Jacksonville, Fla. — Florida’s 38-20 upset over No. 11 Georgia may not change the way the story ends for Will Muschamp. But this much is clear. No matter how long Muschamp coaches from this point forward, he’ll never have a sweeter — maybe ultimately bittersweet — moment than Saturday evening at EverBank Field.
A Florida team that was battered and bruised, both physically and emotionally, was a double-digit underdog. When the game began there were a lot of empty seats where Florida fans were supposed to be. There were rumors swirling stronger than the winds off the St. John’s River that the decision had been made. Lose and he was done. Now.
But Florida didn’t lose. Florida won and it won convincingly with 418 yards rushing. And when it was over the normally stern-faced Coach Boom set record for smiles — and for hugs — on the field. Vernon Hargreaves III jumped into his arms. The unblockable Dante Fowler picked his coach off the ground with a bear hug. Muschamp walked into the tunnel with a player wrapped in each arm.
“First of all,” Muschamp said, reaching behind his shoulder “let me get this thing off my back.” The room erupted with laughter, an uncommon occurrence during this Florida football season. “I am so proud of our players. For our guys to pull together against a Top 10 team was special. Our guys understood the challenge.”
Florida looked like a team waiting for a reason to pack it in when Georgia overpowered them for an early 7-0 lead.
But then momentum changed. Georgia missed a 39-yard field goal. Florida faked a field goal that turned into a 31-yard touchdown run with a kid (Michael McNeely) who was bagging groceries at Publix before Muschamp put him on scholarship in August. Florida drove the ball 64 yards for a touchdown and the Gators suddenly led 14-7 at halftime.
And they believed. Maybe for the first time in two years they believed.
They played hard for him. All the frustration of the past two years came out in one game. The Gators not only won but they won going away and gave Muschamp his first win in the Georgia-Florida game as a player or a coach.
“This one was for coach,” said linebacker Antonio Morrison, who had 15 tackles in the game. “It was a big, big win.”
Muschamp grew up in Gainesville, Fla., watching the Gators play. He was a walk-on football player at Georgia who eventually rose to team captain. He was one of the hottest coordinators in the business when he was hired as Florida’s head coach in 2011. Except for the 11-2 season of 2012, it has been a struggle. Florida had lost 8 of its past 10 SEC games before Saturday.
What Florida did for their coach on Saturday is increase the likelihood that he will remain in place for the rest of this season. If the Gators win out against Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Eastern Kentucky and Florida State they will be 8-3 (remember their opening game with Idaho was cancelled). Not as good as the Gators had hoped for when this season started, but maybe enough to bring Muschamp back for a fifth season. That is a decision that AD Jeremy Foley will have to make.
But he doesn’t have to make it today.
Today Muschamp doesn’t have to answer questions about his future. He gets to bask in the glow of a victory few saw coming. And he reflects on someone he didn’t get to hug after the game.
“I wish my father was here,” said Muschamp. “That’s what I thought about at the end of the game.”
Herbert Larry Muschamp died last May at the age of 79.