That might be the best news to come from an excruciatingly painful loss at the hands of the ex-Head Ball Coach in Columbia. Why? Because pain --- deep, lasting, searing pain ingrained into the collective memory --- is the best teacher, the authority figure that prevents human beings from repeating old mistakes or settling for less than the very best.
This past Saturday was a very tough day to be a Gator, for many obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. But if the pain and devastation felt by this football team can be retained and learned from over the next ten months --- starting with FSU game preparation but then continuing through bowl season, spring ball, and summer conditioning --- 2006 will be a breakthrough year in the history of Florida football.
This columnist tried to ensure that a win over Vanderbilt the week before was not met with too much euphoria. There was a larger point in not emphasizing the win too much, even though it was a good gut-check response by the Boys: the point was that the opponent was Vanderbilt, who got throttled out of potential bowl eligibility--and into last place in the East --- with an embarrassing home loss to Kentucky this past weekend. When beating Vanderbilt --- 4-6 same-as-always Vanderbilt --- is met with a seemingly extra pinch of enthusiasm, you know that sights have been set too low, and that the bigger picture has been lost. If the Gators were on their way to becoming a better program, they needed to display more mental toughness after that Vandy game, and that meant blocking out the distractions and taking the South Carolina game very seriously. And after a very painful loss to Steve Spurrier --- which has already produced a lot of outpourings of very conflicted and wrenching emotions, and will continue to have significant psychological impact in the Gator Nation --- perhaps one can now see what happens when you don't have sufficient mental toughness.
You see, the South Carolina game wasn't about deficient talent. When the Gators played mistake-free ball, they dominated. When they got out of their own way, they carried the balance of play. Without a turnover that led to seven points, without their missed tackles on Sidney Rice, and without their penalties, they win that game.
But the Gators simply weren't as mentally tough as they needed to be--that's why they're devastated this morning, and that's why the pain they feel now must stay in their minds throughout a looming offseason and into the fall of 2006, which just became a much more dramatic season for Urban Meyer than he'd have preferred.
For the most part, Meyer coached a solid game on Saturday. If coaching is about putting players in position to make plays, Meyer and his staff did that. The plays simply weren't made when they needed to be made, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is all about one thing: mental toughness. The great teams and players aren't always excellent; they're just excellent when they absolutely have to be. Florida showed many glimpses of excellence on Saturday, but never when the moment really mattered, never when the game was truly on the line, waiting to be claimed… along with a trip to Atlanta.
One thing that hasn't been mentioned by any other columnist or beat writer about this South Carolina game is the frequency with which Florida players were seen exhibiting the body language of players who haven't yet learned how to win. The most unforgettable and consistent snapshot of Florida players --- mostly on defense, and mostly belonging to Dee Webb --- was that of the "why me?" body pose. You know that position --- it's the one with the shoulders brought up to the neck, arms outstretched to the side, and hands cupped to the heavens, as if to say, "Why did I just get victimized on a play I knew I should have stopped? Why were we not prepared for that play? Why are we losing despite our talent and ability? Why am I not delivering the level of focus and sacrifice needed to kick Steve Spurrier's behind instead of losing to him?"
That look of exasperation was prevalent throughout the Florida ball club on Saturday, particularly after Spurrier seemed to catch the Gators' defense off guard. After running the ball on third and 2 from the UF three in the second quarter --- with a 14-3 advantage --- Spurrier went for the first down and touchdown on the next play. Given the fact that he had just run the ball, Spurrier seemed to be setting up for a pass or a finesse run outside the tackle box. But instead, the former Head Ball Coach crossed up the Gators with another run up the gut. A Gator defender --- upon seeing Daccus Turman barrel into the end zone --- struck the "why me?" pose at the goal line. It was a classic case of how the Gators just aren't mentally tough, and how a defense that looked good according to the stat sheet was not really very good at all in Columbia. Why? Because it wasn't excellent when it really needed to be.
It's a timeless truth in football --- always has been, always will be: when reasonably good talent and reasonably good coaching exist, the final ingredient in big-time success at the highest level is all about mental toughness and the unteachable art of "learning how to win." You can rightly blame Meyer for an astonishingly bad coaching performance in the final 10 minutes of play, with a series of abysmal game management situations, but at the end of the day, this loss to the Gamecocks was all about a lack of mental toughness. The Gators weren't horrible in general, just when it really mattered. If Sidney Rice makes a 64-yard play when Florida leads by 17 after putting its foot down early, we're not talking about that catch and run. If Leak doesn't get a pass tipped in the early going, when it was essential for the Gators to subdue a raucous crowd that was aching for a reason to bust loose, we're not talking about a loss. If Leak completes the long balls that big-time quarterbacks simply have to hit, Saturday would have been a different story.
Let's look at the larger mental toughness issue from this perspective: with some teams, it's easy to look at one flaw, one deficiency, one weakness, and associate a team's struggles with that single chink in their armor. But with this Florida team, you can't pinpoint one Achilles heel in terms of Xs and Os or talent.
Leak was a stud near the end of his freshman season. He has shown over the course of his career that he can ring up big numbers. He played great against Vanderbilt just a week earlier. But he's not consistent and not excellent when he has to be. He has shown the ability, but doesn't always deliver the goods. You can't focus on Leak as the clear source of Florida's problems.
What about the team in general? Earlier in the season, it was the offense that was holding the team back. Now, it's the defense (23 points to South Carolina ---seven of USC's 30 points were essentially scored by the Gamecocks' defense) that's struggling. Some weeks, it's one side of the ball, other weeks the other. And special teams --- once a strength --- isn't so strong anymore. But all three of these units have displayed excellence at some point along the line in 2005. The problem? It's that constant refrain again: they're not excellent when they really have to be.
