A Tale of Two Paths: Spurrier and Donovan’s Departures

Back in 2002, Steve Spurrier finally made the leap. After enduring years of countless rumors about the NFL, Spurrier left the University of Florida to coach the Washington Redskins. He was made the highest-paid coach in the league and charged with transforming a lackluster team into a contender. This turned out to be a disaster for Spurrier, the Redskins and the Gators.

Two years ago, Billy Donovan decided his future was in the NBA. After years of unending rumors and an ill-fated brief commitment to the Orlando Magic, Donovan accepted the head coaching job with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder were annual contenders, stocked with two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Despite Durant’s impending free agency and their place in the same conference as the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the Thunder expected to compete for a title in Donovan’s first year. For many in Gainesville and beyond, this had the potential to be another Spurrier-esque disaster for all parties involved. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

If there was only one photo to depict Florida football, it would be Steve Spurrier’s. Heisman Trophy winner. Alumnus. Head Coach. SEC Champion. National Champion. Spurrier took a program known for its untapped potential and turned it into a juggernaut. He won immediately upon arriving. He won every year. And he won big – 6 SEC titles and the one national championship. His style was defined and set – Fun N’ Gun. And he never deviated from the all-out offensive passing attack that relied heavily on big-time quarterbacks (even when there wasn’t a big-time quarterback on the roster).

Billy Donovan is a New Yorker, born and raised on Long Island. His only connection to Florida was the fact that he coached under then-Kentucky coach Rick Pitino and was a part of some teams that tormented the Gators. When he arrived in Gainesville, he was young, unproven and certainly not a sure thing. His first two seasons, the Gators carried losing records. But beginning in the ’98-99 season, Florida basketball evolved from afterthought to national power. Like Spurrier, Donovan eventually won big – 6 SEC regular season titles, 4 SEC tournament titles and back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. His style, originally dubbed “Billy Ball” when he arrived in 1996, evolved over the years depending on the players he had. Run and gun, pressing, 3-point heavy teams gave way to tenacious half-court defenders, ball screens and ball movement attacks.

It was common knowledge around Gainesville that it was always a matter of when, not if, Steve Spurrier would jump to the NFL. He played in the league for many years. His first head coaching gig was in the professional USFL. His competitive nature was such that he wanted to prove he could succeed on the highest level. So when the Head Ball Coach resigned in the first days of 2002, initial shock gave way to the reluctant acceptance that this was inevitable. The decision to leave came on the heels of one of the most disappointing football seasons in Gators history. Florida was the preseason #1 team and rolled through the season minus one tough road loss at Auburn on a last-second field goal. Due to the terrorist attacks on September 11th, the Tennessee game was pushed back to the end of the regular season. A win would send Florida to the SEC title game and then after that almost surely to the Rose Bowl to play for the national title against Miami. With the game at the Swamp, the Gators were huge favorites against the Volunteers. Rex Grossman was a Heisman Trophy finalist. The defense was led by Alex Brown and Andra Davis. But the Vols physically pounded Florida (a common theme of Spurrier-era defeats), especially in the second half and held on for the massive upset. The Gators finished 10-2 and #3 in the country but the expectations for championships meant it was viewed as a failure by many fans. This weighed on Spurrier and was likely the final straw in his decision to bolt for the NFL after 12 amazing seasons at Florida.

For the longest time, it was assumed Billy Donovan would bolt Florida for greener pastures either at Kentucky, where he began his coaching career, or in the NBA. But after the reversal with the Magic, some began to think Donovan might remain at Florida and become the school’s version of Mike Krzyzewski. After the two national titles and the Magic fiasco, Donovan rebuilt the Gators back into an annual title contender. He was still young for a long-time college coach at just 50 years of age, but already he was on track to be one of the absolute legends of the collegiate game. With a strong connection to the Gainesville community, it seemed possible Donovan had put down roots too deep to pry him away from Florida. Of course, few saw the difficulty of the ’14-15 season coming. Florida sank into mediocrity and failed to record a winning record or reach 20 wins for the first time in 16 years. Donovan’s frustrations with the limitations of the college game may have reached a peak. Even still, it was a stunning move when he accepted the Thunder job in late April of 2015.

Spurrier’s arrival in the nation’s capital was met with much fanfare. And much skepticism. If you are younger or don’t quite remember, think of Chip Kelly to the Eagles times ten. Spurrier was a champion and proven winner who transformed the SEC and the rest of college football from a physical, plodding game into the free-wheeling, quarterback-driven sport we know now. The Redskins, coming off back-to-back 8-8 seasons with an anemic offense, craved the excitement Spurrier’s attack promised. The skeptics pointed to a long line of college coaches who failed to live up to the hype in the pros. The Redskins weren’t loaded with superstars either. There were questions about Spurrier’s work ethic fitting in with the rigors and demands of the NFL. Spurrier’s coaching staff was filled with many former assistants from Florida who had little to no NFL experience. The Redskins also quickly brought in former Gators like Shane Matthews, Danny Wuerfful and Chris Doering, something that didn’t sit well with many thinking there might be some cloudy judgement.

Donovan’s arrival in America’s Heartland didn’t generate nearly the excitement or buzz of Spurrier’s professional leap. The Thunder were already a great team, but the clock was ticking due to Kevin Durant’s contract. Expectations were mixed. The Thunder were annual contenders due to Westbrook and Durant, but the history of successful college coaches in the NBA is even shorter than the failed list in the NFL. Donovan’s mentor Pitino was a complete disaster, as was Donovan’s contemporary John Calipari. Unlike Spurrier, Donovan built has staff around NBA coaching veterans that would bring much needed experience. Despite any concerns with the rookie coach, OKC was among the teams that had a puncher’s chance to knock off the Warriors and win it all.

