I have a picture of my uncle and me when I was about 15 years old. I’m wearing a Gator shirt in the photograph. My uncle Rosco attended the University of Florida well before me and had given me the shirt as a gift. At that point, campus life in Gainesville was still years away. I was much more focused on more important things in life, like how to properly unsnap a bra.
Over that same twenty-five years, however, Gainesville has changed in leaps and bounds. A school that had nary a conference championship in either football or basketball now boasts five national and twelve conference championships. They became the first school ever to hold football and basketball titles simultaneously. It was as if championships grew on trees.
But things might never be this good again in Gainesville. How could they possibly? After two championships in four years, they have a football coach who’s health is in question, a golden boy gone and nearly an entire defense drafted. The cupboard isn’t exactly bare but what’s left inside is certainly inexperienced.
For those of you who have never visited Hogtown, football is a religion. It’s no different from any other college town that lives and breathes football like Columbus or Tuscaloosa or Austin… except the weather is considerably better.
Next season, however, marks a new beginning. The winningest senior class in SEC history has bid the Swamp a fond farewell. Gone are Riley Cooper, Jermaine Cunningham, Dustin Doe, David Nelson, Brandon James, Brandon Spikes, Ryan Stamper and of course Tim Tebow. Juniors Joe Haden and Carlos Dunlap have also declared for the draft and are both projected first rounders. Nobody knows what will happen with Urban Meyer, his health a primary concern.
Meyer shocked Gator Nation not long ago when he made his health issues public and abruptly announced his retirement. Offensive Coordinator Steve Addazio was named interim head coach, for a minute, until Urban unretired. He has now vowed to be on the sidelines this spring, but the 2010-11 season might just be his biggest coaching challenge yet.
A short time ago, Billy Donovan won back-to-back national championships in Gainesville. The athletes he recruited, Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, were recently voted the college basketball team of the decade by ESPN. But Donovan’s recent recruits have yet to win a tournament game. Staying on top is no easy task.
Similarly, between 1993 and 1996, Florida won four consecutive conference and one national championship. but only one after Danny Wuerffel left. Spurrier could never recover from the loss of his Heisman trophy winner and Wuerffel was no Tim Tebow. Hence the challenge that lay in front of Urban Meyer.
Despite reports of a record recruiting class, including landing 17 of ESPN’s top 100 prospects, Tim Tebow was one of the greatest college football players ever. In many ways, he transcended the sport. Don’t believe me? There’s currently more talk about where he’ll be drafted than there is discussion about the consensus number one pick, Ndamukong Suh. Duplicating Tebow’s success won’t be easy. The shadow larger than it’s ever been.
Of course the challenge of starting from scratch pales in comparison to getting Urban’s health right, but both tasks seem monumental. Alabama won a national championship and show no signs of slowing down under head coach Nick Saban. SEC football is not for the weak of heart, no pun intended.
College football chews up coaches and spits them out. With the pressure to win and win now, long tenured coaches like Joe Paterno, Frank Beamer and Bobby Bowden are a thing of the past. Even Bowden was forced out of the stadium that bears his name.
Amid such stout competition, can he rebuild another national championship essentially from scratch? Can he make household names out of Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Matt Elam and Johnathan Dowling as he did with Tebow, Percy Harvin and Brandon Spikes?
If anyone can, it’s probably Meyer. Despite a whirlwind January, Meyer still managed to woo a record recruiting class to Gainesville. While that’s no guarantee of success, it’s a good start. Suddenly things might not be that bad after all. We’ll see what happens when the school takes its first Tebow-less snap.