Florida fans are addicts. It's okay to admit this: That's the first step.
In the Steve Spurrier era, the Fun 'n Gun was our football cocaine. Not only did the Gators beat nearly everyone they faced, they outscored and outsmarted them. 50 points was nearly normal once Spurrier's offense got revving, and Florida won games in which it gave up four or more scores repeatedly. No deficit seemed too large, no defense too scary: The Gators had Danny Wuerffel, or Fred Taylor, or (the good moments of) Doug Johnson, or Rex Grossman, and things would work out. They almost always did.
When Spurrier left, there were few hard feelings. The dealer had been as close to the supply as possible, and never shorted most of his customers; only the most demanding ones felt cheated. He just wanted to move to a different market that might have been more lucrative, that's all; could we blame him?
Spurrier's departure didn't start giving Florida fans withdrawals until the next drug proved far less fun. If the Fun 'n Gun was cocaine, Ron Zook's tenure was a few bags of sticks and seeds.
Zook and Ed Zaunbrecher came to be reviled for their squandering of Florida's talent on offense: Why so many bubble screens? Why a reverse pass to Grossman? Zook won few games, and inspired few beyond his own players; Zook's teams inspired little but frustration in the fan base. It ended poorly, and, as Pat Dooley wrote this week, the fired Zook and his deposed staff were almost all the way out of the door by the end of the 2004 season, working in Florida offices with Illinois apparel.
Urban Meyer was hired to be a change-up from the Zook years, both better than and different from three years of agony over five-loss seasons that spurred Jeremy Foley to take action and set a standard for quick triggers in college football. Meyer's spread offense was the ticket, if it could only work in the SEC — and once it did, Meyer's Gators were Florida fans' version of meth.
Those Gators gave fans even higher highs than Spurrier's purer batches, with two titles to Spurrier's one and a head-trip in the form of seeming invincibility over a 22-game winning streak.
But the comedown was worse over the last batch or two: Meyer's 2009 team crashed against Alabama, and 2010 was an extended dead cat bounce, with Florida's offense proving to be far less effective without its premium ingredients. And all those side effects — the arrests, the arrogance, the paranoia of the dealer leaving us — weren't much fun.
In picking Meyer's successor, Florida's decision-makers had a choice: Should the Gators try to find a new drug, or detox?
Their choice was Will "Methadone" Muschamp.
Muschamp's first year was a long, painful rehab. Impurities were purged, but the shakes were painful, and it wasn't until the light washed Florida at the end of the tunnel that fans started to warm to Muschamp.
2012, then, was a testament to the virtue of clean living. Florida broke itself of its dependence on offense, and Muschamp assembled a rock-ribbed defense to rival the best in school history. There wasn't much razzle-dazzle, there weren't many chemical highs — what Florida and its fans got from 2012, mostly, was the satisfaction of a job well done.
If you were there, like I mostly was, it was a rush.
If you weren't, it wasn't quite as much fun.
And, especially given how the Gators just didn't have that special something in their two losses, that wasn't enough for some Florida fans.
There was an undercurrent of frustration from some corners, even in 2012: Florida's greatest win was occasion to talk about "grim procedure" as much as it was evidence of extreme toughness, and its worst loss — which came in a game so critically important to fans that they mostly didn't buy tickets to it — left a bitter aftertaste. An 11-2 season swayed some, but the grip of addiction is strong.
Then the methadone ran out in 2013, and a root canal of a season gave those addicts nothing but pain. Clean living is hell when things don't quite fall your way — narcotics make everything better, even the hard times — and nothing fell Florida's way in 2013. There wasn't a painkilling pill left in the medicine cabinet by year's end, just expired Tylenol and pre-clinical trial stuff that wasn't ready for human consumption.
But with a fan base clamoring for a new drug, Florida decided to stay on the straight and narrow, hoping that a long-term recovery was possible, even if the road to isn't paved as well as the one where relapse is the only option.
And that bump knocked most off the bandwagon.
