The Fourth of July has come and gone, leaving us all with abbreviated work weeks that make a Wednesday into a Monday. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
But while I’m also not sure that bombs-bursting-in-air celebrations of America are really a good thing at a time when the country’s collective nerve system is fraying, I do know that the Independence Day weekend got me thinking: What things could Florida Gators fans declare independence from and feel better for so doing?
I came up with four of those things — ones I think we could leave behind as soon as this year.
The (post-)Tebow “curse”
It is very easy, almost facilely so, to create a narrative of Florida quarterbacks failing in the shadow of Tim Tebow.
Since Tebow’s senior season in 2009, no Florida QB has thrown for 2,500 yards or 20 touchdowns — or even started every game in a season. And while some of that streak is circumstantial — the Gators did manage to throw for those totals in 2015 as a team, and came just two touchdowns short of 20 in 2016 — it is a streak that allows for people to pillory Florida’s quarterback play and poor-mouth its offense. And the success some of those signal callers have had elsewhere doesn’t help, either: It reinforces a narrative about talented players not being able to thrive at Florida that reflects poorly on the program.
And, though we’ll get to this later, what reflects poorly on the program also reflects on fans who consider themselves extensions of it.
But I’m on record as saying Florida will get a quarterback to those plateaus, and perhaps sooner than later. And while I think Malik Zaire’s arrival makes such a leap somewhat less likely in 2017, I also think it reinforces a point we don’t linger much in discussing Florida’s quarterback drought: There has never really been a talent drought.
John Brantley, Jeff Driskel, Jacoby Brissett, and Will Grier were all four- or five-star prospects. Feleipe Franks is, too. The spans of Florida not succeeding with those first three talented players at the helm over the last seven seasons had much to do with Will Muschamp’s offensive coordinators and philosophy; the latter of the first four was successful, of course, and was on pace to threaten those post-Tebow thresholds despite splitting time with Treon Harris before he essentially sustained a season-ending brain injury.
Sure, Florida didn’t have wild success with Tyler Murphy, Skyler Morhinweg, Harris, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby — though Murphy led a win over Tennessee, Harris has two wins over Georgia, Del Rio has one win over Georgia, and Appleby has a dub at LSU — but starting those QBs was never part of The Plan. And The Plan as it currently exists — loosely, having Franks succeed either after Zaire or with Zaire as backup, then handing the reins over to Jake Allen or Justin Fields or Matt Corral or whomever — is as good a proposition as it has ever been, with plenty more insurance built in.
Florida has transitioned from taking the same route of bringing in two top-tier QBs in the same recruiting class three times over three separate coaching staffs and more than a decade of recruiting, an approach that left vacuums for players like Murphy and Harris to fill, to going after a big-timer and having room for quality backup depth in every class, and using the transfer market to stock up on players who could be either.
And, moreover, Florida has consistently targeted excellent prospects under Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier. The Gators pressed hard for both Lamar Jackson and Deondre Francois in their sprint to assemble a 2015 recruiting class; expertly played the market in 2016 to picked up Franks and Kyle Trask while also making a run at Jacob Eason; grabbed Allen for 2017 when it appeared he would be a big-timer, then added Zaire — who could qualify as either big-timer or quality depth — as a transfer; and have targeted Trevor Lawrence, Joe Milton, and now Fields and Corral in this 2018 class.
Obviously, the jury’s still out on Franks and Allen, and any 2018 recruits, and Zaire is more concept than product at this point. But Jackson and Francois have flourished, and Eason had a promising freshman year; few programs wouldn’t trade their starters for one of those three players. That suggests to me that Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier know what they are doing in identifying and pursuing quarterback talent, at least, and that they will be able to make sure Florida does not lack for talent at the position so long as they’re in Gainesville.
Florida’s still got stuff to work on, like keeping a single passer upright and unsuspended for a whole season, but its quarterback situation has improved to the point that getting an effective-to-excellent passing offense up and running again looks to me like a matter of when, not if. And if the when is this fall, that narrative about the post-Tebow curse is going to get a hell of a lot harder to peddle.
There is a tendency for fans in this era of fandom, one saturated by Twitter and message boards and social media that make what were once conversations with friends or coworkers or fellow parishioners that were confined to only those moments physically spent with those other people into around-the-clock debates, to while away the days and nights comparing their team or their players to the Joneses’. Florida and Florida State fans do this constantly; Florida fans do it with other SEC squads, too, whether to make themselves feel better about maintaining a grip on the SEC East by sizing up Georgia and Tennessee or to fuel existential crises about not having a roster as loaded as Alabama’s, like literally every other non-Alabama team in football.
What I’d like to suggest is, uh, not doing that?
