The cowbells clanked with such ferocity and for such a length of time, even Christopher Walken thought the Mississippi State fans were overdoing it.
There was, however, good reason for said clanking; it was September 30, 2000, and the Bulldogs had just stunned undefeated, No. 3 Florida, 47-35, in front of a sold out Davis Wade Stadium. Only for a moment, the cowbells stopped as the crowd focused their attention to the goal posts which were subsequently pummeled to the ground without much resistance — similar to the way Mississippi State handled the defeated visitors from Florida.
It was an especially frequent celebration when teams got the best of the Gators, which was anything but frequent. Back then, at least — back when Steve Spurrier’s Gators and his Fun ‘n Gun offense were changing not just the culture of Florida football, but the entire Southeastern Conference.
The goal posts came down in Tallahassee, when FSU beat Florida in ’96. The LSU fans tore theirs down in ’97, and Tennessee followed suit in ’98 after an overtime victory against the Gators. It reflected the culture Spurrier bred at the University of Florida in the 1990s.
Mississippi State’s 12-point margin of victory was not indicative of how dominant it was over Spurrier’s Gators that day. The Bulldogs totaled over 500 yards of offense and held Florida to a jaw-dropping -78 yards of rushing. (No, that’s not a smudge mark before the 78, that’s a negative sign.) To put it in perspective, the Gators even faced a 3rd and 57 after consecutive bad shotgun snaps at one point in the 4th quarter.
It was just one of those days in Starkville.
Spurrier openly criticized the team in the media the day after, and questioned if his team had the guts to bounce back.
“Mississippi State ought to be embarrassed, tearing down the goal posts after beating this team,” he said. “We’re just an average team with a lot of problems and we’ve got to make a lot of changes.”
But Spurrier could sense what was at the core of his team’s struggling performances. After a string of four straight SEC Championship victories from 1993-1996, the Gators had failed to win another to this point. The 1999 team won the Eastern Division, but was trounced by Shaun Alexander and the rest of Alabama’s Crimson Tide in the SEC Title, 34-7.
The pressure of living up to the expectations in Gainesville was clearly getting to his players, and the Head Ball Coach decided that cooler heads should prevail in this situation. In an unusual, but so Steve Spurrier type of move, he introduced one of his favorite country songs to the demoralized Gators before a team meeting the following Monday.
The song? Lee Ann Womack’s rendition of I Hope You Dance.
It was certainly an odd choice to say the least (if you’ve heard it before, you know it’s a feel good, emotional love song). It was still, spot-on, the right choice at the same time. Here are some lyrics:
“I hope you never lose your sense of wonder. You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger.”
“Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance. And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”
He wanted his players to forget about the pressure and rather focus on playing with pride and confidence. He wanted them to remember why they came to Florida and the opportunities that remained at hand. Most of all, he wanted his team to have some fun again.
Like best selling author, Wayne Dyer, once wrote: When you dance, your purpose isn’t to get to a certain place on the floor. It’s to enjoy each step along the way.
Rebounding with a 41-9 beat down of Nick Saban and the LSU Tigers, that’s precisely what the inspired Gators did the following week.
The battle cry hung on the bulletin board for the rest of the season; a big sign that said “The Dance Continues.” Indeed, it would continue for the 2000 team — winning their remaining conference games and finishing the season as SEC Champions. And on that day of the Title Game vs. Auburn, having beaten the Tigers 28-6, they danced on the turf of the Georgia Dome like champs.
It’s really a tribute to Spurrier, a former player turned coach, having the wherewithal to realize the effects that a football culture such as Florida’s can have on a group of college kids. It wasn’t just that Spurrier considered this fact, but he embraced it and taught his players how to do the same.
Will Muschamp never fully grasped that concept at Florida. More importantly, it will be something that Florida’s new head coach will have to instill in a program that has lost touch with its identity and swagger over the past five years. Jim McElwain’s focus won’t lie on just restoring a team, he’ll have to restore an entire culture for the Gators to finally start looking like the Gators again.
Over the summer when I spoke to former tight end and member of that 2000 Gator squad, Ben Troupe, I asked him if he felt as if the culture around Florida football had been damaged in recent years. Troupe, who writes his “Troupe Talk” blog for Southern Pigskin, shared similar feelings about the changes in the Florida football program.
“It’s like when people like Fred Taylor or other former players used to speak to us,” Troupe told me. “I used to love that. They’d tell us, you guys need to understand — this is prestige. You’re the reason why over 90,000 fans come to see you play football, and you’re 17 or 18 years old. You can’t get that opportunity many other places.”
For a majority of the past five seasons, you just haven’t had that feeling watching the Gators anymore, have you? The reality is, times are always changing and college football is notorious for having teams cycle through good eras and bad eras. But any Gator fan knows the attitude around Gainesville has changed, and the confidence has faltered.
“A lot of these [high school recruits], they’ve been in the spotlight already for so long that some of them, sometimes, don’t put in the work,” said Troupe. “I don’t feel like the players feel it like we felt it. I used to cry after games and I couldn’t even help it. It’s just that my mindset was always this — there wasn’t another team that was better than us.”
Troupe on what comes to mind when he reflects on being a Gator:
“Take the one thing in life that you like the most — playing video games, fishing, whatever it is — and multiply it times a thousand. It doesn’t matter who you are. Just the fact that you have Florida on your chest, these people love you. It’s the best feeling. Running out of that tunnel … that’s the single best string of five minutes I’ve had in my life.”
“I’m just a country boy at heart who loves playing the game. And I got to play for a team I now adore.”
The Gators could certainly use the services of another Ben Troupe on the field. In his All-American senior year, Troupe caught 39 passes for 638 yards and five touchdowns. But it hasn’t been a disparity in talent that has doomed Florida as of late — it has a lot more to do with a certain mindset; a missing element, which almost passed by Troupe and his teammates during that 2000 season.
It took the awareness of a head coach to restore faith into a reeling football team. And it will take a new head coach with the same kind of awareness to restore the winning culture into a reeling program.
Football hasn’t brought much to dance about lately, but it’s not like the music doesn’t play in Gainesville from time to time.
When it does, it echoes back and forth between the bright orange walls of The Swamp; from the Championship seasons displayed on the end-zone, to UF’s Ring of Honor mounted on the very top of the stadium, to the Work ‘em silly, Gators banner that hangs near the student section.
The coach who inspired his team with a song about a dance nearly 15 years ago is the same man who once dubbed Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, a place that only Gators get out alive. Five seasons have come and gone, however, and the Florida Gators have seemingly sat it out time after time when opportunity knocked on the door. Instead, we’ve watched Florida Field serve as a dance floor to the likes of LSU, Missouri, Florida State, Alabama, Vanderbilt…Georgia Southern, and many more.
Too many. And now the time has come for a change.
Transitioning into 2015, these Gators could benefit from reflecting on the teams that set the standard at Florida, what those moments meant to this university, and exactly what the future can mean for an entire Gator Nation — chomping at the bit, yearning to see the team they love restore the culture that has been missing for what seems like so long.
Perhaps the most pivotal era of Florida football has now begun, and the music will be playing this fall.
Jim McElwain, the floor is yours. I hope you dance.