Initially Spurrier delivered on the promise of his high-flying attack. The Redskins looked explosive in the preseason and won Spurrier’s first regular season game behind Matthews’ big passing day. But the explosion soon fizzled out and the Redskins offense never scared anyone in Spurrier’s two seasons. There has been much speculation about the reasons behind Spurrier’s NFL failure. It likely boils down to his style. He was not able to adapt his coaching style nor his playbook to the demands of the NFL. In the college game, Spurrier was able to mastermind an offense that worked through precision and minimized the weaknesses of his quarterback, receivers and offensive line. Collegiate defensive coordinators were slow to catch up. In the NFL, freakish athletes negated those small windows Spurrier’s passing game relied on. Extensive scouting and coaching meant teams were well prepared to attack Spurrier’s blind spots as well. Spurrier’s relaxed approach to defense and special teams created a culture that was divided and undisciplined. After two years, it was obvious to all that the Head Ball Coach didn’t translate to the NFL. He resigned and walked away from millions of dollars.

Donovan’s first season was a roaring success. He quickly adapted his offense to fit Westbrook and Durant’s strengths, keeping the Thunder’s attack as one of the most potent in the league. The team won 10 more games than the previous season. In the postseason, they were even better. The Thunder quickly dismantled the Mavericks and Spurs setting up a showdown with the defending champs, a Warriors team coming off an NBA record 73-win regular season. Donovan’s ball-movement and physical rebounding game plan stymied the Warriors and OKC built a 3-1 series advantage. The miracle run in Donovan’s rookie campaign wasn’t to be, though. The Warriors won three straight, advanced to the NBA Finals, and altered the course of basketball in Oklahoma City. Durant would leave in the offseason, joining Golden State, and leaving Donovan with one superstar on a team built for two.

Rather than the almost-NBA-Finals-appearance, it was this second season in OKC that has been perhaps most impressive about Donovan’s short tenure. Without Durant, the Thunder still won 47 games (giving Donovan 102 in two seasons) and transformed into Must-See-TV behind Westbrook’s triple-double MVP campaign. Some criticized Donovan for so completely revamping the attack behind Westbrook. But that shortchanges Donovan’s impact on Westbrook’s development. And it doesn’t give enough credit to what both Donovan and Westbrook were able to do given so many new pieces in Oklahoma City, and the huge drop off from playing with Durant and Serge Ibaka to playing with so many young, inexperienced players. Donovan constantly tinkered with lineups and rotations in an effort to integrate the new guys, build their confidence and find the best pieces to fit around Westbrook. While season two ultimately ended in disappointment in the playoffs’ opening round, Donovan showed he has the knowledge, temperament and style to succeed in the NBA.

Spurrier’s departure from Gainesville left a gaping hole. It is usually impossible to replace a legend. Alabama wallowed in the abyss for almost a decade after Bear Bryant retired. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had to find the right coach to keep the program atop the SEC and nation. Instead, he hired a defensive assistant who had never been a head coach. The Ron Zook era has been analyzed and mostly reviled over the years, but honestly it would have been hard for anyone to step into Spurrier’s shoes in 2002. Florida rebounded a lot quicker than the Crimson Tide did, though, as Urban Meyer’s brief stint after Zook brought two more national titles. But after Meyer’s departure, Florida’s football program is still on shaky ground as a national championship contender. Jim McElwain has two SEC East titles in two years but no one would say Florida is close to the elite level they want to be. And no one will until a quarterback is found, something Spurrier did with ease.

Foley once again had to replace a legend in 2015 after Donovan’s leap. Rather than go with a coach familiar with the program like he did with Zook’s hire, he tried to duplicate the home run hire of Donovan himself. At that time, there were skeptics (raises hand) who saw the hire as a potential failure. Why not chase a proven coach with a proven track record rather than a young up-and-comer? But in just two years, Mike White has proven to be a solid addition to the program and it appears the Gators might just have captured lightning in a bottle again. It took Donovan three seasons to get to the NCAA Tournament and a fourth to make the Final Four. White’s team made an inspiried Elite Eight dash in just his second season and with a roster still not shaped completely by his recruiting touch. The Gators appear poised to continue their place in the upper echelon of college hoops established by Donovan.

The tale of these two choices and two paths will forever be linked together in Gator Nation history. The two founding fathers of Florida’s two biggest sports both made decisions to leave for the professional ranks. They approached the task in two completely different ways. One disastrously failed. One has seen enough success to believe in a long-time future in the league. The professional franchises who hired them suffered dissimilar fates as well. The Redskins have tried four coaches since Spurrier, none producing enough consistently good football. The Thunder survived the departure of one of the game’s best players and look to have enough left with Westbrook and a few young pieces around him to consistently make the postseason. There’s hope of landing another superstar to pair with him soon.  Lastly, the programs left behind by Spurrier and Donovan saw different results with their replacements. Florida football is still trying to find its identity 15 years after Spurrier’s departure. Florida basketball appears set for the next 15 years. Two Paths and two very different results.

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Dissecting The UF-FSU Rivalry

We hear a lot about rivalries in sports. The blind rage and hatred that fans bring to these contests raise them above mere sporting spectacle. For many fan bases, a loss to a rival can ruin an entire season. On the professional level, multiple meetings in a season can muddy the bragging rights. But in college football, one game against your rival is everything. But how do you judge a rivalry across an athletic program’s fan base?

The Florida-Florida State duel is in an interesting place right now. Bragging rights abound in both Gainesville and Tallahassee depending on the time of the year and the sport. That’s healthy for the state, healthy for the rivalry, and healthy for the fans. But for the undisputed flagship athletic program in the state and one of the top five in the country, it is never enough.

For many, the rivalry begins and ends on the gridiron. Football sucks all the oxygen out of debates between relatives, neighbors, and co-workers. FSU’s four-game winning streak and the utter destruction of Florida’s offense the past two meetings taints everything. To say this November’s meeting is crucial for Florida and Jim McElwain is an understatement. The Gators have never lost five in a row to that school out west. Despite FSU’s recent run of dominance, this rivalry is about as even as it gets. Both schools have three national titles, three Heisman Trophy winners, and unparalleled success producing future NFL talent including projections in this week’s upcoming draft. Florida leads the all-time series 34-25-2 but this has been as even as any college football rivalry in the country. However unless UF can break through soon in a big way, it isn’t going to feel that way to Gator Nation.

