Gator fans remain tolerant of Muschamp

When it comes to his beloved Florida Gators, nothing fazes superfan Stumpy Harris of Orlando anymore.

A ticket holder since 1956 and big-money booster for decades, Harris has endured 0-10-1, 4th-and-dumb, Lindsay Scott, Choke at the Doak, Ron Zook and more bad football than the 75-year-old attorney cares to remember.

“I go way back to the time when we used to cheer for first downs,” Harris said of his alma mater’s lean seasons in the 1960s and 1970s. “They can’t do much I can’t handle.”

So, Harris is not ready to push the panic button after three straight Gators’ losses and a freefall from the top-10 that makes Saturday’s visit from Vanderbilt a must-win game for Florida (4-4, 3-3 SEC).

Harris said he still stands 100 percent behind coach Will Muschamp and would be shocked if UF athletic director Jeremy Foley did not, too.

Yet, Harris’ rose-colored glasses have not blinded him to the swelling undercurrents of discontent among the Florida fan base — even to the extreme point of calls for Muschamp’s job.

“I’d be naïve to think you’re 4-4 and you’ve lost three to Georgia three times in a row, there are going to be some comments out there,” Harris said. “I’d be silly to deny that. But is it a majority of the people? Is there some kind of witch hunt?

“I don’t think so.”

But a loss to the Commodores on Saturday during UF’s homecoming could turn the natives from restless to rabid.

“I think the temperature would be really, really hot,” said Eustis’ Seth Ellis, a member of the Bull Gators — boosters who contribute at least $15,000 annually to the UF athletics association. “But at the end of the day, we already know what we were dealt right now.”

Even if Florida, a 10-point favorite, dispatches with Vanderbilt for the 23rd straight time, there are signs of weakening support for Muschamp’s brand of football.

While Gators’ supporters like Ellis sympathize with season-ending injuries to quarterback Jeff Driskel and star defensive tackle Dominique Easley, others can no longer abide by a run-first philosophy that does not produce enough points or excitement.

“I’m not renewing my season tickets,” said Jeannie Macaluso, a season ticketholder for 23 seasons and former president of the Palm Beach County Gator Club. “I don’t agree with the pro-style offense we’re trying to run. ... Just running it up the middle is not effective. We need to get back to where we can throw.

“They do the same damn plays over and over. It’s just not effective.”

Or entertaining.

Macaluso was shocked by all the empty seats in the exclusive Champions Club during Florida’s 31-17 win Sept. 21 over rival Tennessee — the only time the 2013 Gators have scored more than 30 points.

UF alum Peter M. Moore, a past president of the Broward County Gator Club, said club-sponsored game-watching parties for the Georgia game drew half as many fans as in 2012, when it was standing-room only to watch Florida contend for an SEC title.

Dwindling fan interest in football — and the resulting lost revenue — has UF’s attention.

Last week, athletic director Jeremy Foley reached out to boosters to cut them a break on their future ticket packages.

Among the changes, the school will not increase booster contributions for at least three years, will extend payment plans from four to six months and will open one practice in 2014 exclusively for season ticketholders.

For some fans, more than the ticket policy needs to change.

“I think Muschamp is smart enough to know he has to change his style of play,” said Ellis, a UF alum and founder the Orlando-based Penta Mezzanine Fund. “He has to change his style to meet the athletes the state of Florida has. And the way the game has changed. Defensive players can’t do what they used to be able to do, so offenses have an advantage.”

The Gators’ lack of discipline is another concern.

Florida led the SEC in penalties the past two seasons and is on pace to do it again. During Saturday’s 23-20 loss to Georgia, the Gators committed costly personal foul penalties and were involved in shoving matches.

“Not cool. Not cool,” said Orlando attorney Fred Leonhardt, who has attended Gators games since 1960. “I think there’s an expectations of discipline and control that needs to be delivered upon regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard.”

Moore, a UF student from 1993-97, was nurtured on Gators’ football during the hey-day of Steve Spurrier’s Fun N’ Gun era, a period that produced four straight SEC championships, a national title and 59 40-point games.

But Moore has reasonable expectations of Muschamp, and believes many Florida fans will support him as long as things vastly improve in 2014.

“I’ve heard opinions from, ‘Hey, he needs one more year because this is an injury-depleted year all the way’ to ‘Hey, we’d love to see Charlie Strong back,’” Moore said. “Everybody has their own opinion. But nobody is flying the ‘Fire Ron Zook’ airplane over the top (of the stadium.)”

With a banner flying over the 2003 Outback Bowl at the end of his first season and a website devoted to his ouster, Zook symbolized a coach living life on the hot seat.

Muschamp has enjoyed a joy ride, by comparison. But that does not mean many UF fans are smiling.

“Right now I’m tolerant,” Leonhardt said. “I’m hoping he can put it all together. I think people this season are going to give him the benefit of the doubt.”