And how about Meyer and his staff? They got receivers open on deep balls, they helped limit Blake Mitchell to just seven completions, and obviously did some great things in the locker room at halftime, as shown by that masterful 12-play, 7-minute-plus touchdown drive to start the second half. But as we all know, a coach --- for all he does off the field and in the off season --- earns his keep in the final minutes of a close SEC ballgame with Atlanta on the line. After a parade of jaw-dropping tactical blunders in the final 10 minutes, even Meyer --- along with his players --- was not excellent when he had to be.
Can you see what this article is trying to say? When you don't have any one weakness that overwhelms others, and when you have players and coaches who have made big plays in previous seasons or on prior occasions, the ultimate problem becomes mental toughness, of not being able to dominate in crunch time.
In the SEC, you have very little margin for error these days. There's a three-way logjam in the West, and had a Gamecock defender not dropped an interception against D.J. Shockley in Athens way back in September, Steve Spurrier would be booking reservations for Atlanta right now. LSU and Auburn won their spotlight games this past Saturday by the slightest of margins --- not because they were excellent throughout (both the LSU-Bama and Auburn-UGA games had profound ups and downs from all four competing teams), but because they were excellent when they had to be. Down 10-0, LSU answered the bell and then prevailed in overtime; facing fourth and 10, Brandon Cox made the kind of cash-money throw for Auburn that Leak just hasn't been able to provide this year for Florida. It's not that Leak doesn't have the talent; he just isn't able to make the high-velocity throw when he needs to make a high-velocity throw; he's not able to put a little air under a deep ball when he needs to do exactly that. It's about doing what you have to do when you have to do it. It's about mental toughness.
One should be worried about Meyer's clock and game management over the final 10 minutes on Saturday, and one should be devastated about seeing another SEC East flag slip away, this one courtesy of Steve Spurrier. Those are real and necessary emotions after a loss such as this.
But let's bring it back to the big picture: while this program should set its sights very high and aim to be the best, one has to then appreciate how tough it was to become the best in the 1990s, and how tough it will be to become the best again under Meyer. The very impatience some folks are displaying with Meyer today is the very kind of impatience that led a man named Steven Orr Spurrier to choose South Carolina, where he could be the underdog again and be appreciated for lifting a program out of mediocrity. Spurrier valued his mental and emotional health for the very reason that Urban Meyer might soon wonder about his. This one life is too short to be unhappy, and Spurrier --- a weak, fragile, emotive being just like the rest of us --- came to a point in life where, after being humbled by his NFL journey, he desired a little love and gratitude more than a 10-2 season met with grumbling and frustration… you know, a season like 2001, which is still the old wound that isn't being paid enough attention to in Gator Nation.
Maybe losing to Spurrier will enable the Gator Nation to think like Spurrier in many positive and important ways. Maybe this loss will kill two birds with one stone: on one hand, this loss to Spurrier might thankfully destroy --- once and for all --- the myth that anyone can just strut into Gainesville and instantly snap up SEC titles left and right; but on the other hand, maybe this loss will also tell Meyer, his staff, and every Gator player just how much it hurts to lose, and consequently, just how much mental work the Boys of Old Florida will have to do if they really and truly want to win an SEC title anytime soon. Losing to the former Head Ball Coach could make the current HBC and his team the mentally tough squad that, once it learns how to win, won't look back and will ironically capture the success this year's team couldn't achieve.
One more thing about thinking like Spurrier: one of the man's trademarks is how he has always thrived because of his long memory. Hatred for Georgia propelled Spurrier to do what he did against the Puppies on the football field as Florida's coach. Hell, Spurrier --- now, as an opposing coach --- mentioned how his NEW team is already creating a lot of new history. In South Carolina, Spurrier still breathes and lives on the oxygen of history --- always has, always will.
So now, it's time for Urban Meyer and every Gator player to go to the oxygen tank and breathe in this bit of history. A coach and his team must remember what it felt like to walk off the field in defeat after blowing an SEC East title to the Gator coach who won seven of those same division flags and seven outright conference championships (two of them before the advent of divisional play and the SEC title game). If the devastation felt by Meyer today is expressed on the football field in 2006, we will be sitting here --- one year later --- and celebrating how Florida crushed Steve Spurrier in his return to Gainesville on the Gators' way to an easy SEC East title.
If the Gators keep this pain with them--using the same long historical memory that made Spurrier so great as Florida's coach--they will find mental toughness. They will learn how to win. They will expect themselves to be great when they need to be, and will therefore display that level of Matt Leinart excellence in clutch situations.
They will also stop shrugging their shoulders. They will also stop assuming the "why me?" pose after teams smoke them on big pass plays or surprising fourth-down runs. They will run a no-huddle offense, and run it well, because they know it needs to be done. They will hit the open deep ball. They will make the tackles that must be made. They will understand what Meyer --- a big fan of mental toughness --- has been trying to convey to them for so long.
In the end, while many questions are raised and frustrations are vented, it really can be as simple as this: there comes a time in the life of every football program when a coach can only do so much coaching. These players have ability and skill, but they've arrived at the point where they simply must learn how to win. And if every Gator player remembers the pain of this loss and a season of missed opportunities --- which feels a lot like 2002 and other recent seasons in Gainesville --- these same players who are devastated today will be celebrating a division championship --- and the true arrival of Urban Meyer excellence --- a year later.
Devastation: it is Florida's sadness today, but it could be this program's rise from the ashes tomorrow. It's now time to live with --- and learn from --- the pain of losing and the devastation that occurs when you lack mental toughness.