After the nadir of November’s football loss, a December loss in men’s basketball put Gators fans on the ledge. It was the third straight win by Leonard Hamilton’s gang, tying the longest Gators losing streak in the rivalry. That means that both football and men’s hoops have matched their longest losing streaks to FSU. But this spring has re-tipped the balance of power in the rivalry back towards the Gators and it began with March Madness. The Gators’ men’s hoops run to the Elite Eight for the fifth time in seven seasons was a welcome salve to the wounds of the fan base. It is certainly troubling that Florida has dropped three in a row in the series and that for much of the season, the Noles were regarded as the better team. But in the end in March, FSU bowed out of the NCAA Tournament early (again) and the Gators kept dancing (again). Two national titles, five Final Fours and an overall series lead of 43-24 keeps men’s basketball strongly in the Gators column.

Since Florida’s softball arrival, it is safe to say the Seminoles have been dominated. After last week’s walk-off win by the Gators softball team, Florida has won 17 of the past 18 meetings between the programs. In the short history of this particular rivalry (Florida only began playing the sport in 1997; FSU dates back to 1978), Florida leads the all-time series 24-14. And of course the Gators have won two Women’s College World Series titles in seven trips, while FSU has nine trips but has never seen ultimate glory.

On the flip side, the baseball rivalry has been one that tilts FSU’s way over the course of history. The Noles lead the all-time series record 128-116. They’ve been to 21 College World Series (to Florida’s 10) and finished runner-up three times (Florida twice). But recently, Kevin O’Sullivan’s bunch has completely flipped the script. That was punctuated by Florida’s win in Tallahassee last week that completed a season sweep. The Gators have won 10 of the past 11 meetings. Since O’Sullivan arrived in Gainesville in 2008, Florida has five CWS appearances to FSU’s three. The hammer blow was delivered last season when the Gators ousted the Noles in the NCAA Super Regionals and advanced to the CWS. O’Sullivan’s arrival has flipped this rivalry squarely into the Gators column.

The vast majority of Olympic sports favor the Gators both over time and in recent history. Florida is the only school in the country to be ranked in the top 10 of all Division I athletic programs since the inception of the rankings 32 years ago. The Gators also boast eight straight top-five finishes. UF has 31 NCAA titles to FSU’s seven. FSU has been good overall but not close to matching Florida’s elite excellence. However, there are troubling recent trends. In women’s soccer, FSU has become a juggernaut. The Noles won it all in 2014 and have appeared in the College Cup nine times since 2003. Meanwhile the Gators lone title was in 1998 and they haven’t made the final four since 2001. Florida State has also pulled ahead in women’s hoops. The Seminoles made the Elite Eight this season and have three trips since 2010. Florida has one way back in 1997. Even women’s volleyball, as steady a bastion of Gators dominance as there is, saw heartbreak at the hands of FSU in this year’s NCAA tournament.

As the spring sports season inches toward its conclusion, Gator Nation can hold its head high in any rivalry talks around those summer barbecues and vacations. The overall strength of the program more than makes up for the recent run in football. The NCAA titles scoreboard of 31-7 assures that. Come November though, Florida truly needs a win to stifle the momentum swelling in Tallahassee.

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Loss of Burrito Bros. is Devastating

Primo Beef and Bean Burrito. Black Beans. Lettuce. Cheese. Red Sauce. So simple. A staple of my life for so many years. And now like so many of the good things in this world, gone too soon. So long Burrito Brothers.

As a kid growing up in South Florida in a working-class family, we didn’t dine out very much. If we did, it was your typical fast food dash and grab. Like more kids than not, my exposure to burritos and tacos in my early years was via Taco Bell. Cringe-worthy now but at the time, everyone was doing it. It was the ’80s, man. So imagine my taste buds’ reaction the first time I visited Gainesville in 1991 as a high school senior and was taken to a hole in the wall place on 13th Street for a real burrito.

That initial visit to Burrito Bros. Taco Company was love at first taste. My order was a primo beef burrito, tortilla chips and a soda. We ate in front of my friend Joel Kelly’s dorm hall, Broward. The flavor of the red sauce, the ground chuck melted together with cheese, the green lettuce, the freshness of the tortilla… I mean seriously, this was an option? The mass produced mystery concoction that was tossed out the drive thru window for years into my car wasn’t a burrito. This was heaven on Earth. This was home.

For the next six years as I pursued a bachelor’s and then a master’s at UF, Burrito Brothers would faithfully serve me at least once a month. It was just a quick dash over from Matherly or Norman after class or before a study session at Library East. Diligently, I stuck to the basics. Primo Beef or Primo Beef and Bean (black beans) almost every time. Why mess with perfection? Plus back in the mid ’90s, there wasn’t much more to the menu. Most times I arrived, the line was six or seven people deep, sometimes with a few of us cued up outside. Once you made it inside, you checked the pin boards for notices about which bands were playing where, see if any house parties had posted a flier, check to see if anyone was selling anything you might need. It wasn’t just a place to pick up the best burritos in the world, it was a community.

An eclectic community at that. Gainesville has always been a diverse place and Burrito Brothers was certainly representative of that. Punks with tattoos and piercings, professors, locals from the outskirts of town, businessmen in suits, freshman with fear in their eyes who had been sent there on recommendations from older siblings or parents. All were welcome through that door just north of University Ave. And all came for the feast.

I moved to California in 2000 and was introduced to authentic Mexican food for the first time. There are so many wonderful spots for tacos and burritos but my love for Burrito Brothers never died. In fact, my Mom once sent me a few primo beef burritos packed in dry ice for my birthday. On every trip back to Gainesville, I’ve eaten at Burrito Brothers at least once and sometimes twice.

As the years have passed, Gainesville has morphed and those effects on the old mainstays were obvious. So many longtime hangouts of generations of Gators have long ago disappeared. Joe’s Deli, the Covered Dish, the Orange and Brew, the Purple Porpoise, Common Grounds and countless others… all gone. The corner of 13th and University is prime real estate and the city of Gainesville has exploited that. Burrito Brothers first relocated and spent years operating out of the back of a church. As shocking as that move was to many of us, it still felt like our own special place. It wasn’t the hole in the wall anymore, it was the hole in the back of the church. As long as there was red sauce, we were happy. Surely Burrito Brothers could find a way to survive even when those other Gainesville icons could not.

