Upon Further Review

I intentionally took a few days off of writing this, mainly because there’s not a lot to talk about in Gator country right now. Football has an off week, basketball hasn’t started yet, and it’s far too early for the recruiting nonsense to get ramped up yet.

Most Gator fans I heard on Monday had things in the right perspective. Just about anyone will take a 6-1 start to the season, and keep in mind even Steve Spurrier only coached a team to an undefeated regular season once in his 12 years. Urban Meyer was probably not going to coach this team to an undefeated regular season in year 2 like he did at Utah simply because the SEC is so much better than the Mountain West. I never thought I’d ever have to defend a 6-1 start to a season, but here I am anyway.

I will say that it could have been possible to run the table if the off week was a week earlier. If Florida had last week off to get DeShawn Wynn and Percy Harvin to 100%, to give the coaches more chances to dissect Auburn’s schemes, and to give everyone else a physical and mental break, then things may have turned out a lot differently last Saturday.

The dearth of talking points has led to a lot of idle talk though, and the people who will never like Chris Leak no matter what are coming out of the woodwork and making noise again. The people who won’t accept anything other than Steve Spurrier’s offense specifically also are making their way to the surface and complaining as well.

Some of the Leak criticisms are completely valid. Heath Cline talked today about how inconsistent he is – on one play he’ll stand in the pocket and deal with the pressure or throw a block upfield, and the next he’s running around scared or falling down. Or, in the case of Saturday, throwing off his back foot or freezing while trying to figure out if he wants to throw it to Tate Casey or not. Cline also mentioned how Leak has brought a lot of the criticism on himself by proclaiming before his freshman year that he would not get a girlfriend until he won a national title, or before this year talking about throwing 50 touchdown passes. Some may take that as arrogance, though Chris is about as humble as they come.

There’s a lot of factors why some people don’t like him. There’s the ones I mentioned above. He also lacks a defining moment. His only really big fourth quarter comeback was against Kentucky, though Tennessee this year was a gutty win. People don’t know how to react to that. The LSU win in 2003, his two Georgia wins, and the FSU win in 2004 were all games where Florida led for most of the game. There’s no Doering’s Got a Touchdown, 52-20, Run Fred Run, or any other defining attributes to him. Rex Grossman didn’t either, and he lost his two biggest games in 2001, but he gets a pass because he finished second in the Heisman (and should have won it) and he stayed for Ron Zook’s first year when he didn’t have to.

Perhaps that’s another thing – Leak symbolizes in some people’s minds, for better or worse and fair or not, the maddening inconsistency of the Zook years. They win when they shouldn’t, but don’t know how to handle success. There’s no reason why in 2003 they should beat the eventual national champions on the road and then lose to Ole Miss to lose the chance to play in the SEC title game. This year’s team won at Tennessee, which is looking more and more impressive as the year progresses, and beat what is still a very good LSU team. The expectations rose, and what Zook called the noise in the system and what Meyer calls the Florida Nonsense ratcheted up. The result? A second half meltdown on the road in a winnable game. Last year, the meltdown came at South Carolina. This set of older players do not know how to handle success.

Part of that may be the lack of killer instinct of the Zook regime having seeped into them. I know that Leak has not been helped by having three different offensive coordinators, the third of which liking to run an offense that is not best suited for him. There are so many things that come into play, and it’s impossible to pinpoint one or two or ten things as the cause. It may simply come down to a fumbled snap on a punt leading to a momentum shift that a hostile crowd would not allow to change.

Urban Meyer has a track record showing that he does know how to handle success, though you wouldn’t know it by what some people are saying. One person sounded exasperated talking about the offense today, complaining of it sputtering – having a good drive followed by several punts. He didn’t come out and say it, though he almost did and definitely wanted to, but his point was, “Will this offense ever stop sputtering and dominate the league?” He got to “ever” before stopping himself, but that was all that you needed to hear.

“Will they ever…?” questions are asked after 6 to 8 years of a coach when plenty of his own recruiting classes have come and gone and nothing changes. “Will the ever…?” questions are fair for, say, UNC’s John Bunting at this point, but not Urban Meyer. He’s been to more BCS bowls than Florida has since 2002. He has an undefeated season to his credit, including the bowl, which while it happened in a non-BCS conference, non-BCS conference teams don’t go undefeated regularly. He only has one real complete recruiting class here, with the one prior to this year’s being the transition between Zook and Meyer. We won’t know how well his and Dan Mullen’s preferred offensive scheme will work until they get all their kind of players.

