Florida lost to Florida State Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium, 24-19, thus ending the Will Muschamp era. As Neil Shulman has written here, and Pat Dooley wrote here, it was certainly a game Florida should have won.
Instead, it was a loss that largely described the whole of the Muschamp era. Great defense. Dreadful penalties. Special teams that were fairly good until they failed when they were needed the most. A largely inept offense, but one that briefly showed signs of life before becoming inept again at the worst possible instance. Multiple chances to win the game. Multiple “what ifs” the net result.
Will Muschamp changed UF’s program from selfish and entitled at best, borderline criminal and out of control at worst, to a respectable unit that plays hard, by and large stays off the police blotter and graduates kids. But football programs are too big to fail these days and it is, bottom line, about winning, at almost any costs. So Jameis Winston, Fisher and the enablers at FSU won Saturday, for the 28th straight time. And they’ll probably at least win 29 in a row before seeing if they can make it 31 for 31.
Winning cashes checks and covers all manner of sins. You worry about the ramifications later, when the program is broken, but even then the urge to win makes for short memory about its sometimes taxing costs. As other schools attempt to catch up to FSU, Will Muschamp leaves Florida with his head held high off the field, a coveted defensive coordinator who can immediately affect winning on it. Gators fans, meanwhile, with a clean program and clean conscience, wonder who can provide what was missing, and win more games.
The man tasked of course with making that hire, Jeremy Foley, is the best athletic director in America. His list of home run hires includes Billy Donovan, the best hire in collegiate athletics in any sport since Duke hired Mike Krzyzewski; Kevin O’Sullivan, who has finally delivered Florida baseball from the perennial underachiever dungeon; Tim Walton, who pushed Florida softball over the hump and this year, won the national championship; Rhonda Faehn, who has turned Florida gymnastics into a blueblood, and of course Urban Meyer, the two championship winning coach whom popular myth would have you believe was hired by Bernie Machen, despite Machen’s own word that’s not the case.
Foley, 62 yesterday, is approaching the age where you don’t make many more critical hires, and this is likely to be his last in football. That Billy Donovan exists and Florida’s athletic program is the envy of all schools in its venerable conference means Mr. Foley’s legacy is sound. But after failing with Ron Zook and Will Muschamp, it taxes the credulity of the credulous to debate whether this hire will be an integral part of how he’s remembered at Florida.
When you’ve only worked one place, like Mr. Foley, that’s heady stuff. As the rumors have swirled and the “wish lists” have posted, I’ve tried to keep the following in mind: there’s likely more alligators in Lake Alice than folks who want this hire to work more than Jeremy Foley, whose degree says Hobart College but whose thirty-eight year work history says Gator through and through. He’s Gator down to his knuckles, the kind of Gator this season’s ill-fated pregame video at the Swamp was undoubtedly referencing when it talked about “rising in the morning and beating the sun to the punch, day after day” and “knocking the grin from adversity’s face.”
High in the north end zone, mostly with my Dad, I’ve seen my share of suns drifting to sleep behind Century Tower after 3:30 PM kickoffs, but even all those sunsets rolled into another don’t amount to much compared to the time Foley’s put in at the UAA, for the U of F. Foley understands Florida and that’s part of how he sold the blue-collar Catholic midwesterner Urban Meyer on the program over Notre Dame, because, according to Meyer, “Jeremy convinced me there was no better place to combine family and football.”You might not think Foley’s affection for this university matters, and that’s fine. But understand Mal Moore attended Alabama before he fixed their broken program with Nick Saban. Understand that it took Steve Spurrier, Florida’s most distinguished footballing alumnus, to awaken the program Bear Bryant of Mal Moore’s Alabama called the south’s “sleeping giant.”
It helps, I think, to remember these things as Mr. Foley and those within the UF administration decide who will lead the football program into the future. There’s peace of mind there, I think. And peace of mind is necessary, especially on days like today, when the coaching search rumors start flying around at alarming speeds. It was expected that the search and attendant rumor would ratchet up with college football’s regular season over, save championship week and Army-Navy. But Monday was rapid-fire rumor and “sources close to” speculation of an even higher than expected grade.
In truth, it started Sunday night with Pat Forde’s report that Jim McElwain had emerged as the leading candidate for the job. Interesting, and not denied by Mr. Foley in the statement released by the University of Florida Athletic Association lunchtime Monday. McElwain has an enormous buyout- one that paired with what Florida will owe Will Muschamp makes for about a 13 million dollar investment before you even talk salary, so in that respect, if he’s your hire, you better be right. Of course, Florida’s already in a “you better be right” situation– two hires who don’t win enough in succession is essentially a one-decade setback, or, about 1/5 the lifetime of a fortunate booster after they graduate from UF.
