JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The hugs started late in the fourth quarter as Will Muschamp made his rounds on Florida's sideline.
The winning sideline.
In the Florida-Georgia game.
It was the first time Muschamp had tasted victory in eight tries in the series -- four losses as a safety for Georgia and three losses as coach of the Gators.
Saturday, as the clock ticked down on Florida's surprising 38-20 win against the No. 11 Bulldogs and the sunset turned the sky into a mix of burnt orange and darkening blue, Muschamp's thoughts turned to his father, Larry, who passed away in May.
"I’m just really happy," he said choking back obviously deep emotions. "Wish my father was here."
When the game ended, the celebration was in full effect.
Two straight losses leading into this game had turned up the heat on Florida (4-3, 3-3 in SEC) and had incinerated Muschamp's hot seat.
The players rejoiced as if they had won a bowl game. They danced and jumped into the stands to pose for photos with fans.
It was a stark contrast to the end of Florida's last game, a dismal 42-13 homecoming-game drubbing at the hands of Missouri. After that game, the team was criticized for having only two players sing the alma mater with fans.
There was a spirited celebration in the locker room. No one held back the emotions that had been brewing and finally boiled over in Florida's first truly well-played game since the 2012 season.
"Aw man, we was in there turned up to the max!" said Taylor, the player of the game with 197 yards rushing and two touchdowns. "Coach, everybody was in there having a great time. We were just so excited, man."
Then Muschamp, his hair a bit disheveled, headed to a conference room to share his thoughts with the media.
He started by saying, "Let me lift this thing off my back" while motioning to what one could only assume was the 400-pound gorilla that was his 0-7 record in the Florida-Georgia game before Saturday night. "One less thing for you to write about."
His demeanor was a mix of relief after the removal of a heavy burden and defiance against what had been a mountain of criticism.
"Hold on," he said to a reporter near the end of his opening statement. "I've been waiting a long time for this. You can put your hand down. I can tell ya, I'm going to sit and enjoy this for a second.
"I’m just extremely proud of our players. Really am. And I’m really happy for our fans. The Gator Nation gets to sit and enjoy that. It was great to see our side [of the stadium] still full at the end. For our fans to be able to enjoy and bask in that, I’m really happy for them as well, and I appreciate their support."
These are the same fans, mind you, who chanted, "Fire Muschamp," during Florida's last game, the same ones who send him their frustrations via email and openly discuss candidates to replace him.
Before Saturday's win, Florida had lost 10 of its past 13 games dating back to last year's 4-8 season Those struggles erased the luster of Muschamp's once-rising star.
Winning, even if it was one game, was enough to put the embattled coach in the perfect mood to make light of his situation with reporters.
"I’m happy to win it," he said of the rivalry game that had so jinxed him for decades. "It feels a lot better than the other side.
"I don’t think they’re going induct me into the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame or anything. I'm sure I’m on the ballot now."
The reality is that a whole lot of people felt Saturday's game might have been Muschamp's last had Florida lost.
The players weren't immune to hearing it, which is why Jones said, "We needed a win for him." And Taylor said the Gators "had to play their hearts out for Coach."
Muschamp's message after the Missouri game was for the players to take a long, hard look in the mirror. On Saturday, they said their efforts were a testimonial to the coach they so badly want to stay.
"Just to get people off his back -- as a player, that's what you want to do," senior center Max Garcia said, " because sometimes we feel like it's our fault that he's in the position that's he's in."
With a win over Georgia, Muschamp's position just got a whole lot better.