FanPost

"New Money" in the Age of Muschamp

Andy's recent "addiction" post has generated some interesting discussion about the conflict between expectations and results among Gator fans in the Age of Muschamp. What follows is my attempt to think through my own fandom and some ideas as to why we find ourselves in the place we do right now. As always, my impulse is to start with history.

Gator fans, by and large, are aware that in the long view we are Johnnys-come-lately. We know that our team's real relevance in college football, its first sustained success, is less than 25 years old, which hardly compares to gridiron royalty like Alabama. We know that we don't have the history of excellence of many of our SEC brethren, and not even some of the old-line Northern and Western programs.[1]

For much of the modern era,[2] being a Gator fan was an exercise in frustration, the maddening experience of being decidedly middle-class in a world run by and for the haves. Gator teams enjoyed some success in the 1960s under Ray Graves, but he finished his career with a middling .686 winning percentage[3], while the Dickey years of the 1970s were characterized by frustrating backsliding interspersed with outright embarrassment. Throughout these decades, the likes of Alabama, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, and Penn State dominated the national scene, while rivals like Auburn, Georgia, and Miami dispensed misery on an annual basis. Florida was often pretty good, but rarely excellent, and never a champion.

The experience of the 1980s only made things worse. Charley Pell and Galen Hall brought the Gators to previously unimaginable heights, exemplified by the 1984 "National Championship"[4] season. The Gators of the mid-80s could play with anyone, and beat their rivals with regularity. Those heady results turned out to be fool's gold, however, and the sanctions and disgrace that hastened Pell's departure proved too much for Hall's Gators to overcome, especially when SEC Presidents voted 6-4[5] to strip the Gators of what would have been their first SEC title in 1984. After Hall's alleged cash payments to assistants and players (which he still denies) and the threat of even more severe sanctions forced regime change in the 1989 season, excitement surrounded Steve Spurrier's return to Gainesville. However, no one expected the decade of cathartic ass-whippings that the HBC would unleash on the SEC.

No matter what our differences as Gator fans, I think we can all agree that the Spurrier years were glorious. It wasn't simply that the Gators were winning; it was that they were destroying teams in a fashion only rarely seen before in the SEC. Over the 1993-1996 seasons, the Gators' average margin of victory (aMoV[6]) was 24.3 points, and many games were well in hand by halftime, allowing fans to get a head start for the Porpoise. Blowouts were the norm, close games were aberrations, and Spurrier was an avenging angel, humiliating opponents by gaudy margins and sniping at them in the press. Gator fans, understandably, loved every second of it, as the decades of numbing losses and wait-til-next-years were trampled underfoot by receivers running fifteen yards free past opposing secondaries. The apotheosis of the Spurrier era is burned into the brain of any Gator fan old enough to remember it for very good reason: four straight SEC titles, Wuerffel's Heisman, two National Championship game appearances, and a punishing revenge performance against one of our bitterest rivals in the 1997 Sugar Bowl.

The 1990s are the formative decade for Gator fans not just because we won, but because we won in such awe-inspiring and revolutionary fashion. It was low-stress, it was fun, it was beautiful. If you are a Gator fan, this is your story: you struggle for years to overcome your own circumstances, your limitations, the overwhelming odds that seem to pen you in at every turn. You have a glimpse of success, but even before you can fully understand what you've accomplished it's taken from you by those who already have so much. Finally, after years of toil and suffering, you reach the mountaintop. And when you get there, something else happens: you don't just beat your opponents, you smash them. Once you have a taste of that kind of success, it's impossible to be satisfied with anything less. Ron Zook never had a chance.[7]

The Meyer years further solidified Gator fans' association between winning and winning big. The 2006 team's defining moment came not in a series of grinding, gut-check wins, but after Dallas Baker's pirouetting TD catch opened the floodgates against Ohio State. The 2008 Death Star, once it became fully operational, posted a 44-13 average score, the highest margin in school history. Taken together, those 2006-2009 teams posted a 21.9-point aMoV, second only to the mid-90s juggernaut. I am sure that I was not the only Gator fan to whom this seemed to be the natural order of things.

The five years since then have been hard. I've remarked more than once during the Muschamp years that watching Gator football isn't as fun as it used to be. While I'm sure much of my diminished enjoyment comes from the many ways I've changed, a lot of it has to do with the fact that I can no longer settle in for a game with any reliable expectation that my team will dominate the other to the tune of a three-touchdown win. This is the very definition of "spoiled," and I know that. But self-awareness doesn't make it any easier to watch a team you love-something that means more to you than it should by any reasonable measure-sweat and struggle against inferior opponents, stumble its way into heartbreakers, and reduce itself to "inept" performance at times. It's uncomfortable because at these moments (of which there have been plenty lately), we are who we used to be. If the Will Muschamp era has taught us anything, it's that the offensive explosions of the 90s and 2000s have not been enough to exorcise the ghosts of our own mediocrity.

I can't shake the feeling that even if the Gators under Will Muschamp somehow win, say, 10 games this year, the determining factor in fans' opinion of the season will not be the style in which the offense plays, but the margin of victory. If a "ground-and-pound" offense wins games comfortably, Gator fans will love it, and the worm will begin to turn. If a high-flying pass-heavy attack pulls out a bunch of squeakers, the calls for Muschamp's head will continue. Winning close games doesn't feel right to many Gators; it doesn't summon the visceral satisfaction of not just defeating your rivals, but laying them low, burning away the weight of history with the fire of the present. We have come to believe that this is our birthright, but we should know better.

The past three seasons have made me think that Gator fans are going to have a hard time being truly, fully satisfied until a coach can produce a team on the field whose performance approaches, if not duplicates, the blowouts that characterized the best years of Meyer and Spurrier. Perhaps that will be Will Muschamp, and the transformation will begin this season-I don't know, but I hope so. However, it seems clear that unless he can erase all doubt that the Gators are better, unless he can conquer that sneaking suspicion that we don't belong, we will resent him for reminding us that once again, just like in the bad old days, we don't.

__________________________________________________________

[1] I should be clear that I don't see this as a pure negative; I would rather be a revolutionary than an aristocrat, and I like to think of our program as representing something new, less bound by the shackles of "tradition," a forward-looking example among conference rivals stuck in the past and all too happy to revel in faded glory that has little bearing on the state of the sport today. Even so, while I am able to enjoy and appreciate the things that make us different, the gap between "us" and "them" is ever-present. And this is the key: new money always knows that it's new money, even if it doesn't want to admit it.

[2] I am aware of the longer sweep of Gator football history, but for reasons of space and focus I've chosen to focus on what I see as the modern era of college football, which roughly coincides with the integration movement in football programs.

[3] All statistics from 2013 Florida Football Media Guide, gatorzone.com, and cfbdatawarehouse.com. As with everything I write, statistical analysis is not guaranteed to be illuminating or even particularly accurate.

[4] http://sauriansagacity.blogspot.com/2009/08/florida-is-1984-national-champion.html

[5] Here is a list so you know who to hate: Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, LSU, and Georgia voted to take away the title. Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State and Florida voted to let them keep it. (Link)

[6] I'm using average margin of victory as an admittedly crude barometer for my own level of comfort in watching a game, and my overall satisfaction with the program. I realize this is a much more complicated metric for all of us, but I think aMoV works as a shorthand. This reflects my feeling that a hard-fought win in the last moments, no matter how dramatic, is always far less satisfying than a runaway victory.

[7] The average score during Spurrier's tenure: 37-18. Zook: 29-21. This comparison has some interesting resonances with the averages under Meyer (35-17) and Muschamp (24-19).

Please be kind and use good grammar.

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