When I took my family back to Gainesville in November of 2015 for the Florida-Florida State game, as with every trip back, Burrito Brothers was on the itinerary. I had heard about the new digs but when I strolled over for lunch on Game Day, I had no clue what awaited me. An actual restaurant with tables and a patio. Craft beer on tap. A menu with so many items on it, my wife and kids had to take their time figuring out what they wanted. Not me. Primo beef and bean (black) burrito, extra red sauce, guacamole (which incidentally is one of my biggest regrets, not liking guac as a student, I never had it until I returned as an alum, what a loss). I also added a draft of a local Gainesville brew because how cool is that? We took our brown paper bag (I loved that they still stayed true to the brown paper to-go bag) and walked back across University to our tailgate spot in the Plaza of the Americas. And there I consumed what turned out to be my last burrito from the place that binds me to Gainesville as much as Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Weimer Hall or anywhere else.

I didn’t know it was my last meal at that time but looking back now, I’m salivating at the taste flashback. The fact that my wife and young sons got to partake with me makes it all the more special. I can’t believe they are closing, the blame lies heavily with the city and I know that my next trip back to Gainesville will be a little less joyous because of it.

Farewell Burrito Brothers. Gainesville is losing another piece of its soul on Saturday. We’ll always love you.

My final trip to Burrito Brothers back in November of 2015

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A Nation Divided

December always brings out the thoughtful reflections on the past year. Not to be trite, but 2016 has certainly been one of the most fascinating and frustrating years many of us can remember. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, the negativity has infected your soul and spirit no matter which side you are on. If you’re of the belief that we are headed in the right direction, that a strong foundation exists and we just need to make smart tweaks and additions in order to continue our path back to greatness, you’ve still been weighed down by the mudslinging and cracks in the façade of togetherness. And if you’re of the belief that rather than build on the successes of recent years, we need to strip the whole thing down and rebuild it from the bottom again, then you’ve been leading the charge of attacks on social media and in real-life conversations with friends and families. If we thought Thanksgiving was tough for us to be together around the dining room table without killing each other, just wait until Christmas.

No, you didn’t mistakenly click on Politico or The Atlantic. We’re talking about something much more important than the political and societal future of the United States of America. We’re talking about a divided Gator Nation. Whichever side you are on, the goal is to “Make The Gators Great Again.”

Two years in, Florida head coach Jim McElwain has done something no Gators SEC coach has ever done in winning a division title in each of his first two seasons. Mac supporters point to 10 wins last season (most ever by a first-year Gators coach) and those two titles as evidence that he’s building the program back up. They’ll talk up 18 wins in two seasons after only 11 in Will Muschamp’s final two. The Gators are 11-1 at home under Mac and 2-0 over Georgia. Florida lost its starting quarterback in the middle of the season both years and suffered some other significant injuries as well. Gainesville only hosted five games this season and despite losing a sure W on the schedule, Mac still guided the team to eight wins (so far) this season. These are all fine, fair points. But as we’ve discovered over the past year, there are truths and then there are fake truths.

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Florida head coach Jim McElwain is 18-8 in two seasons in Gainesville. A divided Gator Nation is split on his prospects of ever turning the Gators around.

Mac detractors will tell you the SEC East is a dumpster fire and those two SEC East titles are as impressive and meaningful as the two Missouri won in 2013 and 2014. The Gators won 10 games in 2015 but short memories forget about the following one-possession games that should could have gone the other way:

Gators’ Close Calls in 2015
vs East Carolina: 31-24, late 4th quarter, ECU deep in Gators territory; Florida wins on a QB fumble and the famous Jarrad Davis tackle of Alex McAllister

at Kentucky: a 14-9 win in which Kentucky had the ball with a chance to take the lead numerous times in the 4th quarter after Florida was completely inept on offense most of the game

vs Tennessee: Gators go an ungodly 5/5 on 4th down conversions, including 3/3 in the 4th quarter punctuated by Grier to Callaway on 4th and 14; UT missed a game-winning 55-yard FG just right

vs Vanderbilt: the worst kicker in Gators history, Austin Hardin drills a 43-yd GW FG in a 9-7 abomination

vs FAU: flashbacks to the low point of the program and the loss to Georgia Southern, only this time Florida somehow escapes with 20-14 win in OT

Mac’s first season just as easily could have been a six, seven or eight-win performance. Of course, winning close games is the sign of a good coach and a good team, right? To some extent, that’s true. The Gators first loss of the McElwain era was on the road at LSU the week of Will Grier’s suspension. By all rights, the Gators had very little chance in this one. Yet they fought and were in the game until Les Miles fooled seemingly only Florida’s coaches in calling a fake FG to win the game. Mac said the loss was “a badge of honor” because of the trickery, failing to understand the Gators had seen Miles do this time and time again over the years. To this point, this is the only loss for McElwain at Florida that was close.

What about losing games that aren’t close? The final three games of the 2015 season were a compilation of some of the worst football the Gators have ever played. UF was outscored 97-23 in drubbings by Alabama, Florida State and Michigan, a stretch of embarrassment that minus the Muschamp era hadn’t been seen in Gainesville since 1988 (a four-game losing streak by a combined 83-23 score). In 2016, all four of Florida’s losses have been by double digits, with an average score of 39-17. Since that overtime win over Florida Atlantic, McElwain’s Gators are 8-7 and have been outscored 312-303.

