GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida interim coach Randy Shannon doesn’t know what his future holds beyond these next three games, but he’s confident about the future for the Gators nonetheless.
Shannon was asked earlier this week if he thought Florida was still “a really good football job” for whomever is hired to lead the program.
Certainly, Shannon was going to respond positively, but tellingly he also responded passionately.
“It is, very good football job. It’s probably still going to be one of the top programs in the nation, because you’re able to go and recruit nationally. … The Gator brand is big,” he said. “And you all sit back and say ‘Well, there’s no talent here.’ No, there’s a lot of talent still on this football team. It’s young talent, [but] there’s a lot of young players on this football team and that can be future-wise, it can be unbelievable.”
For what it’s worth, several Gators players offered the same sentiments. They believe Florida football is still Florida football no matter what has transpired this fall (or really with the abbreviated tenures of the program’s last two coaches).
“At the end of the day we’re still the Florida Gators and this is one of the biggest programs that we’ve got around. I feel like we will be able to bounce back regardless of what we went through,” defensive tackle Khairi Clark said. “I mean, it was just one year. So we’ll be alright.”
Said fellow defensive tackle Taven Bryan: “ Honestly, I think it’d be easy to turn around. There’s just some small things.”
Florida will return the bulk of its defense next season, including a young secondary that has shown enough promise to generate excitement for its potential, a young linebacking corps that needs some work, and some physically imposing young defensive linemen who should only get better.
Offensively, the Gators have to figure out the quarterback spot, of course, but there is talent at the playmaking positions. There’s also a major influx of premium recruits on the way if the new coaching staff can keep the core of this 2018 class intact.
The biggest and most important addition, though, will be the next coach.
Florida fans need only look at the Gators’ own history to see just how quickly fortunes can change.
Charley Pell took over the program after a 4-7 season in 1978 and presided over the worst season in Florida football history, going 0-10-1 in 1979. But the next season the Gators went 8-4 and averaged 8 wins during Pell’s final four full seasons before he was fired three games into the 1984 season.
That was a different time for the program, though, before standards became what they are now.
So fast forward a little bit for more apropos examples of what the right coaching hire can and has done for Florida.
Steve Spurrier took over in 1990 after Galen Hall averaged just 6.5 wins over the previous four seasons. Spurrier led the Gators to a 9-2 finish in his debut and won at least that many games or (usually) more in every subsequent season of his legendary 12-year tenure, forever changing the stature of Florida football.
Spurrier was one of a kind, sure, but the Gators struck gold again when Urban Meyer took the reins after Ron Zook fell short of those elevated expectations while failing to win more than 8 games in any of his three seasons.
Meyer, as Gators fans vividly remember, averaged more than 11 wins per season over the next five years with two national championships.
But it’s not just Florida’s own history that says the Gators could get back to their previous heights quicker than it may seem as the team sits at 3-5.
Here’s another 10 examples of how a college football program can morph quickly from disappointment to national contender.
- Mack Brown, Texas: Brown took over a Texas program coming off a 4-7 finish in 1997. Like Florida, the Longhorns were looking for a quick fix and a return to prominence, and found it immediately with Brown, who had made a name for himself at North Carolina. He opened his Texas tenure with three straight 9-win seasons before reaching double-digit wins in each of the next nine years, highlighted by a national championship in 2005 and a runner-up finish in 2009.
- Bob Stoops, Oklahoma: John Blake had gone 12-22 over three seasons leading the Sooners when he was replaced with Stoops, who was Spurrier’s defensive coordinator at Florida. After a 7-5 debut in 2000, Stoops led Oklahoma to an unbeaten season and national championship in just his second year at the helm. He went on to coach one of the most consistently successful programs over the next decade and a half.
