurrier. “If Florida was on TV, I was there watching,” the new Gator Head Coach explained. “I was a fan, and I know you’re not supposed to be, but I like how they took the field, how they played the game, how they left the field. They had a swagger if you want to call it that. Hopefully you saw some of that at the University of Utah.”

Wow was that just what the Gator nation wanted to hear! A return to running up the score, big numbers on offense and a swagger that fans were used to. It’s only funny because Spurrier himself the week before while accepting the South Carolina job said he learned “humility” while he was away from the college game, and vowed to have a little less swagger as the coach of the Gamecocks.

But Meyer is the right guy for the job.

Winning, and winning in the fashion that will satisfy the culture of Florida fans is a whole different story. But even though he was the flavor of the month in coaching circles, Meyer is the right kind of personality for the football program and the right kind of football coach for the community.

I happened to stand right behind where his wife and their three children were sitting at the press conference. His wife in an orange and white striped Gator blouse and his kids decked out in brand new orange and blue. Meyer apparently never thought twice about having a chance to work in Florida. “Why don’t you put your name into the hat at some of those schools in Florida,” Meyer’s wife apparently told him each time he was thinking about changing jobs.

Remember, this is a career that was at Ohio State, Notre Dame, Illinois State, Colorado State, Bowling Green and Utah. Not a lot of balmy days in any of those locations. “Yeah, right,” Meyer told his wife, “I don’t know anybody down there. I can’t just throw my name in the hat!”

Win enough games and you can. And knowing the President of the University doesn’t hurt either. Meyer asked Lou Holtz and Bob Stoops about taking the job at Florida, but perhaps the most influential person he talked to was Billy Donovan, the Gators basketball coach. “Coach Donovan spent hours on the phone with me,” the new football coach explained, “And he couldn’t say enough about the Gainesville community and how great a place it is to raise a family. That’s what I was looking for.” Good thing, since Meyer is exactly what the Gators were looking for as well.

. . . From Utah?

Do you smell that?

It’s that “I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it-but-something’s-not-right-with-this” smell surrounding the hiring of Urban Meyer as the Florida Gators Head Football Coach. Yes, it seems they out-bid Notre Dame for the hot, flavor of the month coach, but there’s something unseemly about it.

Perhaps.

Or perhaps that’s just how it’s going to go from now on when it comes to hiring a head football coach at any major program. I don’t know anything about Urban Meyer except that he’s won everywhere he’s coached. He’s young enough to build a legacy at the University of Florida if he wins there and decides to stay and that he had an out in his Utah contract that would have allowed him to go to Notre Dame, Michigan or Ohio State without penalty. Florida wasn’t in that grouping, but when it came time to choose where he’d coach next, he picked the Gators.

Or did he just pick the money?

Somebody who puts three schools in his contract that he can leave for has a deep affinity for those schools that goes beyond just money and reputation. So when his self proclaimed “dream job” at Notre Dame was opened for him by firing Tyrone Willingham, it seemed like a slam dunk he’d be coaching the Irish next year. But after less than 48 hours of deliberations, Meyer picked Florida. “I heard people say it was your dream job. It still is,” Meyer said. “It just so happens I have three children at a (young) age and a situation that was well into effect before that one was even on the radar.”

So if Notre Dame had called, what decision would he have made?
“I don’t know,” Meyer said bluntly.

“He has a presence,” Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said about Meyer. “When he walks into a room, people notice.”

Short term, winning at Florida will be easier. The Gators are already loaded with talent and even with the recruits who have said they’ll look around again who were committed to Florida (Zook told me they had “everybody”), next year’s freshman class only deepens the talent pool.

Meyer has the offensive philosophy Gator fans like. His Utah team beat UNLV last month by opening the game in the rain with a reverse-pass kickoff return for a touchdown. But Gator fans want a little more than just a guy who has won, throws the ball around and has some tricks up his sleeve. They want their coach to appreciate their suffering. They want a coach who hates Auburn, Georgia and Florida State as much as they do. That’s why Steve Spurrier was an instant hit in Gainesville. He was one of them from the start. He never hesitated to stick it to Florida opponents on and off the field. He had an open disdain for the schools who had kept the Gators out of the SEC Championship for their first 59 years in the conference. He wouldn’t even say “Florida State” rather referring to them only as “FSU” and “that school up the road in Tallahassee.” And he made them pay for it.

Meyer has to jump into that right away. If they’re paying him $14 million over 7 years, the expectations will be high. But Florida fans will be looking for the emotional attachment he develops with the school, the fans, the boosters and the rivalries. Meyer could be considered University President Bernie Machen’s boy. He hired him in Utah, and now he’s brought him to Gainesville. Even though Meyer admitted he’d been talking to Florida since the regular season ended, he knew Notre Dame’s job was open for three days prior to accepting the Gators’ top spot.

