A History Lesson For Florida Gator Fans

Florida didn't play a football game this weekend. It's good for a football team that needs to regroup, but it's also a blessed break for a fan base that, at least in some quarters, needs to get its head on straight. What's particularly instructive about the current landscape of Florida football is that the Gator fans upset with the Urban Meyer regime don't need to look elsewhere in wondering where the wheels came off.

There's a richly ironic, circular and cyclical nature to the frustration felt by Florida fans these days, and it needs to be brought into the naked light of day.

For those who have been paying attention, I've been writing about Gator football since the 2000 season. I might not know the most minute details, but I certainly have a feel for the larger trajectory of the program over the past several years, and what Florida fans have felt in the midst of the program's ups and downs in that period of time.

Looking back over years of reading Gator Country's football message boards, there was no more shocking experience than the one I had after the 34-32 loss to Tennessee in 2001, the crushing loss that knocked the Gators out of the SEC title game and, worse, a Rose Bowl date with Miami. That game stung no doubt about it. It stung with a force unlike that of any other loss other than the Fiesta Bowl against N-n-n-n-... (I can't say it, and you don't have to, either.)

But there's a difference between allowing a loss to sting and taking out the frustrations on the principals involved, and I couldn't believe what I was reading when I saw Steve Spurrier hoisted up a flagpole and ripped to shreds that day. (Yeah, Jon Hoke was target number one, but even then, the Head Ball Coach still took more than a little heat, phrased with more than a little bitterness that seemed more than a little entrenched, and not just a mere outpouring of the present moment.)

Let me get this straight --- and as the 2005 Gators struggle, one needs to put all this in perspective --- in terms of Spurrier's coaching performance that day: he lacked Earnest Graham, a difference-making, change-of-pace running back who never lost in that 2001 season when he strapped on the pads and played; he lacked possessions as Tennessee's offense, led by the punishing running of Travis Stephens, controlled the clock; and he lacked good fortune in that the game against the Vols, had it been played in September of 2001 (we all remember what happened that month, right?), would have been a Gator runaway --- on December 1, he played Phil Fulmer at the worst time of year. Spurrier had a lot of intangibles going against him as that game unfolded, and yet his offense still put up 32 points. Rex Grossman had no running options, and yet --- while passing and getting the stuffing knocked out of him on virtually every play --- he was able to move the ball and score points. John Chavis's defense was able to pin back its ears and come after the quarterback, and yet the Gators --- while not effective in the end zone (a Jabar Gaffney pass, if executed well, would have delivered another Gator touchdown) --- still found ways to thrive.

As for the defensive side of the ball that day, no one would deny that it was one of the worst, most shocking defensive collapses in Gator history, which brought Jon Hoke in for a crucifixion. But let's actually point out something about Hoke's defense: the Tennessee game was the only truly bad game of that entire 2001 season for UF's defensive eleven, with the Auburn loss being the offense's one stinker of that 2001 season, which remains one of the strangest sojourns in recent football memory --- anytime and anyplace. It's hard to imagine another time when two units played so exceptionally well in 11 of 12 games, only for each unit's one bad day to contribute to a wrenchingly close loss and deny a team everything it could have and should have accomplished.

Yes, it wasn't easy to accept what happened in that 2001 season, the final one of Steve Spurrier's Gator coaching career. That might remain the case even today. It absolutely hurts still thinking about it. Wins over Georgia and Florida State, plus a BCS bowl game appearance and lopsided victory over an ACC rag doll, and yet the emotions --- being what they are, namely, HUMAN --- gravitate toward that Tennessee game, which --- if won --- would have made the Auburn loss irrelevant.

But just because that 2001 experience was so wrenching, and just because those Gators were worthy of an SEC title and a date in the national title game, doesn't mean that the coaching was bad. Spurrier coached, if not a great game, surely an extremely good game against the Vols that day. A contest that tested his limitations and the lack of his stud runner still witnessed his offense thrive, doing enough to win a ballgame 98 percent of the time. But Hoke's defense --- and the smaller-than-small performance of Alex Brown --- simply picked the worst single occasion to play their one bad game of that season. It stunk, but it just happens sometimes, and especially in a sport played by 20-year-old male members of the human species. Anyone who has truly lived life and gotten knocked down by life's punches knows that you can often try your best and yet have nothing to show for it, and that's exactly what happened with the 2001 Gators. Their awesome excellence for so much of that season served as testament to how well they performed and how well they were coached. But Earnest Graham's bouts with bad health and the 9/11 tragedy --- and yes, some inspired performances by Auburn and Tennessee teams that managed to pull together their own resources and max out when they had the chance --- knocked the Gators out of Atlanta, Pasadena, and the history books. It was frustrating beyond any words or descriptions, but the Gators' inability to win any kind of ring in 2001 was not the fault of the coaches (nor the players). Life's unpredictability and human imperfection defeated Florida's football team that year. On those rare occasions, you just don't have better answers; life leaves you speechless before its mystery and ruthlessness.

