There was a distinctly bitter tone in the reaction to Will Muschamp returning to Auburn as the Tigers' defensive coordinator, news reported Friday night — first by 247Sports's Auburn site, then Sports Illustrated, then other outlets — and announced by the Tigers on Saturday. As Muschamp was welcomed home to the place where he began his coaching career and truly made a national name for himself with open arms, Florida fans sniped at their former coach.
Muschamp might recruit great defensive players well for Auburn, like he did for Florida up until a 2014 season that reinforced his job insecurity, and thus saw him get no meaningful traction on the trail. This makes Florida fans mad, because, in theory, some of those great defenders — linebacker Jeffrey Holland, most specifically, has seemed like an Auburn-Florida battle for his entire recruitment, and there have been whispers that defensive lineman Byron Cowart might now consider Auburn — could potentially leave the state. And Martez Ivey, one of the prize offensive linemen in the nation, has seemed like a Florida lean with some pro-Auburn sentiment forever, though getting much of anything out of him other than fine football play is difficult.
Of course, Muschamp also recruited a fantastic roster of defenders for Florida, and it would take a significant dropoff in defensive coaching for most of those defenders to not be really good in 2015 — the only year in which Jim McElwain will be at a significant recruiting disadvantage. And Muschamp's recruiting for Florida has sold many of those prospects on the school; it's somewhat unlikely, despite his signficant charms as an emissary, that prospects will follow him to Auburn like rats did the Pied Piper, especially given that they weren't committing in droves in 2014.
Muschamp will certainly have a more stable and rosier picture to present to recruits at Auburn, too. His Saturday comment about Auburn's athlete dorms has proved nettlesome to many.
"All the facility changes and all the nice things that have happened within this campus is awesome to see," Muschamp said. "I've seen the Wellness Center and I know the student-athlete housing. On the recruiting trail, all the kids that would come to Florida would come to Auburn and tell me how nice the housing was here, so it's good to be on that side of it now. I'm excited about that."
And, sure, it's "painful" to see Muschamp say "it's good to be on that side of it now," but this was less about dissing Florida's facilities than praising Auburn's. Muschamp will surely be pained in some measure about his failure at Florida — no person exists who could be fired, after receiving the abuse he received, and be completely forgiving, I think. That will assuredly result in private pettiness, and maybe some public potshots.
But Muschamp wasn't saying anything that recruits don't know. Florida's Springs complex is where most athletes live while they are on campus, and despite being enviably close to athletic facilities, and among the nicest dormitories the University of Florida has to offer (ask a student: only two or three other dorms would be considered nicer), it is relatively old, and certainly isn't as palatial as some newer dorms around the SEC and the nation, especially given the recent arms race to pour money into facilities.
Vernon Hargreaves III still came to Florida despite that perceived dorm deficiency. So did Dante Fowler, Jr. So will five-stars to come.
And I am confident that a renovation of the dorms is on the University Athletic Association's to-do list, even if it's behind the renovation of the O'Connell Center (much longer overdue than dorm renovations), the long-awaited, coming-sooner-than-you-think indoor practice facility (which could be in place next summer), and a revamping of the Office of Student Life, which is plenty important to recruits and players in its own right.
Can Florida tread water until it's closer to par with the rest of its competition, in terms of facilities? Given that Florida was in a BCS bowl just three seasons ago, and hasn't realized a true recruiting drop-off, I'm inclined to say yes.
But the last part of Muschamp's move — the dreaded other shoe — might be his recruitment of Florida defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson to join him at Auburn.
Robinson was an Auburn player, is an Auburn grad, and got into coaching because of Muschamp — he was a graduate assistant while Muschamp was Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007. For him, heading to Auburn would be going home, potentially raking in a raise — Robinson has made $500,000 a year at most at Florida, and Auburn could pay a bit more than that — and a promotion (Auburn already has co-offensive coordinators, and a meaningless title for Robinson's C.V. wouldn't be hard to add, in theory), and a chance to keep learning from and working with a man who is among his most important mentors. It makes a ton of sense for him to go, by any objective analysis.