Maybe it says something about where Notre Dame is in the college football pecking order. While the Golden Dome has a certain cache’ among 40-somethings and up, it’s just another school to a younger generation. Players who will be freshmen this year were born in 1986. The Irish last won the National Championship in ’88. So in the game of coaching musical chairs, ND is left without a seat and the Gators get their man.

At Spurrier’s Request

On the day Ron Zook was fired, it was obvious somebody needed to hear that the Florida head football coaching job was going to be open. Perhaps it was Steve Spurrier, perhaps it was Bernie Machen, the school’s president, perhaps it was the recruits or perhaps it was some big boosters. The timing seemed odd, but if the decision had been made to replace him (perhaps based on some of the team’s off-field shenanigans) if he had won out, beating Georgia and FSU in the process, it would have been very difficult to make a move on Zook at that point.

Once the announcement was made, the Gator Nation was clamoring for Steve Spurrier to return, and he didn’t disqualify himself as a candidate. In fact, he left the door open, and most of his friends and confidants thought he was going back to Gainesville. Then he took himself out of the running.

So what happened?

Perhaps Steve just thought about it and figured it didn’t have enough upside to it. Or maybe he really was in the “been there, done that” mentality. But more likely is something set Spurrier off in the wrong direction, so he just decided “no” was the right answer. Recently, Steve has said he was surprised when Machen didn’t remember meeting him. When asked, the UF president said he’d never met Spurrier, “but I’ve seen a picture of him once,” in an attempt at humor.

Knowing Steve the little that I do, he wouldn’t have liked that, at all. In fact, Spurrier and Machen had met at a basketball game, and their wives sat next to each other. “Maybe he wants to hire somebody he knows,” Spurrier said late last week, “’cause he doesn’t know who I am.” That’s Spurrier talk for “I’m not workin’ for that guy.”

Some people think that Steve didn’t want to go through the process, and I don’t blame him. But the process is part of the NCAA regulations these days, and it’s also the politically correct thing to do to cover your own back when questioned about who you interviewed, etc.. So if there was going to be a process, Jeremy Foley just needed to tell Steve to go through the motions and in mid-December when the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed, the job would be his. Maybe he never got around to having that talk with the “ole ball coach.”

But I think it was really a combination of things. There isn’t a tremendous upside for Spurrier to return to Florida. He’s a legend there already and save for winning another National Championship, his image could only be tarnished without reaching that ultimate goal. Spurrier will be 60 years old before next season starts, so his shelf-life at Florida was five years, max. That might not be long enough to get the job done the way he’d like to. He’s got other things he likes to do, and it’s not all golf either.

When Foley said “If coach isn’t into it a thousand percent, then he knows he’s not right for the job,” that was very telling. If there was even a small doubt in Steve’s mind, it wouldn’t have worked. That’s why if he takes a job coaching, it’ll be in the NFL. There’s no emotion attachment there, and this time around, he’ll know it. It amazed him that the professional players sometimes came to play and other times didn’t. He didn’t have the kind of control he wanted in Washington, which perhaps another owner would be willing to cede to him. Miami would seem like a good fit, because they’re going to need a head coach, except they’re a bad team all around right now. And they don’t have a quarterback that fits the Spurrier mold. But he might end up there with a general manager who can put some of the pieces in place for him to be successful. And besides, five years is just about the right time to coach in the NFL anyway.

Georgia’s Win

Thirteen of the last 14 years Florida fans have walked away from the stadium in Jacksonville as winners. “That’s all of your adult life,” I told one of my friends who was glum after Georgia won 31-24. I like it when Florida wins because a lot of my friends (and my daughter who’s a UF grad) are happy. But I also like it when Georgia wins because the ‘Dogs fans hang around and have fun in town. Florida fans always hang around win or lose, so it’s a big festive atmosphere for the whole weekend.

I would have liked it if the Gators had won on Saturday just because Head Coach Ron Zook deserves a solid send off. Getting fired is part of the job, but Florida hasn’t handled this thing very well over the last week. Still, Zook’s players couldn’t muster enough to beat Mississippi State, why would anybody expect them to all of the sudden become something different against Georgia. Emotion plays a big part in this game, but it can only carry you so far. For the Gators, it carried them to a close game, but Georgia was the better team and showed it in crunch time for the first time in the last three years.

David Green gets his first win against Florida and so does Head Coach Mark Richt. Richt walked into his post game press conference and said, “You know this is the first time I’ve walked down the hall in this place and didn’t have to figure out what I was going to say.”