When trying to evaluate Jim McElwain as a coach and a leader of a program, two seasons is hardly fair. If you look at the recent history of Gators coaches in the modern era, McElwain doesn’t inspire much confidence. Some of this is unfair as well. Comparing any newly-hired coach to a legend is not right. Even Steve Spurrier had his ups and downs. In his first season, the Gators were blown out by Tennessee and Florida State. In 1991, they lost big at Syracuse. And in 1992, back-to-back blowouts on the road at Tennesee and Mississippi State were very discouraging. But Spurrier immediately ended Georgia’s dominance in the rivalry with a 38-7 blowout win in ’90 and had three wins over top-5 teams in his first two seasons. Urban Meyer had an awful first-year loss at Alabama but lost only two more by double-digits (and none by more than 12) until the beginning of the end against Bama in 2009.

Spurrier and Meyer aren’t the only coaches who outperformed McElwain, though. Looking at the Ron Zook era doesn’t favor him either. The Zooker’s teams went 12-4 in the SEC his first two years despite sharing a division with a top-10 Georgia team both seasons. The Gators were blown out four times in Zook’s first two seasons but also toppled two top-5 teams in Tennessee in Georgia in 2002. The final Zook season featured no blowout losses and three either-or games that Mac has been so lucky good in. An awful personal foul call on Dallas Baker, the referees’ failure to restart the clock and the Vols kicker executing on a 50-yard kick at the gun had nothing to do with Ron Zook’s coaching. Against LSU, Florida led 21-7 and lost on a TD pass with 30 seconds left. Zook lost both and Mac won two almost identical ones (UT in ’15, LSU in ’16).

Don’t go to 2:19:00. Don’t do it.

Even big dumb Will Muschamp football beat four ranked teams in 2012. McElwain has two wins over ranked opponents.

The Mac supporters in Gator Nation will point to other coaches around the country that have turned their programs around after some slow starts. The first is James Franklin. He has been at Penn State for three seasons now and the first two were slow going with the the Nittany Lions clawing to identical 7-6 records. Including this season’s blowout at Michigan, Franklin’s teams have also dropped seven double-digit decimations, the same number as Mac’s Gators. Penn State’s magical 2016 made Happy Valley happy again. The win over Ohio State coupled with the B1G championship all seemed so improbable a year ago. Definitely food for thought with McElwain and how long Florida’s administration should allow him to rebuild the program.

Chris Petersen (who we famously penned a love letter to back in 2010) took over a Washington program that was average under his predecessor Steve Sarkisian and promptly went 8-6 and 7-6 in his first two seasons. There were some blowout losses, too, for Petersen with five of the 12 by double digits, not as bad as we’ve seen in Gainesville in 13 months but still not great. The Pac-12 was good and especially the Pac-12 North with powers Stanford and Oregon. So these first two seasons were definitely met with some disappointment in Seattle but there was an understanding that the program’s overhaul was a process. In year three, of course, Petersen and the Huskies are in the college football playoff.

While I don’t like comparing coaches at different programs, there are certainly reasons for optimism in what Franklin and Petersen have done. The biggest reason for alarm in these comparisons for the anti-Mac brigade? Both Franklin and Petersen recruited quarterbacks right away who came in and transformed their offenses into explosive attacks. Trace McSorley redshirted a year because Franklin had the luxury of NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg. Jake Browning, though, started as a true freshman. Both of them had sensational seasons and will probably end up top-10 in Heisman voting. And this leads us to the biggest reasons for concern for the Jim McElwain era.

McElwain has absolutely been hamstrung by what he inherited at the quarterback position. Will Grier appeared poised to break the curse of Tim Tebow before his suspension and ultimate transfer. Treon Harris was never a SEC-caliber quarterback. This season rather than turn the reins of the offense over to either true freshmen recruited by Mac and his staff, the coach went with two transfers in Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby. After injuries and struggles, McElwain still wasn’t comfortable with the idea of playing a freshman. College football in 2016 is a lot different than college football 20 years ago. True freshmen are often thrust into action and expected to compete at a high level. Jalen Hurts is an outlier in looking at the performance of true freshman QBs, but even Jacob Eason and Shane Buechele at Texas had their moments. Jake Browning took his lumps at Washington last year before becoming an elite passer this season. Either Mac was too scared to trust his freshmen or they weren’t ready, which given that both were early enrollees last spring doesn’t say much about the staff’s ability to get them ready or to evaluate their potential.

Obviously Grier’s failure was the key in all of this. Mac supporters will say that if Grier doesn’t screw up, Florida is probably set at the QB position for three years. There is clear progress with the offense and no way Florida gets blown out like they have in their past seven losses. Some of those seven are probably wins, too. All good arguments and believable. On the flip side, college kids are notoriously unreliable and Mac and his staff had to prioritize finding good QBs and getting them ready in case disaster struck. Two other issues in pointing to Grier: 1) McElwain didn’t recruit him, he’s a Muschamp signee and 2) Mac could have convinced him to stay and return to the field halfway through this season. It would have been a tough pill to swallow but given the QB situation since Tebow, it was something he should have considered.

In addition to the disputed “facts” of how you look at statistics, records and game results and comparisons with other coaches, there is the on-field subjective analysis that makes evaluating a coach even harder. Play calling is an easy thing for fans and experts to second guess. The 4th down at FSU on the opening drive and the ill-advised pitch at LSU on the goal line after Scarlett and Perine had gashed the Tigers all the way down the field are just two recent calls that drove many to question Mac and Doug Nussmeier. We’re all so much smarter from our seats in the stands and our couches when plays don’t work. At the same time, offensive and quarterback gurus get held to higher standards. Florida’s offense has not been in the top 100 in total offense in either of these first two seasons. There have been long stretches where Florida’s top playmakers Antonio Callaway, Brandon Powell and Jordan Scarlett haven’t received touches. For that matter, why did it take so long for the Gators four-headed running-back committee to be settled? Jordan Scarlett is a special runner and most of us saw it well before Mac and Nuss. Lamical Perine is the clear second choice and Jordan Cronkrite is the best third-down option. Mac wasted too many games and too many touches trying to figure out what seemed obvious.