It’s not easy to step back and look at these things with a cool head. It doesn’t make for spicy sports talk radio, nor does it drive thousands of blog hits a day (trust me, I know). It’s just frustrating to me how Gator fans are creating an impossible situation. The coaches foster it by saying things like, “Losing is unacceptable at the University of Florida,” but that’s motivational coachspeak. Yes, it is the fans’ job to be loud, be passionate, and buy everything there is with a Gator head logo on it. Yes, part of this is that the people who always have complained this way are getting more opportunities to be heard between multiple local sports talk radio stations and online message boards. However, it wasn’t that long ago that Florida had trouble winning 9 games a season and missed going to a January bowl.

The program is clearly on the rise. Will it net a national title this year? Probably not. Was it ever going to win one this year? Probably not. Will just winning the SEC East be enough for some people? Probably not. If the team goes undefeated and wins by 20 points a game, there will always be people wanting to know why they couldn’t win by 30 a game. I just hope that the vocal minority among the fan base gets over itself, readjusts its perspective, and can find a way to enjoy this team.

The Gators are 6-1, and they has some spectacular playmakers on the team. I can’t wait for Georgia weekend.

*  *  *

However bad some people think things are at Florida, they’re worse at Miami. Everyone by now has seen the FIU-UM fight, and everyone has drawn their own conclusions about it. I have been waiting to hear what the final punishments are, and as most would probably agree, I think that FIU got it right and Miami got it wrong. A single game for stomping on people with cleats is ridiculous.

I will give Brandon Meriweather and Anthony Reddick credit for coming out with apologies that sound sincere. UM President Donna Shalala however says that she is not willing to “throw any student under the bus” after the melee in order to save face.

The aftermath of that fight has nothing to do with saving face. There’s nothing left to save after one player swung his helmet around like a weapon and another stomped on opponents while the Comcast color commentator cheers them on, followed by a celebration afterward where the players jumped up and down on the sideline holding their helmets in the air while the coaches were trying to get their attention to talk to them. All of the progress of the Butch Davis years in image restoration is gone. Kellen Winslow II’s “I’m a soldier!” monologue was a warning sign, and the post-Peach Bowl fight and the stomping on Louisville’s cardinal logo only added to it. Everything culminated on Saturday.

The worst part was not Shalala’s defense of her players, despite their actions being indefensible. The worst was that she said that she intentionally didn’t look at any video of the fight since that would make her mad and she needed a cool head to dole out the punishment. When was the last time you heard of a judge or jury refusing to hear evidence because it would make them angry? How are you supposed to know what happened if you don’t look at the video? It’s impossible to pick everything that transpired in one viewing, especially the first time when you’re in shock that it’s actually happening in front of your eyes. She says that the school now has a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, but who knows whether it will get enforced. Miami has no credibility anymore.

Some have tried to explain the fight by saying that FIU and Miami are only 9 miles apart, but I can’t remember FAMU ever getting into a fight with FSU. Another popular takeaway from it is that FIU could afford to dole out harsh penalties since it’s not going to a bowl and Miami needs the money. Well, Miami is a small private school, and it gets everything it needs from its private school tuition rates. True, the school rarely sells out home football and basketball games, but the amount of merchandise it sells makes up for that. Besides, this is a university, not a minor league football organization.

I don’t think Larry Coker will survive the year. Mediocrity on the field is one thing, but disciplinary problems are something else entirely. There were a lot of reasons that Florida fired Ron Zook, but embarassing incidents off the field played as big a role as any besides the Mississippi State loss. UF thinks it has a good discipline guy in Meyer, but some are raising questions over the Dee Webb/Kenneth Tookes incident over the summer and Marcus Thomas’ early reinstatement from his suspension. Miami under Coker however keeps regressing every year, and he doesn’t have firm control over the program. No one appears to, not Coker, AD Paul Dee, or least of all Donna Shalala.

To borrow a phrase from Heath Cline, the Miami program needs to be fumigated. Maybe that means hiring Butch Davis again, maybe that means hiring Tom Coughlin after he is probably fired by the Giants sometime after the year. The leadership at the school needs to find someone who will rid the program of its deleterious culture of “Defending the U” and who will teach them not just to win, but act with class and walk away from unnecessary fights.

Miami has no business wasting its time fighting some I-A peon like FIU, yet now such a brawl is an indelible mark on the school’s history. Will the leadership at the university make the bold moves necessary to enact real change? If the statements coming out of there the past couple of days are an indication, then the answer is no.

*  *  *

There won’t be any more updates until Saturday as I am going to Atlanta for the next two days for an office visit and interview with Deloitte’s IT group. In the meantime, fill your time with College Football Resource (thanks for the link!) and EDSBS.

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