GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida coach Will Muschamp’s image of success is displayed in a single photo.
It’s a picture of LSU’s 2003 national championship team on which Muschamp served as defensive coordinator/linebackers coach. It didn’t hit home how special the picture was until a player sent it to him for him to sign.
As his eyes ran over every face and number appearing in front of him, he truly understood what he was seeing.
Not only was this a team talented enough to win a national championship in the nation’s toughest conference, it was a team with enormous heart and character, he thought. Muschamp saw people willing to take the selfishness out of being a part of a team sport, people who understood their roles and were willing to come together for the common purpose of building a championship-caliber team.
“At the end of the day, you win with good people,” Muschamp said.
What Muschamp also saw was a group of players willing to lead, not just themselves but their coaches. So as Muschamp embarks on his second season in Gainesville, he’s hoping to see more of that attitude from the Gators.
The notion of putting more on the team was echoed by men’s basketball coach Billy Donovan at a recent football banquet, when he used the analogy of climbing a mountain. There are three ways to reach the top: One, everyone runs together. Two, the coaches guide. Three, the coaches jump on the players’ backs.
Muschamp is going for the third way.
“Coach Muschamp has told us all along this team has to be ours,” rising sophomore quarterback Jeff Driskel said. “If it’s the coaching staff’s team, then we’re not going to go anywhere.”
Added linebacker Michael Taylor: “We’re not counting on the coaches to step in. We’re running it ourselves.”
That’s what the Gators struggled with in Muschamp’s debut season. He took over a program that had fallen well below standards in 2010 and continued to tumble under his watch. Offensive ineptitude bled over from the previous season, and discipline continued to be a major issue (10 player arrests have occurred during Muschamp’s short tenure).
Last spring was filled with awkward transitions of coaches and philosophies, and Muschamp had to reach a team that really wasn’t sure who he was. Honestly, he wasn’t sure what he had, either.
This spring, things have changed and comfort has arrived. Staff changes have been made, but those inside the program think they’ve been for the better.
Muschamp has his guys and he’s starting to get his players.
“I really like our locker room right now,” Muschamp said. “I like where we’re headed. We’re not perfect, but we got guys who understand what it takes to be successful.”
You wouldn’t know it by last season’s resume. The Gators limped to a 7-6 finish, and for the first time since 1971, Florida had no position players on the first-team All-SEC team. This month, Muschamp said Florida’s 2011 struggles will really show in this year’s NFL draft. With only two players being invited to the NFL combine (tied for the fewest since it moved to Indianapolis in 1985), the Gators might have only two or three players taken.
To Muschamp, that’s simply unacceptable.
“We need to do a better job recruiting,” he said. “We need to do a better job developing players. We need to do a better job coaching.”
Strides have certainly been made. Muschamp’s first real recruiting class ranked fourth nationally by ESPN recruiting services, and it focused more on building power, aggression and line production.
Muschamp has to wait to put his hands on the bulk of Florida’s 2012 class, but for now he’s concentrating on those already on campus. Before and during spring, Muschamp saw the transformations he wanted from his players, especially when it came to toughness.
Months removed from labeling his team -- and himself -- as soft, Muschamp said he hasn’t seen the lazy, tentative habits that hurt Florida last season. So far, soft hasn’t been an issue.
It’s still very early in terms of finding out exactly what kind of team Muschamp has, but just being around his players you can sense a difference. Leaders are emerging, confidence is brewing and players are buying in. It appears things are changing in Gainesville.
“We want to come out with that mindset that nobody can mess with us; we’re ... going to be the best team in the country, best team in the land, and get back to that glory that we’ve had in the past,” Taylor said. “We’re definitely capable of it.”