But Robinson's also a son of Miami, and he likes Florida, and he has done significant work at Florida, and it's very clear that McElwain trusts him. Robinson was, as of Sunday, still recruiting for the Gators, and while it's possible, I doubt that McElwain would be bringing a coach who he knows is leaving for another job on in-home visits. At minimum, Robinson's proximity to McElwain this week suggests that McElwain very much wants to retain him.
That might set up a bidding war, or a tug of war between two different definitions of home, for his services. And while Auburn can certainly pony up for Robinson, so can Florida, even given its outlay for firing Muschamp and hiring McElwain. So much of that money is deferred — Florida will pay out more than $10 million for both coaches' buyouts over the next three years, but shouldn't spend more than $5 million on them in any given year — that it won't prevent Florida from bumping an assistant's pay a few hundred thousand dollars, and McElwain's salary, which is far more in line with Muschamp's than a new coach's salary could have been, creates more room to pay a strong staff.
And, regardless of who it pays to coach defensive backs and defense in 2015, Florida will be paying someone. It has sounded like McElwain has wanted to keep both Robinson and defensive coordinator/interim coach D.J. Durkin (who was, despite title, still obviously No. 2 in command of Florida's defense to Muschamp), but Durkin wasn't recruiting with the McElwain-Robinson traveling party on Sunday, reportedly meeting with North Carolina and speaking with Texas A&M about open defensive coordinator positions at their schools.
Plus, if Durkin's leaving, Robinson might not have to leave Florida to get a promotion.
But we don't know for certain what's going to shake out with Robinson, nor with the rest of Florida's staff. All we have is speculation and uncertainty, though McElwain will likely take time, now that a dead period for recruiting has set in, to make decisions on his assistants, and the unknown is painful.
The true irony of this, to tie things up neatly, is that Robinson became a coach Florida needed to keep because of Muschamp. Robinson wouldn't be as vital to Florida as he is without Muschamp bringing him into coaching in the first place, and while he's certainly a good coach (and a renowned recruiter) in his own right, clinging to him is undeniably clinging to a vestige of Muschamp's program.
Most Gators wanted Muschamp gone. Now they want his closest lieutenant to stay. Even though Robinson would be staying in a different role, it's a trip.
And that also underlines a truth of the Muschamp era: It was never the defense that was Muschamp's problem, but his offense. Florida fans know that Muschamp is a fantastic defensive coordinator, and upwards of 90 percent of them will admit that he is well-positioned to do tremendous work (again) at Auburn; add truth serum, and that percentage would near 100.
Florida fans must now fear a Will Muschamp defense married to something other than a Will Muschamp offense, and we know how scary the Gators were even without that at times. The prospect of Muschamp staying in the SEC, and having a better offense, is petrifying; the prospect of Muschamp, say, returning to his alma mater, and with a better gameplan? That's abject horror.
We may have whined and complained about Muschamp until he was out the door, but we're not blind, and we know that the issues that sunk his ship at Florida are correctable. We suspect he'll have success. And we'll resent that he's going to have it somewhere other than Florida, and perhaps soon.
And that, combined with our insecurities about Florida's place on the national stage, will consume us. A quick scan of your favorite message board would confirm that, for some, it already has.
But let's be honest: Florida and Auburn will compete on the field, but only rarely, should the SEC's current scheduling model hold. Muschamp is unlikely to be at Auburn by 2019, when the Gators and Tigers next play. And while Holland and Cowart are big names of note right now who might be lost to Auburn on the recruiting trail, there's not that much overlap between the two schools. At full whir, Auburn reaches into Florida for recruits, while Florida dominates it, and Florida tends not to pull more than a few players from Alabama.
And, well, Auburn's been a thorn in Florida's side since long before Muschamp, and will be long after he is no longer a factor in college football. This feeds into pre-existing enmity, fueling new frustration.
This frustration is about regret that things didn't work out for Muschamp here. It's about a native son of Gainesville not having the issues with l'esprit d'escalier that the fans who spited him now do. It's about Chickens Little needing to cluck.
And it's about the unsteady ground that Florida occupies; that the Gators are here now is, mostly, Muschamp's fault.
So Florida fans looking for a villain have found one, even if they want his sidekick to be their hero. And Florida fans looking for a target have a face to imagine on a dartboard. And the legion of Florida fans who just want to be angry at anything other than impossible ideals have more reason to be.
It's going to be a long, hard winter for some of those fans, I fear.