The game ball Randy Shannon received in the locker room after Florida’s victory over UAB on Saturday was the players’ version of a thank you card.
Thank you for being there, for holding things together in this difficult time, for caring and keeping the focus on football, for giving direction and never letting anyone hang their head.
“Man, it meant a lot to us,” sophomore linebacker and new team leader David Reese said. “I was just happy for him. Just to know what he did. I feel that speaks for his character, how he came back, knew the situation and just tried to lead us to the right direction.”
Just four weeks ago, this was a troubled Florida football team that very easily could have splintered and spiraled off in all kinds of different directions.
There were the player suspensions, all the injuries, the tough losses and then the unexpected body blow the day after the loss to Georgia — the stunning news that their coach, Jim McElwain, and UF had parted ways.
It was a time where chaos could have taken over.
But Shannon, the interim head coach, and the rest of the coaching staff didn’t let it happen.
“They’re just great dudes, man,” junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan said after Saturday’s win. “The players love them. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like them. They come in, they do things in a timely manner, and they do things that the team loves. They’re great dudes, they keep us afloat.
“With them, I’m expecting honestly that we’re going to win the next game very solidly. We’ve just been taking steps and getting better and better. Next week we should have a good solid week and play way better than we did this week.”
Shannon took over the team the same day McElwain lost his job. Only five days later, the Gators had to travel to Missouri to face one of the hottest teams in the SEC, especially on offense.
Almost predictably, the Gators came out flat and were blown out 45-16.
But Shannon and his staff kept coaching, stressing preparation and focus and then going out and having fun on Saturday.
A week later, it became obvious the Shannon approach was sinking in, and that no one was giving up. After a bad start, the Gators rallied in the fourth quarter before coming up a score short in a 28-20 loss at South Carolina in a competitive game.
Then, last Saturday, the fun finally returned for Florida football with the 36-7 win over UAB.
“He’s been great,” sophomore wide receiver Josh Hammond said of Shannon. “Coming in as the interim coach, he’s been very helpful, very truthful, very real with us and just giving us a lot of food for thought. A lot of guys think a lot of different things about life, not even football so I think he’s done a great job coming in and helping guys understand about life and not just football.
“We’re playing with togetherness, playing with being grateful for things. We’re playing with toughness, guys just being accountable — some things he felt were lacking in the past that we can improve on and help us in the future.”
Speaking of the future, the players say they would love to have Shannon be a part of it at Florida. They’re hoping Shannon is retained in some capacity by the new head coach, whoever it turns out to be.
Senior cornerback Duke Dawson said it would be a unanimous yes if the players were asked if Shannon should be retained.
“It would be 100 percent, man,” Dawson said. “That’s what I think. Everybody loves that guy. He has nothing but love for each and every one of us. The respect that we have for him and the respect that he has for us, it’s unbelievable.”
Shannon took over at a time when things could have grown worse, much worse, for this team. Instead, it’s gone in the opposite direction, the players say.
“I feel like things have gotten better,” Dawson said. “I wouldn’t say anything (negative) toward Coach Mac, but you just see a lot of things changing. It’s great to see.”
Reese said the influence Shannon and his staff have had on the Gators goes beyond football and wins and losses.
“It’s bigger than football with them,” he said. “They’ve helped us grow as people. Through this adverse time they know that we’re probably going to go through some stuff later on through life. What is your reason? What do you want to be remembered by? Those type of things will stick with you for a long time.”
Since taking over, Shannon has had a rather simple message for the players, and it apparently has gotten through to them.
“Coach Shannon always says don’t get bored with success, and that’s real,” Reese said. “And he actually lives by that. So when we’re winning, don’t get bored by it. Don’t go off track, just stay on track and do what we’ve got to do to win. We’ve all got a common goal, so let’s try to achieve that. That’s the main message.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.