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Florida Gators

Coaching Carousel has been good to Gators

Matt Zemek

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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The foremost aspect of the coaching carousel — in every year, not just this one — is the movement of head coaches, but we would be kidding ourselves if the coordinators and position coaches didn’t have a huge impact on how programs rise or fall.

Let’s start with this acknowledgment, however: Proven head coaches can and do enable moderately good (but not great) coordinators to generate strong results. Nick Saban and Bill Belichick both embody this claim, since so many of their assistants fail when trying to make it on their own as head coaches. When working within the Saban or Belichick structure, those assistants flourish.

Alabama keeps having to replace coordinators, especially on offense. Yet, the machine — like the Crimson Tide — rolls along every year. It is true that if the head coach knows how to establish his system in most facets of the operation, he doesn’t have to possess an outstanding coordinator. A merely decent one will suffice. This does happen.

Yet, it is an exceptional case, not the rule.

Most coaches need the right coordinator to unlock the potential of their programs. More precisely, they need the right coordinator to deliver long-term success, to the extent that when a remarkable quarterback or another program-changing player leaves, the program can still achieve at a high level. In other words, Shawn Watson was not the reason Louisville won the Big East title and the Sugar Bowl in the 2012 season. It became quite obvious that Teddy Bridgewater was the reason Louisville thrived, not Watson. When Watson moved to Texas under Charlie Strong, there was no Bridgewater, and the Longhorns’ offense faltered.

Coaches need coordinators to make their vision come alive.

Lincoln Riley was the offensive coordinator who revived Bob Stoops’ program at Oklahoma in 2015.

Brent Venables is the defensive coordinator who has enabled Dabo Swinney to find his groove at Clemson, and become an all-time-great head coach.

Jim Leavitt was the defensive coordinator who enabled Colorado to win the Pac-12 South in 2016. Leavitt left for Oregon in 2017, and Colorado lost its way.

Urban Meyer, at Ohio State, won the national title with Tom Herman as his offensive coordinator. He lost ground with Tim Beck but gained ground with Ryan Day.

In terms of coaches who never found — or haven’t yet found — what they were looking for, Kliff Kingsbury never found the elite defensive coordinator he needed at Texas Tech. Jim Harbaugh still hasn’t found the offensive coordinator he needs to take Michigan to the next level.

Yes, Nick Saban can deal with constant change and upheaval inside his program, but he’s Nick Saban. He is an exceptional coach in nearly every sense of the term. Most coaches and programs need the right coordinators and other assistants. This part of every coaching carousel matters a great deal, even though it doesn’t receive nearly as much attention as the head coaching changes in college football.

With this in mind, then, the Florida Gators made out pretty well in the 2018-2019 coaching carousel. The wheels haven’t fully stopped spinning. Programs still have vacancies to fill on staffs, Alabama most of all (with five vacancies having opened up in recent days).

Yet, every program pays attention to the activities surrounding its foremost rivals and competitors. Florida is looking at the landscape and very likely feels great about how the dominoes have fallen.

Kendal Briles going to Florida State is probably the development Florida would dislike the most. FSU getting reorganized with a high-tech passing game could make life difficult for the Gators. However, FSU is such a mess in other aspects of program development that the impact of the Briles hire might not be felt anytime soon. Florida will definitely enter the 2019 season in better shape than FSU.

Then consider other developments in the coordinator-level workings of the carousel this past week.

Tennessee grabbed Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. It is true that Chaney did well at Georgia, but he had far better players than at his previous coaching stops. The larger arc of Chaney’s history suggests that he might create modest improvements in Tennessee, but nothing spectacular — in other words, nothing which should make Dan Mullen quake in his boots. One could have come up with several OC hires in Knoxville who would have made Florida much more anxious and uncertain about the future.

It is little different for Georgia, the team Florida is intent on toppling in the SEC East in 2019. It was announced on Friday afternoon that James Coley — whom college football fans in the state of Florida know well from separate coordinator stints at Florida State and Miami — has been promoted to offensive coordinator after Chaney’s departure.

Miami hired Dan Enos away from Alabama. Enos, the Tide’s QB coach in 2018, was expected to replace Mike Locksley (now the head coach at Maryland) as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, but Manny Diaz swooped in. Enos had been in the mix at Georgia, so when viewed solely through the prism of an Enos-versus-Coley comparison, Florida benefited a great deal from that swap.