- Jim Tressel, Ohio State: After a successful run and a handful of 10- and 11-win seasons under John Cooper, the Buckeyes hit a lull with a 6-6 finish in 1999 and an 8-4 mark the next season. Much like at Florida, the standards are exceptionally high in Columbus, and with that Cooper was out. (It didn’t help that he was 2-10-1 against rival Michigan). In came Tressel, who went 7-5 out of the gate before leading the Buckeyes to a 14-0 season and national championship in 2002. He built a perennial national contender for more than a decade at Ohio State before his unceremonious ouster.
- Pete Carroll, USC: The proud program out west had fallen on hard times under coach Paul Hackett, going 6-6 and 5-7 in his final two seasons. Carroll took over for the 2001 season and started with a middling 6-6 campaign before following with an 11-2 finish to start a string of double-digit win seasons that included two national championships.
- Ralph Friedgen, Maryland: Not all dramatic turnarounds end in national championships, but the magic Friedgen worked at his alma mater was plenty impressive in its own right. Maryland had gone 15-29 under previous coach Ron Vanderlinden (not to mention 20-35 under Mark Duffner before him and 20-34-2 under Joe Krivak before that) while making just one bowl game since 1985. Friedgen, a sharp offensive mind with a track record of success as a coordinator in college and the NFL, took over in 2001 and immediately led the Terrapins to a 10-2 finish and an Orange Bowl appearance (losing to Florida). The Terps won 31 games over Friedgen’s first three seasons, temporarily transforming the program.
- Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: How about one more mention of Spurrier? Lou Holtz had given South Carolina a brief boost with 8-4 and 9-3 finishes in 2000 and 2001, but he followed with seasons of 5, 5 and 6 wins. This wasn’t an immediate rebuild as Spurrier averaged a modest 7 wins over his first five seasons. But then came a 9-win campaign in 2010 and three straight 11-win seasons while taking the program to new heights.
- Nick Saban, Alabama: The Crimson Tide had fallen on lean times under coach Mike Shula, who won more than 6 games in only one of his four seasons. Alabama, desperate to return to its previous heights, lured Saban, who had already won a national championship at LSU, away from the Miami Dolphins and the rest is history. In his second season in 2008, the Tide went 12-2. They won the national championship the following season and have won four national titles in all while becoming college football’s preeminent power under Saban.
- Brian Kelly, Notre Dame: Kelly may be the most polarizing coach on this list, but the results are what they are. The Charlie Weis era had gone off the rails at Notre Dame as he went 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6 in his final three seasons. Kelly had worked his way up the ranks after having success at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and then Cincinnati. He won 8 games in each of his first two seasons at Notre Dame, got the Fighting Irish to the national championship game in 2012 (a loss to Alabama) and has the program back in the College Football Playoff picture this season with an 8-1 start after a hiccup last fall.
- Jim Harbaugh, Michigan: This may sound familiar to Florida fans. Michigan had tumbled after two unsuccessful coaching hires in Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke, who went 7-6 and 5-7 in his last two seasons. Harbaugh took over in 2015 and immediately gave the program new life with back-to-back 10-win seasons. Critics can argue that his Wolverines have yet to get over the hump, but there’s no doubt they’re significantly better off now than they were before his arrival.
- Mark Richt, Miami: The Hurricanes had fallen far from national contention during Al Golden’s five-year tenure. Aside from a 9-4 finish in 2013, Miami was a middling program at best under Golden, ultimately going 6-7 in 2014 and starting 4-3 in 2015 before he was let go. (See any similarities here, Gators fans?) Richt was an established winner at Georgia who couldn’t quite get his program to the next level, but he’s given Miami an immediate lift with a 9-4 finish last season and an 8-0 start this fall.
(Not included: Gene Chizik went undefeated and won a national championship in his second season at Auburn, but having Cam Newton as a generational talent helped a ton, and Chizik lasted only two more seasons. Also, Kirby Smart has turned Georgia into a national contender in his second season, but the Bulldogs never bottomed out under his predecessor, Richt, so it’s not so much a rebuild as simply a coach seemingly taking a program to another level).
All that being said, it’s now on Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin to make the kind of hire that would warrant adding another name to this list.
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