I get that we all have friends and loved ones and Uber drivers whom we talk about sports with because sports are easier to talk about than systemic inequality or the heat death of the universe or Beyoncé, but getting mired in one Twitter skirmish that is part of a greater Twitter war is generally enough to leave me fretting or fuming, and rarely something that makes me feel good — about myself, or generally — for more than a moment at most. I resolved, in early 2016, to take a break from responding to FSU fans trolling @AlligatorArmy until the fall — and that freedom from feeling obligated and/or inclined to compose and fire pithy rejoinders to riffs on the 27-2 score from 2015 or any number of other endlessly creative troll attempts made my air on the Internet far more breathable.
It turns out that doing something as basic about pollution as avoiding it and also trying not to contribute to it can help combat that pollution and mitigate its effects. And if I can do it while running a Twitter account that is still — I think — entertaining and informative for Gators fans, you can probably do it in your own lives.
Being a football-only fan
Hi. Do you come to Alligator Army exclusively for updates and notes and discussion about Florida Gators football?
You’re doing it wrong.
Florida is coming off three national championships in six weeks, a feat that propelled the Gators to a third-place finish in the Directors’ Cup — and, arguably, the Gators’ winter and spring teams underperformed, given women’s basketball’s failure to make postseason play, lacrosse’s second consecutive flameout in an opening NCAA Tournament match at home, and Florida failing to win a softball national title as the nation’s top-seeded team.
If that sounds like pointing out infinitesimal flaws, it is — but Florida has a masterpiece of an athletics program, one that has churned out 16 national championships since football’s last one ... which came less than a decade ago. Florida also completed the elusive triple crown of titles in football, men’s basketball, and baseball just last week, and has broken through for the NCAA’s ultimate trophy in five separate sports just since 2010.
That’s pretty damn good, and a record that no school on Florida’s plane — one located in the South, playing in the SEC, and bereft of the array of teams that Stanford or UCLA or Ohio State fields — can match. Alabama had an incredible 2012, with national titles in four sports ... and still has fewer non-football national titles in its history than Florida has since 2010. Arkansas and LSU, the only SEC schools with more national titles than Florida can claim, have combined for five national titles this decade — and LSU’s already vacated one won by its women’s track team.
Arkansas and LSU have also both accumulated their titles largely through one program’s dominance: Arkansas has 41 national titles in men’s track and cross country, and LSU has 25 in women’s track. No Florida program has more than seven national titles — but 14 Gators squads have at least one.
If you are following Florida sports only for football, you will miss out on national championships won by dozens of Gators and celebrated by millions; if you are following the Gators even just primarily for football, you’ll miss out on subtle things, like this 2017 baseball team’s remarkable record in one-run games and offensive breakthrough in Omaha or the 2014 men’s basketball team making the Final Four without a single player who would ultimately be selected in the NBA Draft (about which: more later this week!) or the budding rivalry between Florida and Oklahoma in a slew of sports.
There are subtle aspects of Florida’s football program that make it more satisfying to follow — and there are 18 other Gators teams, most of them really, really good. These sports that enrich Florida’s athletics program enrich Gator Nation, too, and it would behoove us to move past focusing only on football to appreciating what happens on the field and the other field and the other field and in the pool and on the court(s) and ... you get it.
Measuring one’s fanhood
That said? If you only care about Florida football, you’re not less of a Florida fan than I am. If you only care about Florida women’s basketball, you aren’t less of a fan than I am, or than that hypothetical football-only fan is.
One can and attend zero games in Gainesville — something I did this year, for the first time in a decade — or spend thousands of dollars on following teams to New York City and Oklahoma City, to Nashville and Nassau and New Orleans. One can trace their faith in Florida to Steve Spurrier or Abby Wambach or Chris Leak or Joakim Noah and still be a Florida fan. One can defend Ron Zook and Norm Sloan and lament Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan and still be a Florida fan.
Gator Nation is a big tent, one with an orange and blue canopy splayed out over continents and generations, classes and races and political parties and orientations. Why get bogged down in purity tests, in fretting about whether Fan X is rooting hard enough or for every sport in equal measure, if you don’t have to? Why measure one’s own fanhood against anyone else if we’re all different, with divergent stories that dovetail largely because we happen to root for the same team?
There are destructive ways to root for the Gators, sure, and there are poisons in our bloodstream that mix and mingle in many others. But those are behaviors to be identified and rooted out, not identities that have to be challenged — and if we are going to assert that Florida fans are morally superior by virtue of being Florida fans alone, we’re going to be lying to ourselves and the world for as long as we breathe.
Instead, maybe breathe easy, knowing that one beauty of an orange sunset conquering blue sky is how many different eyes see it.