GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The cultural shift taking place is certainly not unprecedented. In some ways what Will Muschamp is doing is what Steve Spurrier did 22 years ago to the Florida football program.
When Spurrier returned to Gainesville to take over his alma mater, the Gators had been a run-oriented, in-your-face defense kind of program for much of the previous decade under coaches Charley Pell, Galen Hall and Gary Darnell. Star running back Emmitt Smith carried the Gators almost single-handedly in the three seasons previous to Spurrier’s installation of his Fun N’ Gun offense in 1990.
Once Spurrier left after a record-setting 12-year run, Ron Zook heavily relied on quarterback Rex Grossman’s gun-slinger mentality for better or worse. Next, Urban Meyer and his spread-option offense won two national titles in six seasons.
On Saturday afternoon at The Swamp – the nickname coined by Spurrier 20 years ago for Ben Hill Griffin Stadium – the Florida-South Carolina game offers ample storylines. Both teams are ranked in the top 10 for the first time when they meet. The winner controls their own destiny in the SEC East race. Spurrier returns to Florida Field with perhaps his best team since leaving UF after the 2001 season.
The game also offers a clash of cultures: Florida’s new defense-first, grind-it-out mentality that Muschamp has installed, and by his mere presence, flashbacks of those Spurrier visor-tossing days, Danny Wuerffel touchdown passes, six SEC titles and the Gators’ first national championship in 1996.
The No. 3-ranked Gators (No. 2 in the BCS) are one of the nation’s biggest surprises this season. They are undefeated in Muschamp’s second year, considered to be a rebuilding year six weeks ago. Instead, they host the No. 9-ranked Gamecocks with a chance to improve to 7-0.
The Gators are doing it the old-fashioned way, using a ball-control offense and zipper-tight defense to climb the polls over the past month. The Gators are last in the SEC in passing and have less than 100 yards through the air in each of their last two games, something that hasn’t happened since that ’89 season when Smith set the single-season school rushing record with 1,599 yards.
“They’re playing what you call winning football – don’t turn it over, run it well, outstanding defense and special-teams play,’’ Spurrier said this week. “They’re definitely a running team, pretty much like we are.”
Yes, the Head Ball Coach really said that.
That’s how much times have changed. Not only at Florida, but on the headphones Spurrier wears on Saturdays.
Wuerffel won the 1996 Heisman Trophy and like Spurrier and former Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, his place in UF lore is forever marked by a bronzed statue outside The Swamp. Wuerffel played a huge role in the perception of Florida as a high-scoring, throw-it-around program the last two decades.
The truth is that even under Spurrier, the Gators were often 50-50 in pass/run ratio. The difference is that Spurrier preferred to use the pass to set up the running game rather than the conventional opposite.
“As a quarterback, I obviously enjoy passing teams and our fans have certainly gotten used to great offenses,’’ said Wuerffel via email Wednesday. “It takes some time for anyone to readjust their mindset. But I know that above all, winning is the goal of any team and any offense, and I have not doubt that as we continue to win games, any preference of offensive style issues will disappear quickly.”
Wuerffel is right. There was a lot of groaning after Florida’s 27-14 win over Bowling Green in the season opener because the offense didn’t light up the scoreboard. However, despite the passing woes of the past two games, no one seems to be complaining.
The Gators are winning and Gator Nation is pumped for Saturday’s showdown.
“Campus seems a little bit fired up right now,’’ senior defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “It’s definitely a different feel going around.”
Some of that is because it’s South Carolina and Spurrier coming to town. Saturday will mark Spurrier’s fourth time coaching on the opposing sideline at Florida Field. He lost the first two times but in 2010, South Carolina defeated the Gators 36-14 on a cool November night to clinch their first SEC East title.
Spurrier got a Gatorade bath and was carried to midfield by his players.
“That’s a feeling you never forget,’’ Gators safety Josh Evans said. “It’s definitely revenge. It would mean a lot to this team.”
Muschamp was still defensive coordinator at Texas two years ago but faced Spurrier for the first time last year in a 17-12 loss in Columbia. South Carolina has never defeated Florida three consecutive times.
While their jobs make them opponents, Muschamp and Spurrier share a mutual respect. He may be a relatively new head coach, but Muschamp understands why Spurrier is such a big deal around UF.
“Being an SEC guy and growing up in this part of the country and being a huge fan of the conference, there's really two coaches that come to the forefront of your mind as far as what they've done for this league, and that's Bear Bryant and Steve Spurrier,’’ Muschamp said. “You look at what he did when he came to the league. It was more a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust league and he came in and spread the ball out a little bit, was credited with throwing the ball a bunch but heck, it was 50-50.
“They ran the ball extremely well when he was here.”
Still, it was a different kind of running game than what Muschamp and Spurrier now use with Marcus Lattimore and Mike Gillislee the featured backs. With such a dangerous passing game, Spurrier used a lot of draw plays and other ways to get the running backs the ball in space.
Today he relies heavily on Lattimore, a classic between-the-tackles power runner who carried a school-record 40 times for 212 yards against the Gators in 2010.
“The game has changed and Steve has changed,’’ said Norm Carlson, Spurrier’s good friend and UF’s resident historian. “He’s now the Run N’ Gun instead of the Fun N’ Gun.”
Meanwhile, 19 games into his tenure as Florida’s coach, Muschamp continues to place his stamp on the program. The Gators are 6-0 for only the eighth time in school history – two of those instances came under Spurrier and two under Meyer – using a blueprint Muschamp partly developed during his time as Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator at LSU in the early 2000s.
The former walk-on safety at Georgia who developed into a team captain by his senior season shows up at work with a blue-collar mentality each day. There are no shortcuts. The plan is heavy on fundamentals, hard work and attitude.
“What these guys have done is bought into what I’ve really tried to sell them,’’ Muschamp said. “I’ve always believed in John Wooden’s theory. He talked about basketball, but you’re going to have some of- days offensively. He talks about basketball, but I equate it to football. You can never have an off-day defensively because it’s all about effort. If you play hard, you should be OK, and that’s what I feel.”
What Muschamp is selling is different. It’s different from what Spurrier sold. It’s different from Meyer’s approach. It’s different from what Florida fans are accustomed to seeing from the home team.
But it’s working. And Saturday we’ll see the latest chapter in the clash of cultures. It’s the old versus the new. And even the old has some new in him.
“Florida is always going to be my school,’’ Spurrier said. “So we’re Gators, but we’re Gamecocks now. I certainly hope the Gators finish second in the East this year. That would be a good finish for them.”