Florida’s battle to get back

Then-Florida coach Urban Meyer watches as his team play in the second quarter against Alabama on Saturday Oct. 2, 2010 in Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscalooosa, Ala. (Tuscaloosa News / Robert Sutton)
There was a time — and it seems so long ago — when the rivers were clean and the air smelled like honeysuckle here in Gainesville. It was Camelot, and no other campus in America has ever experienced anything like it.
It was Tim Tebow, Joakim Noah and the most amazing run that actually started in the summer of 2005 when the baseball team reached its first championship series in Omaha and ended in 2009 at the Georgia Dome.
In between, two football national championships and two basketball national championships. We were Titletown, and everyone who didn’t love the Gators was insanely jealous.
But this isn’t about that.
This is about what happened in 2010.
It wasn’t a good year.
The baseball team was eliminated at the College World Series by FSU. The softball team had its season ended by Georgia. If you threw up a little bit in your mouth, I understand.
Basketball lasted one whole game in the NCAA Tournament. At least it went to two overtimes so the Gators were not the first team to go home.
But more than anything, the 2010 football team was a massive disappointment 10 years ago. Oh, the Gators won eight games and captured the Outback Bowl. But a standard had been set that Florida didn’t come close to reaching.
And I believe it put the program in a hole that it has been trying to dig out of ever since.
Dan Mullen has it going in the right direction and 21 wins in two seasons is a start. But Florida football was the poster child for college football from 2006-09, the darling of the networks and created appointment television.
That all came crashing down in a big heap.
It started when Urban Meyer resigned in 2009 because of health reasons and then came back because he worried about all of the support staff having to find jobs. Meyer took a sabbatical before returning to coaching and Florida wasn’t the same.
“That day when he had us come in for a meeting and told us, you could hear a pin drop,” safety Ahmad Black said.
It would be different a year later when Meyer again assembled the team to tell him he was leaving after a loss at Florida State gave UF a 7-5 record.
“Obviously, we are down a little bit,” Meyer said after the game. “I didn’t believe we’d be that far down but we are.”
There was a division on the team between the seniors who felt they had ownership and a No. 1 recruiting class that believed it was their team. I talked to several players who said there was friction caused by the freshmen.
Some of them walked out of meetings. Others didn’t show up for practices. And Meyer — still recovering from his trip to the emergency room after the loss to Alabama in the 2009 SEC title game — couldn’t get a handle on it.
One coach who was a member of Meyer’s staff told me, “Urban lost his sting.”
The players saw it.
“Urban used to walk around with a square jaw and his shoulders back and wanted us all to be that way because we represented the university,” Black said. “But that year, it was like everything had been sucked out of him.”
The offense was the biggest problem with Tebow gone and John Brantley taking over, the Florida offensive coaches still scratching a phantom limb and trying to run an offense that wasn’t suited to the personnel.
Florida finished 83rd in total offense after finishing sixth in the nation the year before.
There was an entitlement that the coaches struggled with at times during the heyday of Florida football, but managed well enough to win 48 games in four years. That entitlement, fueled by a freshman class that believed they had ownership, spilled out onto the practice field and into games.
“It wasn’t the standard we were looking for,” said Frankie Hammond. “But I wouldn’t say we did a great job. There were problems, but we had to produce.”
The Gators that season started 4-0, but were hammered at Alabama, lost the next week to LSU and the following week — on Homecoming — lost to Dan Mullen and Mississippi State 10-7.
They rallied to beat Georgia in overtime and faced Steve Spurrier and South Carolina for the SEC East title. In Gainesville, Florida lost 36-14.
Two weeks later came the debacle in Tallahassee. A few days after that, Meyer announced again that he was resigning.
“The mood was a lot different,” Black said. “The freshmen got up and started yelling about the things they had been promised. They were not happy.”
Meyer got himself healthy again and in less than a year went to Ohio State. But the program he left behind has never been the same.
Will Muschamp had one good season and three bad ones. He spent his first year trying to clean up the mess left behind after being told by Meyer that “this program is broken.” Muschamp once told me that the biggest reason he didn’t allow practices to be open was that he didn’t know who would show up for them.
He kicked off All-SEC defensive back Janoris Jenkins after suspending him and Jenkins replying, “Do you know who you’re talking to?”
The loss to Georgia Southern and a four-win season had fans calling for his firing, which happened after a loss to South Carolina the following season.
Jim McElwain won two SEC East titles, but Florida was hardly the college football power it had been during the glory days, getting spanked by FSU and Alabama at the end of both seasons.
Then came his firing in a mess that included his comments about “death threats.” The threats were real, but he handled it so poorly it was an excuse to run off a coach who did not fit in with the athletic department.
Mullen has done everything right since arriving, implementing the Gator Standard and getting Florida back to being relevant again.
But it has been an uphill climb. That season 10 years ago started a trip down the hill that he’s still trying to overcome.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.


  1. OK, good review of the Myer problem and the years of decline that followed. But to say Mullen “is a start” and then following up with wording that suggests a continuing uphill struggle, with about as pessimistic a tone that could be used, does a disservice to not only Dan Mullen and his staff and players, but the entire Gator Nation as well. A great many of which analyze the same data and conclude that there is elite, championship football in the not-so-distant future at Florida. Are we simply ignorant boobs? Hardly. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that some journalists will actually be quite delighted if the Gators never do return to championship football and Mullen fails. Wish I were wrong about that.