GatorZone.com Senior Writer
SOMEWHERE ABOVE CENTRAL FLORIDA – The private plane was high in the dark sky shortly after taking off from Lakeland’s Linder Regional Airport on Wednesday night.
First-year Florida football coach Will Muschamp grabbed a bottle of water and a multi-grain bar to munch on during the 35-minute flight back to Gainesville. Muschamp stretched his legs out, looked at the plane’s other two passengers, and provided a quick analysis of his first Gator Gathering.
“I thought it went well,’’ he said matter-of-factly. “It was a good crowd.’’
Since replacing Urban Meyer in mid-December, Muschamp has crossed many “firsts’’ off the list in his first time as a head coach.
He hired his first coaching staff. He signed his first recruiting class. He made his first public appearance in The Swamp earlier this month in the Orange and Blue Debut.
On Wednesday night before a crowd of 1,100 at the Lakeland Civic Center, Muschamp fulfilled another obligation that comes with his job as the most recognizable face of Gator Nation. He spoke to the Polk County Gator Club to kick off a 10-stop spring tour of Gator Gatherings hosted by the UF Alumni Association.
With the crowd already seated and fed, Muschamp entered a large banquet room from behind a curtain in the back. Slowly, the orange-and-blue clad room started to notice him walking toward a table in front toward the front. A buzz erupted and started to wash over the room.
It was finally time for the main course on the menu. The new head coach had arrived, dressed for the part in a blue Gators polo, tan dress slacks and a pair of boots.
A few minutes later, Muschamp was introduced to a loud ovation and then spoke non-stop for 20 minutes, braking down his new team position-by-position and sharing stories about his new job.
Muschamp quickly connected with the crowd, saying that one the best pieces of advice Meyer gave him was to make sure to get down to Lakeland and speak to the local Gator Club, considered one of the most passionate in the state.
“You all are what make Florida special,’’ he said. “This area has certainly been a huge part of Gator history, Gator tradition.’’
To make his point, he asked any former players in the crowd to stand up. Several were in attendance, including ex-quarterback Wayne Peace, who once graced the cover of Sports Illustrated when Muschamp was a kid growing up a few blocks from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at 1122 NW 22nd Street.
“He was a guy I looked up to,’’ Muschamp said.
Over the next few weeks, a similar scene will play out for Muschamp as he tackles the job of humanizing the role of a big-time college football coach. He’ll shake hands, sign autographs and take countless pictures. He’ll probably be asked to hold a baby or kiss a grandmother at some point.
He’ll tell some of the same stories he told Wednesday night. He’ll talk about buying a house in Gainesville recently, adding that he still hasn’t bought furniture since his wife and kids are still in Texas waiting for the school year to end.
He’ll talk about the progress of running back Chris Rainey and the emergence of receiver Quentin Dunbar. He’ll break down the linebackers and tell Gator fans that John Brantley remains the starting quarterback heading into fall camp.
In other words, he is officially introducing himself to Gator Nation after spending most of the past four months immersed in getting to know his players and implementing his plan.
“Seeing all the orange and blue out here, we are certainly alive,’’ Muschamp said. “That’s what makes Florida special. I think it’s important to get out and see everybody. A lot of these folks are the ones sitting in the stands buying the tickets.’’
Lakeland residents Byron Powell and David Coile were two of those in attendance Wednesday. They are longtime Gator fans and looked forward to Muschamp’s inaugural Gator Gathering appearance.
They’ve seen him on TV over the years coaching at Texas and Auburn and LSU, but neither had met or seen Muschamp in person. They left the Lakeland Center impressed, each carrying autographed items from their new football coach after waiting in line for about 20 minutes.
“I liked everything he had to say honestly,’’ Powell said. “He wasn’t arrogant. He was very down to earth. He is a high-energy guy. I liked the fact he did know everybody’s name. To be able to rattle those names off like that, especially in his first year there, that was good.’’
’Coile agreed with his friend, leaving with a good first impression of Muschamp.
“He is very forward speaking. He seems to know what he is doing and has his goals set,’’ Coile said. “There was a lot enthusiasm, getting off to a new start. It was essentially the same thing the first year when Urban was here.’’
Once his opening breakdown of the team was over, Muschamp opened the floor up to questions.
At first, there was hesitation from the crowd.
“Don’t be bashful,’’ he said.
Soon, the crowd started to fire way. A man asked how the Gators were going to beat Georgia. A woman asked about Florida State. Another man asked about competing against Alabama.
Muschamp kept the focus on the Gators.
“I know we need to win,’’ he said. “Let’s just handle the Gators and forget everybody else.’’
The crowd approved, breaking out in a round of applause.
Near the end, a woman asked softly about Muschamp’s thoughts on developing a big running back who can pile up yardage.
“I’m all for it,’’ he said.
When someone else asked what the question was, Muschamp shared it with the crowd.
“Do I like big, powerful running backs are who really, really fast,’’ he said. “There are about 1,000 people here who can answer that. It’s not about plays, it’s about players.’’
Another loud round of applause.
As far as introductions go, Muschamp’s was more substance than flash.
“I am who I am,’’ he said. “I just go and speak.’’
When the questions ran out, Polk County lined up to get Muschamp’s autograph on footballs and helmets and T-shirts.
Jeanna Goldberg of the UF Alumni Association sat next to Muschamp at a table roped off and protected by a security guard. She slid posters across the table for Muschamp to sign and hand out.
The poster featured the new face of Florida football starting back, eyes wide open and intensity staring ahead.
“He looks ready to play a game today,’’ said Chad Moeller, a Gator fan from Haines City. “I think it’s good to have a fresh start. I can’t wait for the first game.’’
Neither can Muschamp. He assured the crowd that he plans to be a hands-on coach
“I want to be involved in our X’s and O’s,’’ he said. “I don’t want to be a CEO. I want to be a guy who is involved in what we’re doing and I will be.’’
Back in the night sky headed toward Gainesville, Muschamp reflected on his new role as the head man. He said he’s learned something from each coach he has worked under, including Nick Saban at LSU and later in Miami, Tommy Tuberville at Auburn, and Mack Brown at Texas. He takes those lessons everywhere he goes.
The new face of Florida football took them to Lakeland on Wednesday, enduring a bumpy flight on the way there during an afternoon thunderstorm. The flight home was much smoother, a fitting end to Muschamp’s first Gator Gathering.