<
>

Winning the fans

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When you're following a football coach who won two national championships and you're coming off what was nearly the program's first losing season in 32 years, it's natural to be a little leery of the response you're going to get from fans on the annual booster club tour.

Turns out Florida coach Will Muschamp shouldn't have worried. The crowds have been upbeat and receptive through his first three in-state stops in Gainesville, Volusia County and Jacksonville.

"When you go through the year we went [in 2011] -- which was very frustrating; obviously 7-6 at Florida is not acceptable -- and you get ready to go to these things you wonder what kind of questions you're going to get," Muschamp said. "But really, honestly, it's been very, very positive."

More than positive, actually. It seems a good part of Gator Nation has embraced the 40-year-old Muschamp after just one uncharacteristically Florida-like season. The proof came from the reaction one crowd had to an answer Muschamp gave during his Q&A session following his speech.

A woman, sitting among an audience of about 270 in Volusia County, asked if he was one of those coaches who is going to stay for a few years and then bolt for another job. Muschamp, a Gainesville native but a Georgia graduate, spoke two words: "I'm home."

That drew the loudest applause of Muschamp's first three speeches.

There seem to be two reasons why the fans have warmed up to Muschamp much quicker than they did Urban Meyer: his humility and his one-of-us persona.

These booster club stops are, by their nature, always a positive affair. There's always optimism about the upcoming season, especially because coaches always praise the returning players and can't say enough good things about the most recent signing class. Muschamp has done that, too, but he's also acknowledged the poor 2011, taken blame for it, and promised to fix it.

"We are where we are," Muschamp said. "We're 15-11 the last two years."

The fans appreciate Muschamp's honesty, and his willingness to address the disappointing season resonates -- instead of pulling the "past is done, we're only going to talk about the future" ploy, said Gator Club of Jacksonville president Tracy O'Sullivan.

"I think they were actually more accepting because he acknowledged it, that it's unacceptable to break even," O'Sullivan said. "I think because he acknowledged it and said it out loud, people were more accepting of him because he said he needs to getter and the team needs to get better."

Fans are understanding about the state of the program right now, too, said Sean Maroney, a vice president for athletics and speakers with the Gator Club of Volusia County. They know the talent level isn't as high as it was during Meyer's glory years of 2006-2009 and it will take time for it to return to that level and for the Gators to begin competing for Southeastern Conference titles again.

"I think people that are true fans understand that Muschamp is not going to come in and win us a national championship in his [second] year," Maroney said. "If they expect that they're on something. You've got a coach who coaches in a totally different style [than the previous coach]. He's looking for different athletes.

"People understand you've got to give him a few years."

Realistic Gators fans, a phrase that has rarely been uttered or written.

Muschamp's every-man personality has helped him win fans, too. He's quick to make fun of himself, and doesn't hesitate to make a joke at his own expense. He peppers his speech and Q&A session with funny stories and he's got a deadpan delivery, too.

An example: A woman said she was frustrated with her friends, who were huge Alabama fans, constantly nagging her about the Gators. She said he was hoping Muschamp was going to sign some big, tough, physical defensive linemen so the Gators would not get pushed around along the line of scrimmage any more.

Muschamp's response: "Me too."

Muschamp seems to enjoy the interaction with the fans during his speech and while signing autographs. Meyer never seemed completely comfortable interacting with the fans, and while they certainly appreciated what he did during his six seasons in Gainesville, they never fully embraced him. The connection with Muschamp, at least for now, anyway, is much warmer.

"Two different kind of personalities," O'Sullivan said. "Will's a little more outgoing as far as dealing with the public than Urban was. That always makes people more receptive to you.

"He knows that getting out there in front of the crowd is important. He knows that people want to meet him, get to know him, start a relationship with him and he's making his best effort to do that."

It's working so far.