McElwain isn’t entirely unappealing, and I liked him enough to suggest him in the inaugural IAKOW podcast. Another Saban apostle, he’s on the right side of the ball, a bright offensive mind who masterminded multiple national championships running offense at Alabama. He won with an extremely limited Greg McElroy in 2009, defeating a Florida team that had won 23 consecutive games behind Tim Tebow and Charlie Strong’s #1 ranked defense. You can talk all you want about Carlos Dunlap falling asleep at a traffic light drunk and Strong having to install a new gameplan just a day before walkthrough, and there’s merit to that, to be sure. But Florida had NFL players all over that unit and surrendered 500 yards of offense in that ball game. That will be Florida fans most intimate memory of McElwain. More critically, he’s turned around a morbid Colorado State program and last year, he came about as close to defeating Nick Saban’s Alabama as Will Muschamp did on both his tries at Florida (Colorado St. lost 31-6).
The second rumor came in the in-between hours of Sunday night and Monday morning, with SB Nation reporter Steven Godfrey claiming Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze was weighing competing offers from Ole Miss and Florida. Citing the always informative “multiple sources”, Godfrey reported Florida had already made an offer to Freeze in the 4 million dollar range. Florida denied this, and any other offers, in the lunchtime statement.
Often discussed as a candidate, Freeze is a fascinating possibility. At 45, he’s younger than McElwain and a bit closer to the “MO” at Florida where the young, potential “lifer” is preferable to an older, often more-established candidate. Ole Miss, a dumpster fire prior to Freeze’s arrival, is now a program on the precipice, who figured heavily into the playoff picture for most of this season and defeated bell cow Alabama. Like Muschamp, Freeze is a relentless recruiter. Unlike Muschamp, he’s an offensive mind who embraces the spread principles most seem to believe best fit Florida’s program and recruiting base.
Indeed, unless you have some odd aversion to deeply religious head coaches (See, Donovan, Billy), it would be difficult to be upset about this hire.
By the way- the comparisons to Donovan don’t stop at religion. Both recruited so well at places where it was traditionally believed to be impossible that coaches at bluebloods accused them of cheating. The now unemployed Bo Pelini accused Freeze of cheating while he was head coach at Nebraska, just as Roy Williams levied accusations at Donovan following Mike Miller’s commitment to Florida over Kansas. Donovan was cleared of all wrongdoing. Ole Miss has “embraced” the NCAA’s current inquiry. It’s true that Mr. Foley may want to avoid even the appearance of past impropriety in this hire- but that didn’t stop him with Will Muschamp (accused of paying a player at Auburn) and likely wouldn’t halt things now. Regardless, Freeze is a name worth watching.
The rumors continued, of course. Chip Kelly won’t be the next head coach at Florida, but his name emerged midday, with reports out of Philadelphia suggesting Mr. Foley would at least inquire of the coach who referenced Cortez and said he’d “burned the boats” when he left Oregon for the NFL. Mr. Kelly didn’t, many speculate, so much “burn the boats” as he was told by the NCAA he wouldn’t coach, and even if Foley did inquire and Kelly is interested, as Colin Cowherd has suggested he is, his “show cause” prevents any school from hiring him without cause until December 26th. That’s certainly not too late to assemble a recruiting class, but given Kelly will likely have NFL duties with the Eagles until at least early January, it is unlikely a deal would be in place that quickly. Furthermore, Mr. Foley has spent a good deal of media time in the last few weeks spreading the gospel of how Will Muschamp “did everything right (except win)”, so it seems highly unlikely Kelly would be the hire. A bored NFL coach with no history of NCAA investigation, like Jim Harbaugh, would make more sense.
Finally, former Denver Broncos head coach and New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was also thrown in the mix midday. Better known to Gator fans universally as the “guy who drafted Tebow”, McDaniels is, in the strictest resume sense, also a Saban disciple, but the better link here is Bill Belichick, a friend of Jeremy Foley’s and a longtime fan and proselytizer of Florida Gators football. Football Scoop, who broke the story initially, cited our old friend “multiple sources” and on this front, they have some credibility: they were the first to mention Kurt Roper last year when Florida was seeking an offensive coordinator to save Will Muschamp’s job. Beyond that, there’s the obvious Tebow connection which is nice for the press conference, but the more important facts are that McDaniels’ New England offenses have ranked 1st (2012), 7th (2013) and (currently) 6th in the NFL and McDaniels is viewed largely (though not universally) as an innovative, bright offensive mind, which is what folks are clamoring for in the post-Muschamp era.
Mr. McDaniels, 38, is easily the youngest of those rumored to be in the mix today, and presumably it is that youth and the NFL pedigree that would offset whatever learning curve there is for him recruiting wise. Nonetheless, McDaniels has spent almost his entire coaching career in the NFL (2001-present) and it is fair to wonder whether his short stint as Broncos head coach would be enough to assuage Jeremy Foley’s reasonable fears, should he have them, about hiring another coordinator.
Of today’s names, my sense is that Freeze and McElwain are the strongest names. And with names like Bob Stoops and Steve Spurrier already in the rearview mirror, it’s fair to wonder if these names are a bit more closer to the reality of who the hire will be than simple rumor and innuendo.
There will be more days like today. Take a deep breath. Trust the man in charge.
After all, what’s December for if not for sentiment, emotion and wonder?