Florida had too many penalties (10 for 77 yards), and Georgia took advantage of the Gator miscues. Plus, just as Florida was gaining the momentum in the 4th quarter, but Green hit Reggie Brown for 51-yards to move the ball into Gator territory and quiet those at the game in Orange and Blue. Gator players said after the game that emotion wasn’t a problem and they were disappointed that they couldn’t pull out this win for Zook.

Ciatrick Fason has turned out to be the real deal for Florida. His 17 carries for 139 yards kept the Gators in the game (he also caught five passes out of the backfield). But how he gained his yards was even more impressive. He constantly looks like he’s stopped, and somehow escapes to rip off big chunks of yardage. More and more it seems he will turn pro after this season. If he continues to develop at this rate, his value jumps out of the middle rounds and into the top two or three.

Florida now has games against Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Florida State remaining on their schedule. They have better athletes than Vandy, but South Carolina can do some damage if they don’t pay attention, and the FSU game is usually unpredictable. (Especially this year with the Seminoles as unpredictable as they’ve ever been.) As Jeremy Foley has said a couple of times, Florida still isn’t bowl eligible, but Peach Bowl and Outback Bowl officials were at today’s game scouting the Gators.

Zook Cooked

From the day he was hired, there was a thinly veiled threat hanging over Ron Zook’s head at Florida. It was always there, even at the press conference announcing his hiring. When Athletic Director Jeremy Foley made his initial remarks that day, the first questions didn’t have anything to do with Zook. They were all about why he didn’t hire Bob Stoops or Mike Shanahan. Foley said something to the effect that “this is the right guy, and he’ll prove it.” Not an overwhelming endorsement, but a vote of confidence; with that veiled threat.

And the threat constantly whispered to Zook, “You weren’t the first choice, you have to prove yourself. And if you don’t you’re out of here.” The threat never went away, even after big wins, and it magnified after losses. When he won, he didn’t win big enough. When he lost, it was the coach’s fault, not the player’s. “He can really recruit,” was the way Gator fans praised their coach. When he won, like against LSU and Georgia last year, it was because the players stepped up.

So Ron Zook was always in a lose-lose situation. He had to win, and win big to feed the monster that Gator fans have become. He also had the bad fortune of following Steve Spurrier at Florida’s helm. “I’m not the ball coach,” Zook said as he addressed the ‘I’m not Spurrier’ situation at his opening press conference. “I’m my own man.”

When Zook was hired, Frank Frangie had me on his show to talk about how Zook would fair as the Gators new head coach. “Gator fans need style points,” I told Frank that day. “They want to win games 47-3, not 24-21. Georgia fans are perfectly happy to win 10-9, but Florida fans won’t stand for it. They’re a little spoiled and want things just so.” Frank called me that night to say he thought I was a little harsh (Frank is a Florida grad and a long time friend of Zook) but he has since changed his mind. “You’re right,” he told me Sunday night. “It’s not the record, but how you win the games that Gator fans are interested in.”

It’s pretty obvious that Zook lost the confidence of even his most loyal fans after the loss to Mississippi State, but it’s not one loss that gets you fired. It’s cumulative. He wasn’t winning big enough; he wasn’t rubbing the opponents’ nose in it. Those 59 years of being the SEC’s doormat left Gator fans wanting revenge, vigilante style. Once the big boosters say they’re not contributing any more money until there’s a new head coach, soon there will be a new head coach.

Zook’s actions in the whole fraternity incident certainly played a role in his demise as well. If you’re a nut and winning, it can be written off to being “competitive.” If you’re a nut and losing, then well, you’re just a nut. Be assured, this wasn’t just a Jeremy Foley decision either. The administration from the President on down was involved. Florida views themselves as a sort of “Ivy League School of the South” these days, and there’s a certain amount of decorum they’re expecting.

Gator fans will have to ask themselves a pretty hard question very soon: What will make them happy? Everybody says “That guy from Utah” (Urban Meyer) but do the Gator faithful really want a guy from Utah as their head coach? Of course they say “That guy from Utah” right after they mumble something about Spurrier.

Ah-ha!

That’s what’s missing!

Spurrier’s not the head coach!

And he’s available!

So like the bat light over the big city, the Gator light is out over Gainesville, seeing if Spurrier will answer the call. He’s been out three years, it didn’t work in the NFL in Washington, he still has his place in Crescent Beach, and, well, he’s Spurrier! When it comes to picking their head coach, Gators are pretty myopic. It’s almost Crimson Tide-esque with anybody and Bear Bryant.

Maybe Urban Meyer is the right guy. They scored 63 points against UNLV and opened the game with a kickoff return reverse pitch for a touchdown. Either way, whoever the next coach at Florida is will be inheriting a very good and young team.

Steve, are you listening?