None of this is likely to change minds out there. Gator Nation will remain a divided land filled with those on one side screaming at those on the other side to just see clearly. Often times, things are not as bad as they seem. This is true of what we see in our current situation and what we see coming in the near future if we don’t get our way. I’m on the side of believing that McElwain is not the answer and ultimately we will have to move on from him. I see the “facts” that tell me he’s been lucky on the field despite being unlucky off it. I don’t believe you can be blown out this much and still be a good coach. Good coaches will lose big but when they do, they use it as fuel to spark their team away from mediocrity and toward greatness. All that said, I respect those who see hope in him and think that he’s the right man to get us back on top of the SEC and eventually the country. This includes many of my friends here at Our Two Bits. The bottom line is Jim McElwain will remain Florida’s coach at least for the 2017 season and all Gators fans should hope, well into the future. His success is our success. And unlike our split society and real-world divisions, Gator Nation is united firmly behind our desire to win football games and truly be great again.

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Gators accept the challenge in East Lansing

Gameday

The Gators will face their toughest challenge of the season so far by taking on No.1 ranked Michigan State on Saturday evening. They are currently 6-2 and are coming off a loss 66-55 on the road Tuesday from another ranked team, No.21 Miami. Coach White wasn’t too pleased with the lack of energy or communication from the game down south either “ It was a ‘C’ or ‘D’ effort against a really good Miami team”. Coach White has also hinted at some changes for the upcoming matchup. White is aware of the challenges that the team will face, especially with the type of players that the Gators will be battling against. Denzel Valentine the 6”5 senior guard is the leader for the Spartans who averages 18.8 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 7.8 assists. “It starts with Valentine, who’s arguably one of the best — if not the best — players in the country. He’s so good in so many different ways; good at everything. And they’re good at everything. Michigan State doesn’t have a weakness. They’re as solid a team as there is in college basketball.” The Spartans are currently sixth in the nation in scoring (57.3 ppg), fourth in shooting percentage defense (.353) 15th in 3-point defense (.270), and fifth in the country in defensive efficiency (.823 points per 100 possessions).

So what do the Gators need to do? They need to fight, right from the beginning, “We got punched in the mouth early” sophomore forward Devin Robinson said on the Miami loss. They need to go back to basics really in order to have a shot at an upset “We all hope that we make some shots up there, make great decisions and execute really well, but it’s simpler I think for this team. While we’re searching a little bit offensively, it’s simpler for us to focus on the things we can control — like being really good defensively — because we’ve shown signs of being a tremendous defensive team.” White said. There was a lack of energy and communication against the Hurricanes and they cannot let that happen against Michigan State, especially in the Breslin center which is known for a wild crowd. “We have to have an us against the world mentality because that’s what it’s going to feel like “Senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith said.

The Gators are no strangers to meetings with the Spartans either. This is their seventh time meeting them and currently their matchup record is tied at 3-3. The Gators have also upset the Spartans before back in 2009. This team included former Gators now turned NBA stars Chandler Parsons (Dallas Mavericks) and Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors). MSU at the time was ranked No.2 in the country while Florida was unranked, with the final score of 77-74. “It’s a great opportunity for us, you always dream of beating the Number one team” Dorian Finney-Smith said. With the right mentality and tweaking of basic issues the Gators can utilize this opportunity of playing a top team like this so early to set the tone for the rest of the season.

Broadcast Information:
When: Saturday, 6 p.m.
Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Mich.
TV/Radio: ESPN2/WatchESPN.com


Written by Cierra Clark, an undergraduate telecommunications student at the University of Florida. Cierra works for the WUFT news station on campus and has an outside concentration in sports management. She is an avid runner who hails from Winter Springs, Florida a suburb of Orlando. Cierra enjoys all sports from the big sports of football and basketball, all the way to the Olympic sports.

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Gators Squash the Spiders

dunk

Picture Courtesy of Gatorzone

Tuesday night Florida added another win to their record making them (6-1) with a 76-56 domination of the Richmond Spiders. The Gators led from start to finish throughout the game and by halftime they were at 40-17. The defense was really what helped the Gators land this win. “We’ve always been capable of a defense like this” sophomore forward Devin Robinson said. Robinson silenced the crowd in the second half with an ankle injury scare that led him to be carried out into the locker room by trainers. However Robinson came back and was able to play during the end of the game. The Spiders are a high scoring team that is 26th in the nation with their averages of 86 points per game. Last Friday at the Las Vegas invitational Richmond upset California 95-90.Their leading scorer Senior Forward Terry Allen dropped 34 points and 13 rebounds in Sin City.

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Star Wars themed evening at the game Picture courtesy of Gatorzone

This was not the case in Gainesville with Allen making 6-for-22 from the floor and 0-4 for three pointers. Allen was also held to 15 points and Richmond shot 34 percent shooting from the floor and only 17 points during the first half. The gators almost had the first trio of players to record double doubles since Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and Corey Brewer. Sophomore center John Egbunu added 17 points and 14 rebounds the second of his UF career, sophomore forward Devin Robinson who recorded 12 points, and a career high of 13 rebounds, and Senior forward Dorian-Finney Smith was would’ve been the third double double, and he contributed nine points and 13 rebounds. Freshman guard KeVaughn Allen added 10 points with 4-of-8 shooting and 2 of 4 from the three point rage.

Florida Coach Mike White was proud of how the team used their length and stole rebounds. He also is excited that the team is improving each game and making better decisions with the basketball. “I haven’t been part of a team like this, that’s as talented on the glass as we are, on the offensive glass and defensive glass” White said.

The Gators’ next challenge is on December 8th against in state opponent Miami who is ranked No.21. The team hasn’t had a day off in 15 days, and Coach White is ready for the team to “rest their bodies and their minds” for their next game.

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Written by Cierra Clark, an undergraduate telecommunications student at the University of Florida. Cierra works for the WUFT news station on campus and has an outside concentration in sports management. She is an avid runner who hails from Winter Springs, Florida a suburb of Orlando. Cierra enjoys all sports from the big sports of football and basketball, all the way to the Olympic sports.

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Game Preview – Florida vs. Florida State 2015 Edition

VH3Gainesville, Fla.– With the Florida Gators (10-1) returning from a nail biting win in overtime against Florida Atlantic, they return for their last game in The Swamp for the year. The No.12 Gators face No.13 Florida State for a battle for bragging rights as well as a chance for the Gators to make the college football playoffs.

