Muschamp wouldn’t let them quit

It has never been about effort for Will Muschamp’s teams at Florida. Some have focused on losing a game to Georgia Southern a year ago and how that should never happen and that is a valid point. Some point to the 42-13 loss to Missouri a month ago, but that was a case of everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

Today was one of those days when the Gators could have laid down. There were so many distractions, the opponent was a lower division team who is having a good year, but athletically didn’t match up. Their head coach was fired on Monday and there is a lot of uncertainty ahead. What was there to play for?

But just like the South Carolina game on the road last year when Florida was in the mid-20’s of players on the two-dep that were lost for the season due to injury. Just like the fourth quarter of the Missouri game when the Gators were down 42-0 and all looked lost because everything they tried on special teams and offense went wrong. This much maligned team could have mailed it in Saturday, but they didn’t. And likely because of their head coach.

“I’m happy for our seniors,” a somewhat somber but proud Muschamp said after the 52-3 win over Eastern Kentucky. “For them to come out and play well, I’m really proud of our players and the how they handled the week and working through all the stuff. So, we’re really excited for them moving forward.”

The week was a tough one for all involved. The Gators basically gave the game away last week which led to the Monday dismissal of Muschamp. The squad loves their head coach and some certainly felt guilty for the firing, even though he tried to do everything to fight that for them.

Then practice time came and they couldn’t get on the field and work it out because of bad weather. Instead they watched film and did some walk-throughs under shelter somewhere. Then practice started and the team was a bit scatterbrained.

“Tuesday’s practice was just OK. I wouldn’t say it was a lack of effort… probably a lack of focus, energy, probably the word you all look for. Honestly, Wednesday was a little better but OK.”

So Muschamp decided he needed to do something to change the mindset. The coach that was fired on Monday put anything selfish about the situation behind him and put it all back on the 100 kids that were on the sideline and the field Saturday.

“We have a team meeting every Thursday kind of to discuss the week and the weekend, what we’re facing and I sat the team down,” he started. “I went through a situation of when I played in college. I lost my coordinator and my position coach after my junior year. I had walked on. I earned a scholarship. I earned a starting job. I was mad at the head coach. I was mad at everybody. I had earned my spot. I earned my position. And I felt like ‘Here I go again. I’ve got to earn my spot all over again.’

And the new position coach came in. A guy named Steve Dennis. I hated him for the first two weeks. And then you know what, now I talk with the guy about once a month. He became a very close friend of mine.

“So sometimes change is good and they need to be very open to the change.”

Muschamp changed the scenario then and some of the older guys on the team could relate to what he was saying.

“I discussed my transition coming here,” he said. “It was hard. It was a divided locker room. It had guys that didn’t want to buy in to anything but what they wanted and how it affected them. And I told them, ‘They’re going to hire good football coaches. Jeremy’s (Foley) going to hire a good coach. So why don’t you give the guy a chance and buy in to what the guy’s trying to do instead of going through a total rocky road the first year where it’s miserable for everybody in the locker room?’ Hopefully, they’ll do that.”

Muschamp has approached this whole situation with more dignity than most. You kind of get the sense that he can still help shape his legacy at Florida by the mark he leaves behind in the talent and people he helped bring to the program.

“They heard it from me,” he said. “I told them that’s what they needed to do. They needed to make good decisions moving forward. If they’re in a situation as a junior, they don’t need to just say ‘I don’t want to play for a new staff.’ That’s ridiculous. You’re making a business decision, not a personal decision when you do that. Buy in to what the guy’s trying to tell you and give the guy an opportunity and buy in to what he’s trying to do. That’s what they need to do.

Muschamp thought the conversation with his team left an impression and he saw something good come about it on the last real practice day of the week.

“Thursday, for whatever reason, I had a couple of questions asked and we went out there and I thought we had a very sharp Thursday,” he said. “We knew we outmanned them. If we just stay focused, we played with effort and we executed and took care of the football, we’d win the game.”

Muschamp believes this group will be a better one than what he inherited in terms of understanding that change happens and that they work better when they all work together.

“These guys are all resilient,” he said. “It’s frustrating after a tough defeat and you’re two hours after a game and some of them are joking. But they take it much different than we do. They look forward to the next opportunity. When they hire the new guy, they’ll come in here and talk about how wonderful he is and how great it is. That happens everywhere. You know, what else are they going to say? They’re going to say how much they love the guy. So that’s just part of it. And that’s just how these things go.”

I heard an SEC Network commentator say this week that Muschamp may have helped his future prospects more than any coach in America with the way he has acted under all the adversity and the way he has taken ownership of the lack of success at Florida under his watch.

He took another step Saturday by having his team fight through all the issues of the week and show up and play hard football against an outmanned team, having changed the course of that team during the week.

Now, he has one more game left to coach this team. He hasn’t worried about that and his focus remains on his 100 guys that he has to get ready to face a really tough Florida State team next weekend. There is no time to ponder his time here in Gainesville.

“It will hit me when the season is over,” he said about thinking about it being his last week. “I have already moved on to the next game.”

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