Alachua native and Gators Hall of Famer Mike Peterson tackling new role at Florida

Graham Hall
Gator Sports
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When it comes to Mike Peterson’s responsibilities, he isn’t just a former Gators player-turned-Florida football coach. Peterson has a unique designation at the end of his job title: alumni liaison. 

His accolades make him an obvious choice for the role. An Alachua native and Santa Fe High graduate who starred with the Gators from 1995-98, Peterson was elected into the University of Florida’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Following his second-round selection by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1999 NFL Draft, Peterson would have a lengthy NFL career, one that would include stints in Atlanta and Jacksonville before his retirement at the conclusion of the 2012 season.

He would almost immediately return to Florida in order to complete his degree, as well as begin his coaching tenure as a strength and conditioning coordinator, a role he served in from 2014-15.

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Young players don't know Mike Peterson from his Gators, NFL days

Upon his return to Gainesville in 2022 after spending six years at South Carolina, Peterson’s NFL accolades and stature within the program were essentially lost on his current players, most of whom were in diapers while Peterson was an All-Pro in the league.

Asked if the current Gators were well-versed in his career, he said: ““I don’t think so, and, you know what — it wasn't a bad thing that they didn't know.”

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Now midway through spring practice, Florida’s outside linebacker unit has grasped what was previously obvious to many: Peterson once prepared how he preaches.

If it helps them accept the lessons Peterson hopes to instill, so be it. Otherwise, Peterson’s past is irrelevant; most may be too young to appreciate what he did on the field as a player, but they can surely respect what Peterson brings to the table as one of Billy Napier’s 10 assistant coaches. 

“I was upstairs walking by a guy the other day, I forget who it was, it might have been (Antwaun) Powell or one of those guys. I was walking by, and he kind of glanced over, ‘Coach, that’s you?’ I was on the wall in the hall,” Peterson recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, some time that used to be me.’ So, I don't think they have a clue, but it's okay. You know me, it's fine. I’m not one to toot my horn. I could care less if they know who the player Mike Peterson was, as long as they know who the coach is.”

Don’t get it mistaken: Peterson isn’t attempting to demand respect, or the trust of the players, based solely on his former success. 

Building mutual appreciation between coach and player has been an ongoing process since Peterson arrived on campus, and it was never one he expected to happen immediately. 

“As a new coach, that’s one thing you always worry about. But I think the respect factor is kind of playing a big part in it. I respect them and they respect me. I'm pretty sure they kind of can feel the genuineness,” Peterson said. “I love the game and I told them when I first got here, ‘I don’t expect you to trust me now. My job is to build that trust and that’s what I’m working on now. And I think they see that. Eventually, one day I want to be able to say ‘run through that wall’ and 6, 7 of my guys, however many I got, they take off running.”

Florida Gators outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson works with his players during a spring practice on the outdoor fields, on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville, March 29, 2022.

Seeing qualities in Billy Napier he saw in Steve Spurrier

Having played at UF under Steve Spurrier, Peterson now sees in Napier the same qualities that helped turn Spurrier into a household name for college football fans.

Neither coach went into any test — be it practice, a workout or an SEC contest — unprepared.

Stories of Spurrier’s willingness to draw up plays in the dirt aside, a plan was a necessity. Peterson has witnessed Napier have an almost-identical approach, one that has become contagious to the point where any slack, no matter how insignificant, draws undesired attention. 

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Florida's Mike Peterson sacks Auburn's Dameyune Craig during their football game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama, on Oct. 18, 1997. Peterson is now outside linebackers coach at UF.

“I truly believe (Napier’s) gonna stick to his plan. That was kind of the guy I played for, It was not just his way he's going to do it. But he had a plan,” Peterson said. “Coach Napier has a plan, man, and that trickles down to everybody on staff. If you're not pushing this way, and trying to make the program better or get back to the top, you almost stand out. You stand out like a sore thumb. Because everybody's recruiting, everybody's wanting the best and pouring so much into the university. It gets kind of contagious, and you always want to do a little more.”

Take it from someone who’s done it: The extra push is what it will take for Florida’s outside linebackers to have an opportunity to follow in Peterson’s footsteps and achieve their NFL dreams.

They may not have known of his accolades before spring camp, but Peterson’s message now resounds through the UF locker room, just as it did all those years ago. 

“Once you get into this profession, you’ve got to live it,” Peterson said. “You’ve got to live it day in and day out. It's all about the little things, man.”

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