The Seminoles (9-2) come off of a blowout win against Chattanooga last week and come down to Gainesville for the rivalry weekend. FSU already gave up their ticket to the ACC Championship this year with two losses in the ACC to Georgia Tech and Clemson respectively. The Seminoles have proved to be one of the best teams in the state with wins over South Florida and Miami, with that being the case, they have one thing to do, and that is to defend their back to back wins against the Gators.

For the Gators to grab this win, they plan on stopping FSU sophomore running back and Heisman candidate, Dalvin Cook. Coach Jim McElwain has described Cook as “a fire breather” and “a glass eater”. Cook has rushed for 1475 yards, 16 touchdowns, and has averaged 8.0 yards a carry for the season.

Florida’s defense proves to be one of the best, with being second in the SEC in rushing defense, with 108.3 yards per game. However, the last time they faced a star running back, LSU’s Leonard Fournette they gave up 180 yards.

The Gators also have had some injuries to key players on their roster, including defensive lineman and All-American Jonathan Bullard. Bullard suffered a right knee injury against FAU on Saturday, and although he returned to the game, McElwain said during his press conference on Monday that he “is probably out” for the upcoming game. Edge Rusher Alex McCalister will also be out, as he is still recovering from a foot injury from the South Carolina game.

Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III who had a sick stomach last game is expected to return to the swamp for his final home game as a gator. Hargreaves who is a junior is eligible for the draft and is a projected first round pick in the 2016 NFL draft.mac_jimbo

Despite all of the injuries and statistics this game is personal for many of the players. Its senior day and some of these players will walk on the field in a gator uniform for their last time ever.

Florida and Florida State both have a large amount of Florida natives on their rosters. Many of these athletes played against each other or on the same team, from the first time they put on a helmet in Pop Warner, all the way to their final games in college. The Gators and Seminoles are fighting for not only another win to their records, but for the name for the best team in the state, and for bragging rights on the best in the rivalry in this new McElwain era.

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Written by Cierra Clark, an undergraduate telecommunications student at the University of Florida. Cierra works for the WUFT news station on campus and has an outside concentration in sports management. She is an avid runner who hails from Winter Springs, Florida a suburb of Orlando. Cierra enjoys all sports from the big sports of football and basketball, all the way to the Olympic sports.

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Not So Clutch Like MJ: How One Man Fooled Gator Nation

If you are at all active on twitter within the Florida Gator community you have undoubtedly come across a flamboyant brash user named Ryan who went by the handle @ClutchLikeMJ. Ryan proclaimed to have insider knowledge into Gator Football recruiting, current players, coaching decisions, and even claimed to be a “bag man” for the Gators (i.e. paying recruits to attend Florida). He described himself as a rich kid from Destin, Florida with ties to Hawaii and Ohio.

Many (but not all) UF followers would eat up his content, and Ryan seemed more than excited to supply it. He even started a message board charging fees to be a part of his Gator Gang community. The costs escalated quickly, first $10 and then eventually rising to $100 a year for access. Ryan was a master of manipulation fooling many media members, recruits, players, and coaches on Twitter. He would then post their direct message conversations via a screen capture within the forum giving much of his information some credibility. Along with the access fees associated with his forum, “Ryan” would also sell T-shirts online. It is estimated that through these two “businesses” he amassed nearly $50,000 in sales.

After a while a core group got suspicious of “Ryan” when he would not meet them at Gator Football games. So the research began. This group did a reverse phone search and discovered a name…. “Neil Cool”. The group dug further and discovered, via a voter registration website that Neil Cool’s birthday was February 20th; this aligned with when “Ryan” celebrated his birthday on twitter. They also unearthed Neil’s personal Facebook account and some other information about Neil Cool available on the web including ties to the Paypal account for the forum/t-shirts. Here is a screen capture of the Facebook page belonging to “Ryan”, really known as Neil Cool.

NeilCool

Further sleuthing discovered that “Ryan” was using pictures from a gentleman named Drew Walker. Stealing much of his photographic identity for “Ryan” from Mr. Walker’s Facebook account. Mr. Walker lives in Monroe, Ohio and probably has no idea that Neil Cool stole his pictorial identity. The Ohio connection is an interesting one since “Ryan” often claimed to have ties there.

DrewWalkerFB

 

This whole discovery played out via Twitter last night. In fact the content for this post explaining the situation should be credited to two twitter accounts. Big shout out to @tiepod and @MsMiyayo305.

Also, “Ryan” (really Neil Cool) has deactivated his twitter account. But before he did, he left the following image/”apology” note.

Confession

 

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Game Preview: Florida Gators vs. Georgia Bulldogs

Jacksonville, Fla.– The Florida Gators are 6-1 at the end of October. Yes, it’s true. It has been a while since we’ve been able to say that. Georgia is 5-2 and the underdog in this game, which has also been a while since that has happened.

Georgia has lost 2 of it’s last 3 games and their season is teetering on the brink of implosion. Florida still has the upperhand in the race to Atlanta and will all but seal it up with a victory at Everbank Field. Georgia certainly needs this game more than Florida does, but it does not take away the importance of this game to the Gators. If Florida loses to Georgia, the Gators’ fate lies in other teams hands. McElwain has brought back the emphasis on rivalry games to The Swamp and has had 2 weeks to prepare this team for maybe their toughest remaining game in the regular season.

The Gators need to get their running backs involved early and often against an inconsistent Georgia defense. Georgia’s defense surrendered a huge comeback victory to Josh Dobbs and Co. in Knoxville a few weeks ago and gave up 519 yards of total offense to the Vols. Josh Dobbs is a mobile QB like Treon Harris and the Dawgs seemed to struggle defending his running ability as he rushed for 118 yards and the team rushed for 207 yards against Georgia. Nussmeier needs to get Treon Harris more involved in the running game. Florida’s rushing offense has been anemic to say the least. The Gators rushed for 55 total yards against LSU in Baton Rouge which is unacceptable and will put the Gators in the loss column if that happens again. The Gators NEED to run the ball effectively. If Florida starts running it with ease (as they did last year against Georgia), the passing game will open up for Treon to get some big plays to home run threats like Antonio Callaway and Demarcus Robinson. C’yontai Lewis’ return this weekend gives the Gators another weapon for Harris to use at his disposal. Pretty simple strategy offensively for the Gators on Saturday: Run the ball, win the game.

