By the end of the weekend, it seems, we may know what it is like for the Florida Gators to have a functional indoor practice facility for football.
That's what's being hinted at in these pictures from Florida associate athletic director Chip Howard earlier this week:
And whether or not whatever Jim McElwain's team wants to do in that facility happens this weekend, it's becoming overwhelmingly likely that Florida will be using its indoor practice facility for on-field purposes before August is out.
But Florida's already used that IPF to great effect — by bragging about it.
It's a "state-of-the-art" facility, that video — which strikes me as a video likely produced by a contractor, and since retrofitted for public consumption — reports, with glass doors and an "envelope" that matches existing construction and "synthetic FieldTurf, the same turf the Gators will be competing on in the SEC Championship Game." With this new IPF, "the University of Florida will attract the best recruits from around the country, and provide a training complex worthy of the program's standard of excellence."
"There's a reason why the Florida Gators are one of the most recognizable brands in college football history," the narration continues. "It's an unwavering commitment to excellence and competitive success, both on and off the field. The new indoor football practice facility is evidence of such a commitment. It's the next step in the rebirth of a championship football program."
And therein lies the rub.
See, Florida's not bragging about an indoor practice facility just because it's cool and new — it's bragging about it because it represents one of the football program's biggest "wins" this decade. Since the dawn of the 2010 season, after all, Florida is just 37-26 — and while the .587 winning percentage of those years would only be the 35th best in college football history, it's a far cry from Florida's overall .629 clip (20th in the sport), or the once ever-expanding span from 1990 to a shifting "present" that saw the Gators rack up the most wins at the highest level of college football over more than 20 seasons.
Crowing about the IPF as part of a "rebirth" implies a death — and it's a tacit admission that the fans who have bayed about the "demise" of Florida football this decade aren't totally wrong, at least on the optics.
Many of those fans have been part of the hue and cry for an IPF, too, and they're getting their wish through no real effort of their own. We explained back in January that McElwain's success in kick-starting the process of building an IPF was his first big win as Florida's coach, and, given how judiciously — or parsimoniously, depending on your perspective — Jeremy Foley has spent money on capital improvements at Florida in recent years, it's really worth revisiting.
Florida's men's basketball program got a renovation for its practice facility after back-to-back national titles, but saw its long-needed renovation of the O'Connell Center delayed this spring — despite coming off a Final Four trip, the best season by winning percentage in program history, and a string of four Elite Eight appearances. Florida's softball team had to win two national titles, consecutively, for the ball to really get rolling on much-needed renovations to a playing field that it has arguably outgrown, thanks to the explosion of its fan base. Florida's gymnastics program got a full-scale studio renovation 30 years after its original facility opened, and has rewarded the investment with three consecutive national titles.
Florida's football program is coming off a 7-5 season that got its previous coach cut loose — and it will have its greatest capital upgrade in decades to show for it.
For the "We need an IPF, and now" fans who persisted in crying that football is the revenue-driving king of college sports — inarguably true, but inexplicably debated in some corners of Florida's fan base, as if fans who like sports other than football were heretics for their failure to genuflect before the throne — a gleaming IPF is evidence that Florida now "gets it," where the "it" in question is the level of commitment needed to compete in major college football. It's never been fully explained by those fans how Florida was able to lead college football in wins over a two-decade period despite no IPF — just dumb luck, maybe? — but I am glad that they will no longer be desecrating a horse's corpse in regards to this issue.
However, the problem with touting "the rebirth of a championship football program" is that even a national title only gets the Gators back to dizzying heights they have previously occupied. Florida's recent "modern" success as a football program is about as grand as the success any team in the nation has enjoyed. The thirst of Florida's most implacable fans, the ones for whom seven seasons passing since a last national title is an unacceptable drought, seems unslakable: If McElwain gets Florida its fourth national title, will those fans complain if it doesn't come in the undefeated season the Gators have never had?
There's a chance, too, that an IPF will only be the proverbial mouse's cookie for those fans: "We know we can get an IPF from blueprint to lights on in less than a year," they will charge, "so why can't we get an (insert name of next capital improvement/pony)?" (I'd argue that fans not named Gary D. Condron or on this list should probably refrain from using "we" when it stands in for "Florida's athletic department and its most powerful and influential boosters," but, well, it won't stop them.)
For me, though, the IPF is mostly testament to McElwain's vision and Florida's commitment, and something else: Proof that McElwain will emphatically not be able to use a lack of support as an excuse if he fails.
Urban Meyer won both his titles without an IPF. And Will Muschamp, after all, got to a Sugar Bowl without an indoor practice facility, and did so in his second season at Florida, despite having to face five teams that eventually won 10 or more games in the regular season and being a convicted dunderhead in the eyes of many Florida fans. What if McElwain fails to match that trajectory? (Folks who refused to credit Muschamp for winning in 2012 by lamenting the style of play or lauding Urban Meyer's foundational recruiting will say Muschamp didn't recruit as well, probably. But the point remains!)
With an IPF in place, and with other capital improvements — to dorms that are lacking because they are not absurdly palatial, and to an academic advising center that should go from very good to excellent — on the way, the non-human factors of the infrastructure of Florida's football program should set up the program for success for years and maybe decades to come.
The day that Gators first step on that field and practice will be a good one, and a dawn of a new era for Florida football. The question remains, though: Will this era will actually be better than the last one?