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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – First question for Florida coach Will Muschamp: Do you feel your team deserves a shot at the national title?
Second question: Do you feel your team is the best in the country?
"We have the best defense in the country. We are creative in the running game. Our quarterback gives you issues. We are well-prepared in every game. And our team understands the meaning of the word 'team.' "
Well, that's a different kind of coach-speak.
The surprise here isn't that a Florida head coach thinks his team belongs in the BCS Championship game. An 11-1 record at this school will lead to that kind of declaration, even though Muschamp fully acknowledges his team blew its title chances against Georgia with six turnovers.
No, the surprise is that this has happened so soon under "Coach Boom" just a few months after a 7-6 campaign had Gator Nation warbling over whether things would ever be the same in the post-Tebow era. How bad was it? Florida drew only one NFL scout to a late-season game last year; he was there to watch a player on the other team.
That other team was Furman.
It was even worse than most fans standing in the shadow of Saint Timmy's statue realized, as Muschamp says his team was a "very divided" and "very selfish group."
That's putting it nicely, according to some of the seniors who say there were actual fights among players. "Physical, verbal, everything," says star linebacker Jon Bostic.
These weren't brawls where steel chairs got tossed around, but the Gators were in disarray. The Muschamp hire wasn't looking nearly as inspiring as those of Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer, offensive geniuses who not only won championships but baffled opponents with revolutionary schemes and rare talents.
Muschamp's background is as a defensive coordinator. His scheme, not exactly Smithsonian material. The only flashy thing about him was the nickname he'd inherited when TV cameras caught him yelling "BOOM!"after a defensive play when he was a coordinator at Auburn.
Muschamp did recruit Johnny Manziel while an assistant at Texas, but in his own words, "I liked him as a safety."
Heading into this season, there was a palpable fear that things would be irrelevant quickly. The two-game road trip to Texas A&M and Tennessee barely out of the gate made even optimistic Gator-backers nervous. And the home date against LSU made them downright pessimistic. Who could doubt their reason for concern? The quarterback was sophomore Jeff Driskel (a four-star recruit, but still unproven) and the running back was Mike Gillislee, another unproven recruit. Danny Wuerffel and Emmitt Smith were not walking into the locker room.
Nor was their coach getting booted out of it.
Athletic director Jeremy Foley's first and only call on his drive home from Urban Meyer's retirement press conference was to Muschamp. This past offseason, Foley gave him a contract extension (but didn't announce it until Tuesday). Foley invokes John Elway when asked how long his list of candidates was.
"There was no Plan B," he says.
So what if Coach Boom was a bust?
Urban Meyer was certainly not a bust, winning twice as many national titles as Spurrier, but the end of his era at Florida was messy. "Toward the end of Coach Meyer's time here, a lot of guys were out for themselves – not buying into the team concept," explains defensive lineman Omar Hunter. "He was out for himself, so they thought the same thing.
"A lot of things were sliding," he contiues, explaining how their coach's sudden departure, return and re-departure impacted the team. "Guys were showing up late to practice and workouts. Guys were supposed to be back on Sunday and didn't get back until Monday. There was no discipline."
And it lingered even after Meyer's second departure. Players say factions still existed last year after Muschamp's arrival. "There was a little separation," says senior safety Josh Evans. "Everyone had groups." Offensive lineman Jon Halapio is more blunt: "This team was very divided."
It showed up on the field, as a formerly unstoppable offense under Tebow was immobile under the oft-sacked John Brantley. And five-star players who were widely heralded when they arrived on campus either didn't get better or got worse. Muschamp, who holds "exit interviews" with every player after every season, was appalled.
"It was amazing to sit through those interviews," he says. "I'd ask what the goals were for the team and the majority cited individual goals. We had an issue. It wasn't cool to be a program guy."
Muschamp called a meeting and informed the Gators that there would only be program guys here from now on.
"I loved it," says Hunter. "He's hard-nosed, not going to let anything slide. Not tell you any lies."
Muschamp told the story of the 1986 New York Giants, who won the Super Bowl and sent eight players to the Pro Bowl. The next season the Giants went 6-10 with basically the same roster and sent only four to Hawaii. The point was this: play together or fail. And he had a way of enforcing this. At least his strength coach, Jeff Dillman, did.