Yes, Florida does play Miami in 2019, but in terms of the balance of power in the SEC — which affects Florida’s regular annual competition — the Gators made out like bandits here.

No FSU or Miami fan pounds the table and demands that the Noles or Canes need to return to the James Coley days. He is loyal to Kirby Smart, and Smart surely rewarded and recognized that loyalty in his promotion. Moreover, it has to be said that a head coach and an assistant can become more than the sum of their parts when they work well together and communicate effectively. It could be that the rapport between Smart and Coley could make Coley a better coach than the raw statistics might first indicate.

Nevertheless, Coley being Georgia’s offensive play-caller in 2019 has to be seen as a source of relief for the Gators. Imagine all the other options out there.

Hugh Freeze was rumored to be part of the mix at Tennessee. Enos would have been a knockout hire at Georgia. Larry Fedora is still unclaimed, as is Major Applewhite.

Alex Grinch, a rising star in the profession as a defensive coordinator, went to Oklahoma, safely removed from the SEC. Kentucky, at this moment, still has Eddie Gran as its offensive coordinator. If you saw Kentucky’s offense this past season, you’re happy Gran is still in Lexington.

If you consider the different paths this coaching carousel could have followed, Florida should be smiling with relief in response to the many twists and turns of the past week and the past month. This doesn’t guarantee success in 2019, but it certainly makes it more realistic to envision.

Dan Mullen’s world in Gainesville is a brighter place. We will get to see next autumn if the sun is Orange and the sky is Blue.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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Florida Gators

Gators/Canes agree to home/home series in 2024-25

Abbey Radeka

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Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

It is officially the last Saturday of the year without college football. Exactly one week from today, the Canes will be taking on the Gators in Orlando, kicking off the 2019 season.

However, this game will now be the first of three match-ups over the next six seasons. On Saturday afternoon, Stadium writer/insider Brett McMurphy reported that the Gators and Hurricanes have agreed to a home-and-home series in 2024 and 2025.

This will be the first home and home series in the rivalry since 2002-2003.

In this home-and-home agreement, Florida will host the 2024 game and Miami will host the 2025 game. And with next weeks game taking place in a neutral site, it makes for a pretty even match-up between this sunshine state rivalry.

While this year’s game will be the first time the teams have played each other in 6 seasons, the history of the UF vs UM rivalry dates back to 1938, when the teams would play annually. They were the state’s original rivalry, as the only two major college programs in Florida with football teams, before FSU entered into the arena.

Miami currently leads the all-time series 29-26, but the Gators now have a chance to tie it up by 2025.

The Gators are the favorites heading into next weekend, coming off of a stellar turn-around season led by (then new) head coach Dan Mullen. Florida has been ranked in the top 10 on multiple preseason polls and are returning starting QB Feleipe Franks.

The Canes announced last week that they’ll be starting Jarren Williams at QB over last year’s starter N’Kosi Perry and Ohio State transfer Tate Martell. They’ve recently been hit with a few injuries at the linebacker spot heading into the season, but overall are feeling confident under the direction of new head coach Manny Diaz.

With Florida having a shaky offseason, Miami heading into an exciting new era, and the added intensity that comes with playing an in-state rival, it really could be anyone’s game.

And it could be the start of a great series of football in the sunshine state.

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Florida Gators

Gators QB Feleipe Franks playing for his place in history

Matt Zemek

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Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Feleipe Franks is playing for history this year in Gainesville, Florida, but more than history, he is playing for a place in the hearts of Florida Gator fans. He might not characterize his journey that way, but viewed from a distance, that is the poignant center of Franks’ story as Florida’s starting quarterback.

Go through the history of Florida quarterbacks since the start of the Steve Spurrier era. The stories of these quarterbacks are very different. There is room for Feleipe Franks to fall between various extremes.

Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow are the ultimate immortals who lifted the Gators to the mountaintop. Rex Grossman deserved the Heisman Trophy in 2001 but didn’t get it. He played well against Tennessee that year, but defensive coordinator Jon Hoke coached poorly, and Alex Brown got owned by the Vols’ offensive line. Nevertheless, Grossman brought the Gators many richly satisfying moments. He isn’t in the Wuerffel-Tebow pantheon, but he was a great UF quarterback.

Shane Matthews has a special place in Gator lore. He is the man who started it all, the first special Spurrier quarterback who gave birth to the golden age of Florida football. College sports fans cherish the young athletes who built a foundation for a treasured part of their lives. Matthews was that foundational figure for Florida football fans, much as the 1994 basketball team showed Gator Nation what was possible in college hoops, catching the attention of a man named Billy Donovan, who would come to Gainesville a few years later.

