On Monday in Gainesville, it rained. And then it rained. And it rained a little more. And then it rained. Finally, it rained.
That rain scrapped plans to have most of Florida's Pro Day on the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, forcing many of the speed drills inside to the track at the O'Connell Center, and forced players to choose between refusing to run the 40-yard dash for scouts and running it on a track, either barefoot or with non-track spikes. It was not ideal, not even with the caveats that a 40-yard dash time is not really the point of running the 40 — 10-yard splits measure explosiveness better; running a drill in compression shorts instead of pads really doesn't give a great sense of "football speed" — and that brought up my least favorite charge from a few corners: "Florida needs an indoor practice facility!"
I disagree with that statement, and not just because of my distaste for absolutes. Florida clearly doesn't "need" an indoor practice facility, not with a history of competing for and winning national titles without one, to win football games. It's not as if the injuries that happened in 2013 — notably, Dominique Easley tore his ACL on a rainy day — would have been magically averted by an IPF, and it's impossible to rationally argue that missing a day of practice here or there would have been the difference between winning or losing more games.
The rise of indoor practice facilities around the SEC and at Florida State has created a sense of jealousy among Florida fans accustomed to having the finest of everything. (This is a drawback of being the #EverythingSchool.) An indoor practice facility, which would cost millions, take years, and require some serious logistical juggling, is well down the University Athletic Association's list of priorities, well behind renovating the O'Connell Center and making improvements to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, both things that will materially and significantly improve the average fan's experience of going to games.
An IPF does not do that, and there's a chance that, if one does eventually get built, the fan on the message board who has been clamoring for it for half a decade never steps foot in it. It is an improvement that fans think Florida's football program needing because they a) worry about Florida's football program failing to keep up with the Joneses and b) want Florida's football program to win every game and c) think one of the best ways to help in that respect is to build an IPF.
If those fans were ready to pony up the seven-figure checks that would make an indoor practice facility happen, they would have. Because they haven't, I'm going to assume that there's just not enough support for it — and I'll be patient about the UAA making a non-essential capital improvement.
The essential capital improvement that is and should be at the top of the UAA's list is the renovation of the O'Connell Center into a modern college basketball arena. And the goal for that looked impressively gorgeous in the video Florida put on its video boards prior to the Gators' Senior Day finale with Kentucky — one that I'm mad the UAA hasn't posted online for fans to drool over.
The O'Dome is about average in most respects as college basketball arenas go, but it is increasingly outdated when compared to the palatial and beautiful arenas other significantly inferior teams have. Auburn has a better, newer arena. South Florida has a renovated Sun Dome that is the model for the O'Dome's renovation. That makes sense; the O'Dome's 34 years old.
But the O'Dome renovation matters to both fans and Florida's program. One idea from the new proposal is to make every seat in the O'Dome a chair-back seat — it's not a major improvement, but it makes every seat from a little to a lot more comfortable. And for recruits who come and catch a game, sitting in a seat that doesn't feel like cheap plastic might be a little thing that stands out. Similarly, making the O'Dome look newer and nicer will probably wow fans who only get to it a couple times per year, but it will definitely wow the families and recruits who only see it once or twice.
And, most importantly, it will publicly demonstrate Florida's commitment to Billy Donovan — and his successor. Those shiny buildings are important: Auburn's commitment to its facilities just paid off today, as the Tigers reeled in Bruce Pearl, a coach well above their program's level of perceived success; South Florida was also mentioned as a potential landing spot for Pearl; Nebraska's improved facilities helped it land rising star Tim Miles; SMU's facilities, and its ingenuity, got the Mustangs Larry Brown. Larry Brown! A guy with an NBA title!
I am of the relatively well-founded opinion that Donovan is free to stay at Florida for as long as he likes, and the relatively well-founded opinion that Donovan is likely to stay at Florida for about as long as Jeremy Foley stays on as athletic director. The two men enjoy a very good working relationship, from everything I've heard, and Foley has always done right by Donovan, and vice versa. Raising millions for an O'Dome overhaul is just another thing on that list, which is longer than you think.
But there will come a time when Florida is not coached by Billy Donovan, whether it's because he finally makes the jump to the NBA, or retires from coaching. Florida can sell its commitment to Donovan to his successor, and there will be many Donovan disciples who will be interested, but casting the widest, best net requires selling a commitment to Florida's program, not just its coach. A foundation for committing the money, time, and effort necessary for building elite programs is the bedrock of Florida's athletic department — that foundation is what allows Florida to do things like scoop up Amanda O'Leary from Yale for a brand-new lacrosse program, or pull Will Muschamp from the chair next to the biggest chair in Texas football to be its football coach — and Florida's shakiest one right now is either the one for men's or women's basketball.
And with men's basketball obviously having a little more national relevance and importance as a sport, Florida's success in men's basketball far outstripping its success in women's basketball, and virtually every other Florida program in relatively good shape in regards to its facilities (I hear you, soccer), the O'Dome renovation — which also helps volleyball, gymnastics, and swimming and diving — is the top of Florida's priorities list. And rightly so, I think.
Spring practice for football starts tomorrow, and so will a lot of the football coverage that has been admittedly lacking over the last couple months of basketball dominance. And the central storylines of this year are going to be "Can Florida rebound (and get Muschamp off the hot seat)?" and "Can Jeff Driskel help rebuild Florida's offense (and get Muschamp off the hot seat)?" — I think that's clear.
But one thing that I think no one's picked up on, at least nationally, is that this football team has watched all these other Florida teams have success after its immensely frustrating 2013 season, and watched Florida State win a national title one year after handing the Seminoles a crunch-time beating on their own field. That's fuel for competitive fire, and there are Gators who have them burning, who desperately want to win.
Some of those guys are and will be some of the leaders on this team. Vernon Hargreaves III is an obvious one, and Nick Washington, a fellow chatty and driven defensive back, is another, especially after being robbed of his freshman season. Dante Fowler, Jr., who has never not been eager to mix it up with Florida State fans on Twitter, and who played his heart out for the depleted Gators in 2013, is a third.
But you may have noticed there that this list of players is one of defensive players. And defense has not been, is not, and will not be Florida's main problem under Muschamp, not unless another wave of injuries depletes it; there's too much talent and know-how on that side of the ball.
The early returns on Jeff Driskel, redshirt junior, suggest to me that he's different, better, more mature — but we heard some of the same things last year, about Driskel burying himself in the playbook for the first time, and dedicating himself after the departure of Jacoby Brissett, and Driskel still looked skittish and error-prone over Florida's first 10 quarters in 2013 before suffering his season-ending broken leg. You can interpret that in one of two ways: 1) Driskel was motivated, dedicated, and leader-ish in 2013, before everything went haywire or 2) in his fourth year at Florida, Driskel is only now realizing how important his leadership is. I don't know if either of them, given how it translated to production — really, a lack thereof — on the field, is really all that comforting.
But the thing to keep faith in throughout the spring and into the fall is Kurt Roper's ability to get the most out of his quarterbacks. Not only did he help make theoretically marginal talents into some of the best quarterbacks in Duke history — and make Thaddeus Lewis into an NFL quarterback — his QBs seemed to me to love him, and to have no problems understanding his system and leading in it.
Driskel is on his third offensive coordinator and third different system, and he didn't really flourish in either of the first two. But this is his last chance. He knows it, Roper knows it, and Muschamp knows it best of all. We'll see if he makes the most of it.