Last season, Will Muschamp’s first as head coach at the University of Florida, was an extremely trying season for Gator fans far and wide. The offense struggled to move the football running, passing, on third down, pretty much on any down and in any fashion. The defense which had played well at times actually finishing ranked in the top ten nationally in total defense, still played terribly inconsistently. In SEC play they struggled to stop the run late in games, they gave up too many third downs, and they failed to make plays in the passing game when they were in position to do so. To add insult to injury they dropped far too many interceptions and finished one of the worst teams in terms of take aways on the season.
A season that started out with September promise playing against relative patsies quickly sank into an October surprise and then, a November revelation. By the time they had finished the SEC schedule and headed into the final game against bitter rival FSU, the Gators were wore down mentally and physically, they had the psyche of an abused dog.
Against the Seminoles the defense actually played well, holding the Seminoles to only 95 yards of total offense in the game. In spite of that effort, the Gators still fell to the Noles 21-7. John Brantley, constantly battered by the Seminole defensive line, threw two interceptions deep in their own territory which the Noles turned into short touchdowns. After Brantley was finally knocked out of the game on a sandwich play where he suffered a concussion, true freshman Jacoby Brissett came on and quickly gave up a pick six that put the game out of reach.
After the game, a downtrodden coach Muschamp called his team out in the post-game press conference calling them “soft”. He went on to speak about how they had no control on either side of the line of scrimmage, he questioned their character and their toughness. He did everything short of calling their momma’s names. Muschamp didn’t just throw his team under the bus, he started the engine, put it into gear, and drove a five hundred mile race over his players.
Of course, that quickly made headlines. Every newspaper, every website, every blog spoke about the Gators “softness”. At the time it seemed almost appalling that a coach would do that. After all, these guys had suffered through multiple injuries to quarterbacks, lineman, skill players. They were playing in a new system which is far different from the one they had ran previously, a system they were recruited to play in. They played the heart of a tough SEC schedule with true freshmen manning the quarterback position. What kind of coach does this? Well I’ll tell you. A coach that understands that sometimes what it takes to make people see where they are and where they need to go is total… brutal… honesty. Asked by a reporter why Muschamp called his team out after last year’s game he responded,
“When you’re fourth and one and you’re trying to run a quarterback sneak and you lose 13 yards that will trigger it.”
In case you missed it, the Gators had a fourth and one late in the game in Seminole territory and tried to run a simple quarterback sneak with Trey Burton. The play was intially stuffed so trying to make a play Burton reversed field but was tackled for a 13 yard loss on the play, one of the strangest fourth down sneak plays ever seen.
“I think it was a culmination of a lot of things through the year,” Muschamp said. “We wore down stopping the run against South Carolina late in the game. We had our opportunities and we don’t get off the field. Georgia same thing defensively. Then we struggled to be able to take the pressure of our quarterback last year and being able to run the ball in some form or fashion.”
Muschamp hit the nail on the head with brutal honesty. No coddling, no coachspeak about how these guys were giving their all and we’ll keep striving, etc… Just cold, brutal, honesty.
“I think it’s the culmination of things that just get built up,” Muschamp said. “A little frustration and you say what’s on your mind. And that’s what I did with the team in the locker room when the game was over, and that has been our challenge as we’ve moved forward from that point in our offseason program.”
Sounds crazy but it worked. Muschamp’s brutal honesty is just what this team needed to move forward. It’s one thing to lose games, it’s one thing to lose close games, it’s another thing to understand why you lose those games, why you lose those close games, and what it will take to get better. To become a winner when you’ve gotten used to losing. Some times you’ve got to be broken down before you can be built back up and, for certain, this team was broken down.
However, if there’s one thing that Muschamp learned in that locker room that day it was that he had a group of guys that were not going to hang their head, they were not going to accept being losers, they were not going to turn on the coach that had called them out. They would use that moment, that speech, and that locker room honesty to become winners.
“Really, it turned for me in the bowl practice,” according to Muschamp. “I thought we had an outstanding bowl practice. When you’re six and six at the University of Florida it’s never good, after experiencing it. but you also find out who’s on board and who’s not with your football team. I knew then with our team right now that we had a bunch of guys who were bought in to what we were doing. There was no wavering, there was no guys wondering if we were doing the right things. and that’s really where I saw some good things coming.”
What he saw was a bunch of guys hungry to get better, hungry to become winners, hungry to be coached. What he saw was a group of guys that would spend the offseason working on technique, working in the weight room with a new strength coach Jeff Dillman whose specialty was more in line with Muschamp’s philosophy on core strength necessary to run the types of offenses and defenses he wanted to run. They worked while Dillman, Muschamp, and the staff coached. They came back this season bigger, stronger physically, and even more importantly, stronger mentally. Asked about how much different this year’s team is from last year’s, Muschamp replied,
“Night and day. You look at the adversity we have faced through the year in different games and different circumstances, different places and how we’ve handled it. Not just top to bottom, offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff everybody included has been night and day.”
Night and day. The difference in their physical and mental makeup this season and the difference in their won-loss record. A team that finished 7-6, the worst record in Gainesville since 1989, has turned that around to 10-1 coming into this season’s finale against that same bitter rival Florida State. Realistically, they are probably one turnover away from being undefeated. Not bad for a team the head coach called “soft” a mere one year ago.
They may not win this weekend, after all this Seminole team is clicking on all cylinders ranked first in the nation in defense and top twenty on offense, but regardless of what happens on Saturday there is one thing you cannot say about this team and that is that it is soft. And I don’t think we’ll be hearing that word from Muschamp in this Saturday’s post-game media conference either.