Wuerffel and Tebow live eternally on Mount Olympus. Grossman and Matthews will always be treasured with great passion as all-time-great Gators.

Then the stories become a lot more complicated.

Terry Dean’s biggest sin was that he wasn’t Shane Matthews or Danny Wuerffel. Sandwiched between the two, it was hard for Steve Spurrier — trying to cement Florida’s powerhouse status in the SEC — to accept Dean’s limitations and push him to become even greater. The Spurrier-Dean relationship was memorably fractured and scarred. Since Spurrier is the most important figure in the history of Florida football, the friction which defined his relationship with Dean inevitably affected the way many (though not all) Gator fans felt about Dean.

If you were to argue that Dean was the most complicated Florida quarterback of the last 30 years, many would agree with you.

If Dean was the most complicated Gator signal-caller of the past 30 years, Doug Johnson would probably rate as No. 2.

Florida did keep winning under Johnson. It beat Florida State and knocked the Seminoles out of the national title hunt in 1997 (“BEHIND THE DEFENSE!”). It won a BCS bowl — the Orange Bowl — in the 1998 season. It won the SEC East in 1999. Yet, after the Wuerffel years, those three seasons felt like a huge letdown… and in truth, they were.

Doug Johnson, who did play with the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL for a brief while, had the physical tools of a top quarterback, but he simply didn’t process the game the way great QBs do. This irritated Spurrier to no end, and it clearly wasted some of Florida’s best defenses, chiefly the 1998 group, which deserved so much better than what it got. Doug Johnson elicited the words “what might have been” in Gainesville, a frustrated litany of almosts and coulda-shoulda-wouldas.

The man who replaced Johnson in 2000 wrote a different story.

Yes, Rex Grossman played for portions of the 2000 season, but after a thoroughly ineffective first quarter in a pivotal SEC game against South Carolina, Spurrier called on Jesse Palmer — who had won in Knoxville against the Vols earlier in the year — to rescue the team. Palmer did just that, throwing for three touchdown passes and leading a 28-0 second-quarter surge which wiped away a 21-3 deficit created by two South Carolina touchdowns off blocked punt returns.

Florida won, 41-21, clinching the SEC East and setting the stage for the program’s first SEC championship since 1996 under Wuerffel.

Palmer did not have a lengthy Florida career, but in his year of truth as a Gator, the future college football commentator (whose greatest contribution to humanity was saving the life of Chris Fowler a few years ago during a Pinstripe Bowl broadcast at Yankee Stadium; Fowler had choked on a dry chicken sandwich, and Palmer successfully Heimliched the piece of poultry out of Fowler’s pipes) brought UF back to its rightful place atop the SEC.

Palmer was not an overwhelmingly great quarterback. He never dominated college football the way Grossman, his successor, did in 2001, but he stepped up when his coaches and teammates needed him most.

When considering where Feleipe Franks fits into the larger story of Florida quarterbacks, he is playing to be remembered in a vein similar to Palmer, and to avoid being remembered as a Johnson-like figure. The Johnson and Palmer comparisons aren’t exact and will never be easy fits with the example of Franks, nearly two decades later, but they represent larger portraits of careers and the paths they follow.

The mention of Doug Johnson’s name elicits a cringe or a wince in Florida football circles. His time under center was painful for Gator fans. Mentioning Palmer within a Florida football context would call forth many happy memories of a redemptive season and a year when Florida restored something which had been missing.

Isn’t this what Franks — under head coach Dan Mullen — is trying to chase down in 2019?

Franks has had his Johnsonian bad boy moments. He has lived through his own periods of considerable friction with the Florida fan base. Yet, at the end of the 2018 season — chiefly in the Peach Bowl win over Michigan — Franks showed that he was capable of evolving, that he could process the game at a higher level, the way Doug Johnson never quite achieved two decades earlier.

If Franks can turn the corner this year and give Florida an SEC East title — which would almost certainly mean a win over Georgia in Jacksonville — the way he has been thought of in Gainesville will give way to a distinctly different identity.

Yes, Feleipe Franks is playing for history, but more than that, he is playing so that he can be remembered in the right way and for the right reasons. It is a personal aspiration, but it is connected to team success.

Another powerful and complicated Florida quarterback story is about to be written in 2019.

We will see how happy the ending turns out to be.

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