Conditioning tests have all kinds of connotations, from plyometrics to burpees to gassers. At Florida, the conditioning test this past spring was simple: 16 consecutive 110-meter dashes. Skill guys went first and had to finish each sprint in less than 15 seconds. "Big skill" guys (running backs and linebackers) went next and had to finish each in less than 16 seconds. Linemen went last, having to finish in less than 18 seconds. The groups rotated, and anyone who didn't finish in the allotted time had to do it again.
Oh, and there were no hands on hips. Players who felt fatigued had to wiggle their fingers and smile. Seriously.
The team had to work up to this test by doing not 16 sprints but up to 30. In summer. In the afternoon. In Florida. The training was a source of complete dread.
But eventually it became a source of team building.
Muschamp didn't mind the fights as much as you'd think. To him, it was a form of communication, of airing it out. "Don't stay quiet," Bostic says. "Other people might be feeling the same way."
Players began cheering for each other, focused on the goal of finishing those sprints.
Muschamp says he had an inkling of the season to come when he got reports of teamwork in the spring and summer. "Midway through camp, I knew were going to be a very physical team," he says.
But every team is undefeated in August. There was still plenty of doubt heading into the early-season showdown against A&M and Manziel. Muschamp knew this kid was going to be trouble. He told the players. And he was right.
Manziel ran and threw like only he can. Bostic, who believes Manziel should win the Heisman, says he looked at the redshirt freshman's high school tapes and still didn't quite believe how fast he was. But strangely enough, the 16 straight sprints was the perfect preparation for trying to catch Manziel. Florida was 0-5 under Muschamp when losing at the break, and sure enough they trailed 17-10 at halftime. So this was it, the test of the new Gators. Spurrier/Meyer teams could outscore anyone. Muschamp's team would have to stop a Heisman-worthy talent instead of just recruiting him and trotting him out.
And that's exactly what they did. The Aggies' first six possessions in the second half went like this: punt, punt, punt, punt, punt, punt.
Muschamp told his defenders to stay in Manziel's running lanes and stop turning their backs to him on receiving routes. Make Manziel hesitate where he's used to making defenders hesitate. It worked beautifully, and Manziel was held to less than 200 yards passing for the only time all season in which he played all four quarters.
Florida came back and won. The triumph was a callback to another defensive stand against a similar quarterback.
In 2007, Tebow suffered one of the few home defeats in his Florida career, held to 201 passing yards and losing in the Swamp for the first time in 17 games under Meyer. It was then that Foley noticed the excitable defensive coordinator on the other sideline. Three years later, Foley would offer him a head coaching job.
"He was a defensive coach," Foley says. "I'll be honest with you: that was important to us."
Four years after that upset at the Swamp, Muschamp was be celebrating a turning-point win at Florida. In that visitor's locker room in College Station, the Gators realized Muschamp's scheme could work. "It was electric," Muschamp says. The talent would always be there at Florida, but Muschamp wouldn't need to go five-star-gazing to win a lot of games.
"I'll turn my back on a five-star guy if he isn't a good guy," Muschamp says. "I have zero reservations about that. ZERO reservations."
He raises his voice a little.
"I'm the recruiting coordinator here," he says. "You're not a good guy, you go somewhere else. We'll play you. We'll beat you."
His definition of a good guy is Gillislee, a Florida native who'd only seen part-time work in his first three seasons as a Gator. Thrust into the starting role as a senior, all he's done is become the first 1,000-yard rusher Florida's had in eight years.
"He never bitched, never moaned," Muschamp says. "He is the greatest example of a team player I've been around as a football coach."
Welcome to the new Gator football, where the biggest star is soft-spoken Mike Gillislee. It kind of fits, really, as Gainesville isn't exactly Las Vegas (or even Oxford, Mississippi). It's a blue-collar town that's far more South Georgia than South Beach. Muschamp should know. He was born in Georgia but grew up here, in Gainesville. Defense makes him tick, and sometimes detonate.
It's a whole new world for Gators fans, and Muschamp is making this place his town again.
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