Earlier this year, I asked Spencer Hall why he was bearish on Muschamp.
This was his response:
Will Muschamp has displayed no ability to hire a competent staff or evaluate and recruit offensive players. His brand of football is horrendous viewing, a constipated half-game played by NFL game management rules with a hopelessly overburdened defense asked to carry the entire team on their backs. Muschamp will now attempt to save his job by moving entirely out of his comfort zone and running a spread offense with one qualified quarterback and no threats at receiver AND a line learning a new scheme, all done against the usual meat grinder of a schedule. It will end just as well as that experiment did, and then none of us will have to watch this horrible bullshit ever again. The sooner this ends, the better.
I don't think Spencer's entirely right, and I don't think he's entirely wrong — mostly, I disagree, though I'll admit to being more optimistic than most. But I think most of us Florida fans would agree that Spencer is something of a spiritual touchstone for Gator Nation, especially the citizens of it who fell in love with the Gators under Spurrier, and I think it's telling that he mentioned failure to put together an offense and the "brand" of football before the losses.
Florida fans, by and large, know the kind of football they like, and believe that there is a "right" way of playing football and winning games. It is not the only way, certainly — 2012 is proof of recent vintage that there are other ways — but it is the preferred brand. It's Coke — makes sense, right? — and store-brand just isn't good enough. (Coke loyalists are addicts, too.)
For those fans, the inability to swap what they feel like they mistakenly bought for Coke is maddening. Their offseason has been and will be spent dreading drinking this swill all fall, to the point that most won't be sitting at the table. And there's no faith to go on: They're not going to believe that what they got is just as good until they taste it.
For his part, Muschamp is trying.
His hiring of Kurt Roper — a bright offensive mind who's coming to Florida from Duke, just like Spurrier, and an offensive coordinator who runs an objectively exciting, up-tempo system and has had success with it — is a smart move, even if it looks like capitulation to the prevailing wind in college football, or compromising Muschamp's ideals, or a desperate move to save his job. It really is all of those things, sort of, but that doesn't mean that tabbing one of the most respected young minds in the game as a lieutenant is a bad idea.
Muschamp's talked about the need to protect Jeff Driskel and get younger players reps this fall in his offseason speaking appearances, too. That's going to require blowouts early on, in games against Idaho and Eastern Michigan and Kentucky that might facilitate them, and Florida fans who have begged for blowouts over the last three years will get "I told you so" rights if they help. But those fans will still find a way to be anguished, I promise you, if what they want on the field comes to pass under Muschamp.
Even if Muschamp succeeds within reason this year — if that Roper-directed attack is dangerous, and Driskel is good, and players stay healthy, and Florida's defense is as good or better than it was last season, when it was mostly good to excellent, depending on personnel availability, and Florida's special teams units rebound to the mean, and a slightly less harrowing schedule sets up better for upsets — some fans will find ways to criticize Muschamp.
At 9-3, Florida might not play for an SEC title; after all, at 11-1, 2012 Florida didn't. At 10-2, Florida might have lost big to the last two national champions on the road, and proven unworthy of competing for a national title. At 11-1, Florida might just be in the same position it was in 2012; Spencer, just yesterday, wrote that an 11-1 season would be "bittersweet."
The only way for Muschamp to fully win over the fans who want his teams to provide the high that past Florida teams did is to provide a potent enough high to make the memories of old ones fade. And, in 2014, that's going to take an SEC title, or a College Football Playoff berth — two things that are improbable at best for these Gators, even if things break right, because of just how withering their schedule really is. And even if his Gators do enough to justify Muschamp staying, there is a wide band of outcomes between his retention and his redemption in the eyes of his cynics and skeptics.
It's easier for those fans to be pessimistic right now, to doubt Muschamp, to hope, without outwardly saying it. Florida could be an underwhelming 8-4 again, or go 7-5 with one or two bad breaks. It would confirm what they have "known" for so long, that Muschamp needs to go.
And if that happens, Muschamp will be fired, and we'll get a new drug.
Admitting it is the first step.