So Gator fans, I think --- in some larger and very real sense --- that cosmic frustration with 2001, and with Spurrier as the man in charge of a team that could have won everything that season, has not been flushed out of the collective system yet. Being unsatisfied with a year in which Georgia and FSU both get taken down hard, in which 10 games are won, and in which a BCS bowl game is won by 33 points, was understandable at the time, given the obvious ability of that team to have met and beaten Miami in Pasadena (let alone win at least an SEC title).

But now, Gator fans, can you allow that part of your pain to die? Now, you need to lay that down and let it rest, because up until now, those of you wanting to get rid of Urban Meyer have clearly not expunged the hurt you have carried with you since 2001. These days, as merely winning the East is a titanic (and unsuccessful) struggle, seasons like 2001 suddenly become the models of greatness (and 2001 exhibited a team playing great, great football 90 percent of the time) they in fact were. It should dawn upon any grumpy, disgruntled and ticked off Gator fans that winning the SEC most years and bagging 10 games is not a truly problematic position for a program. In light of the challenges Florida football faces right now, and given the depth and balance of the SEC, one has to realize --- with the gift of a little distance and perspective --- just how amazing Spurrier's accomplishments were, and just how impressive they now seem. Even the downest of the down years were nine-win seasons, and the campaigns without SEC titles needed remarkable sequences of just-miss moments (the fumble at the 1 yard line in the '98 Tennessee game changed history; same for Darrell Jackson's muffed punt against Bama in '99 and the aforementioned events of 2001) for the Gators to not make Atlanta. It took massive acts of nature for the Gators to be held and limited to only seven SEC titles in Spurrier's twelve seasons.

Only seven titles in twelve seasons.

In speaking to those who want Urban Meyer's hide, or who have had it with Chris Leak, one hopes you can appreciate the totality and severity of the irony here: the ridiculous impatience that colors all too many college football fans these days is precisely the thing that prevents a man like Steve Spurrier from being appreciated after a season such as 2001. The "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately" mindset so cancerously prevalent in contemporary American sports is exactly what makes Spurrier's coaching performance in 2001 --- a frankly tremendous job --- get wrongly painted as "a horrible example of underperformance." That impatience might not have been the most important reason why Spurrier left --- that is irrelevant to this discussion --- but it sure left the Head Ball Coach with a bad taste in his mouth, and it did weigh on his emotions. It made the job of being Florida's coach a lot less fun than it could have and should have been.

But now, four long years later, you --- impatient Gator fans (and blessings on the ones who "get it" and have stayed patient with a big-picture perspective since '01) --- surely realize how good you really had it under Spurrier, but were too impatient to appreciate at the time. You want "instant grat" and another parade of seemingly endless SEC titles (who doesn't?), but it must dawn on you that the very impatience you showed four years ago in the wake of the Tennessee loss is precisely what has you so desperately longing for a new coach or quarterback today. You want immediate changes because, darnit, you can't stand any failure whatsoever.

If you can't accept any failure, well, maybe life on another planet or in another biological life form is necessary, because human life on planet earth is just... not... fair. We didn't control the circumstances surrounding our birth, we aren't able to become benign dictators of the world, and the University of Florida --- like all other places of learning --- is designed precisely for the purpose of teaching young people how to use mistakes and failures as teaching tools for life. What is education, after all, than the process of trying, messing up, and getting it right over time?

Urban Meyer is educating his team. Any coach needs three years at a minimum to prove whether he belongs or not at a school. Furthermore, what school would NOT become a laughingstock if it repeatedly fired coaches after one year? Who the heck would want to come to Gainesville anymore if Ron Zook got bagged after 2002 or if Meyer were to get fired after this season? If you can finally appreciate Spurrier's accomplishments, dear peeved precincts of Gator Nation, you should then allow the 2001 season to die, and with it, your over-the-top impatience.

Fed up with Urban Meyer? Angry at Chris Leak? PO'd at the offensive line? Spewing venom in private moments about the wide receivers? Hopefully, this history lesson about 2001 and the Spurrier era will serve as a wise, gentle way of changing your hearts and minds about your expectations of Gator football, and more importantly, about the way you conduct yourself in conversations public and private about your Gators.

But if my preferred teaching style --- using flowery language and elaborate historical references --- doesn't resonate with you, I could just put it more simply:

During this off week, get a clue and lay the heck off Urban Meyer right now! Give the man --- and his players --- time to establish their identity at the University of Florida.

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