Florida’s prized possession this season has been the defense. This defense is easily Top 5 in the country and when it plays to the level it’s capable of, not many teams can score on it. LSU had early success on the Gators in the passing game which disappointed many. But as McElwain has said, the Gators played tight early on. The defense surrendered 2 passing touchdowns to the Tigers’ offense. The secondary tightened up in the second half and gave the Gators offense an opportunity to win the game. Georgia has lost it’s best weapon to a season ending knee injury but that shouldn’t matter. Georgia has several other weapons on offense that could make the Gators defense have a long afternoon. Sophomore Sony Michel is special and the Gators defensive line needs to take this young man seriously. It looks like career backup Faton Bauta will get the start for Georgia. Bauta has been the 3rd string QB for Georgia but offers a dual threat that the Dawgs haven’t had in years. Mark Richt is desperate for this win and that should scare Gator fans. Florida’s only hope for a trip to Atlanta is on the back of it’s defense. Bauta has had only limited time on the field and the Gators defense needs to exploit that. Georgia’s offensive line is really good and whoever wins that battle between the Gators defensive line and Georgia’s offensive line will win this game.

Prediction: This is a rivalry game and these two teams are almost evenly matched in talent and skill. Mark Richt is trying to salvage a season with a victory in Jacksonville. But Georgia is too desperate at the quarterback position and seems to be grasping at straws to create a spark. I think this game comes down to coaching. And I think Jim McElwain is a better coach than Mark Richt. So I’m going with Coach Mac and the Gators.

Florida 24 Georgia 17

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The biggest Gator fan with the biggest heart: Jay Ryon’s story

Editor’s Note: Earlier this week a little boy named Jay Ryon went viral within the University of Florida community. When his Aunt tweeted the picture below. Lots of special Gator-related things are about to happen for Jay, and we for one are ecstatic for him!!!

 

 

In the midst of college football season we get caught up in the hype of our affinity for sports and we sometimes tend to forget the important things in life. We forget that life is bigger than football and records and rivalries. What 8 year old Jay Ryon has shown me is that life is much bigger than anything I could have ever fathomed.

Jay Ryon was a kid that loved going to Disney World, playing soccer, being a cub scout, and of course, he is a huge Gator fan. Saturday’s in the Ryon household were filled with cheers of orange and blue. Jay grew up, like many other kids in Central Florida, idolizing Tim Tebow and loving Gator football. Jay’s parents, Maggie and Nick Ryon took Jay to Gator games and Orlando Solar Bear hockey games regularly. Jay was a normal young boy that loved sports and being outdoors. He was so full of life and joy with twIMG_25711o loving parents, spending weekends at his uncle’s house in Homosassa and playing with friends.

In January 2014, life threw Jay and his family a curveball that many never even think could be possible. Little Jay Ryon had a bruise on the back of leg that wouldn’t go away. It looked different than a normal bruise and it concerned Jay’s parents, Maggie and Nick. They took Jay to his pediatrician to have it looked at. His doctor sent Jay to get blood work and some x-rays done, but assured Maggie and Nick that it was all precautionary. The x-rays came back negative and blood work was normal. But after some further testing Maggie and Nick got news that would change their lives forever. Jay Ryon was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at 7 years old. The doctors discovered that his blood had so much cancer in it that Jay was considered high risk and his cancer was so severe that he needed to begin treatments immediately. He was immediately admitted into Florida Hospital and given 3 blood transfusions and chemotherapy treatment.

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Jay and his parents were taking on the toughest opponent anyone can face in life. Not even Gator greats like Kevin Carter, Javon Kearse, Brandon Spikes, or Jack Youngblood could be prepared to stop this. Jay’s parents looked to their faith in God to help get them through a tragedy only seemingly real in parents’ worst nightmares. Jay has received over 800 doses of chemotherapy and has spent 122 nights in the hospital since being diagnosed. While other kids are enjoying picnics and playgrounds, little Jay Ryon was enduring something that is indescribable. It was through Jay’s love of the Gators and Florida football that kept his spirits high during these most trying times. Jay in his hospital bed, decorated with Gators colors, would dream of one day meeting Tim Tebow and playing quarterback at the University of Florida just like his hero did. Jay has an unbelievable support system starting with his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the UF family.

In May 2014, Jay and his family got some refreshing and incredible news. Jay’s cancer had gone into remission. After tears, sadness, and heartbreak there was finally hope. God had answered their prayers. Hopefully Jay would soon be able to resume the normal life he had once enjoyed and the life he deserved. After more months of preventative chemotherapy doses, Jay had a setback. In February of this year Jay was bitten by a fire ant, and due to his weakened immune system, Jay had a serious infection. Jay would receive a course of antibiotics that would last 107 days and he had to cease his chemotherapy doses due to the infection. Jay is now 8 years old and has since recovered from that horrific infection and is on tract to being “cancer free” in less than 2 years. Jay still receives monthly chemotherapy doses and is still battling a giant that only David could slay.

Jay has not been able toIMG_25691 attend any football games in 2 years due to his weak immune system and treatments, but his family is hopeful on taking him to a game later this year when the Gators host Vanderbilt in The Swamp on Saturday, November 7. Gator football has been such an important part of Jay’s story and that is why it needs to be shared with Gator Nation. We are more than sports, books, and colors. We are a family.

I hope we can all learn a lesson from hearing Jay Ryon’s story: no matter what you think may be important going on in your life right now….. life is much bigger than you could ever imagine. Much, much bigger.

A special thanks to Jay’s “Aunt Kathryn” for assisting me in writing this piece.

If you want to help Jay and his family, they have established a GoFundMe.

 

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