It was a glorious day in late November, 65 degrees at kickoff and only one team had any business being on Florida Field.
The year was 2009 and to say it was the last time anyone in the Gator Nation felt as good as that day might be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Florida beat Florida State on Nov. 28 by a score of 37-10. The game was over by halftime. It wrapped up a six-loss season for the Seminoles and nobody seemed too worried that Bobby Bowden had finally been pressured out the door and Jimbo Fisher was taking over.
Pardon the history lesson, but I think it’s important to know how Florida slipped into a “Silence of the Lambs”-like deep hole before you can understand how it’s still trying to climb out of it.
The day a potential Florida dynasty came crumbling down wasn’t the day the Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC title game or the day Urban Meyer decided to quit.
It was the day he decided to come back.
That was when the hole began to form under the program, although nobody knew it at the time. Nothing was the same in Meyer’s final season at Florida — not the structure of the program, nor the head coach, nor the talent.
The sense of entitlement had become dangerous and the atmosphere toxic. Before Florida ever played a game in 2010, there was Chris Rainey throwing first-round draft picks under the bus with, “I guess we got rid of the prima donnas — all the selfish cats” and Meyer going over the top while going after a reporter on the practice field.
Then, the downward spiral escalated with another Meyer resignation, a surprise hire of another defensive coach (Will Muschamp) with no head coaching experience (see: Zook, Ron), and a lot of embarrassing games (see: Southern, Georgia).
Just like that, a program whose fans had either been raised on Steve Spurrier or Tim Tebow or both were sneaking out the back doors of bars as UF games were unfolding on big screens.
Florida wasn’t irrelevant, but you never heard the Gators mentioned on GameDay unless it was for players blocking each other.
So the program was in this deep hole of despair and UF athletic director Jeremy Foley went oppo-Muschamp. He stayed in the Nick Saban tree, but he hired an offensive coach with head coaching experience.
What a concept.
Still, Jim McElwain’s name didn’t send fans sprinting to the front of the bragging line. I mean, Florida is paying a few extra million just to get him out of his contract? How does that make sense?
Fast forward to today with Florida on the brink of McElwain’s third season. And the big question on everyone’s mind is whether or not he can get the Gators completely out of the hole and start climbing the mountain.
Oh, he’s made it to the edge of the crater, pulled up with both hands and taken a peek at the place where elite teams live. Twice.
But in Atlanta, both times he slipped down a bit.
Were McElwain to be graded on what he has accomplished so far at Florida in two seasons and three recruiting classes, the grades would be all over the board.
He’s won the East twice which some people appreciate and others dismiss as extraneous.
He has won 13 of 16 SEC games, including a 2-2 record against the West, and has not lost an SEC home game. Critics point out that too many of those wins have been uninspiring because that’s what critics do.
He hasn’t had a bad loss, split his two New Year bowl games and finished both seasons in the Top 25. But other than at LSU, who has he defeated? And some of the games against lesser teams have been too close. And being ranked outside the top 10 isn’t that big a deal at Florida.
He’s also fired a few shots across the bow of the Gator Nation, never a good idea.
All of this said, I think this is the year we find out. I think this is the year we will know whether Florida has the right man driving the bus up the winding roads of the mountain. You know what’s up there. You’ve heard the cannons firing confetti. You know what championship food tastes like. Up there, where the beer is always cold and the seats are always cushioned and the temperature always just right.
Now, I’m not saying McElwain needs to get Florida into the College Football Playoff this year. I just think you’re going to know a lot more about where UF stands as a program when this season is over.
He inherited a mess on offense, one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It only got worse with his first quarterback getting booted and his second being too short and his third getting physically destroyed.
And it hasn’t helped this year that the player knucklehead factor has raised its lumpy head.
But there are no excuses in 2017. Let’s see what you got, Mac.
It’s proving time.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.