Updated: Apr 2
Tough to follow his 2 national championships.
WHEN IT ALL BEGAN IN 2010: There was no way to follow his two national championships in the new decade, but Will Muschamp tried. And Johnny Brantley had even bigger shoes to fill: Tim Tebow’s.
EDITOR’S NOTE: One in a series on Florida Football Flashback, reflecting on the past 10 years.
BY: BUDDY MARTIN
The year 2010 began the glory downturn and signified the first of the Four M’s Coaches Decade. After three national championships in 13 seasons, Gator fans were feeling pretty much entitled.
What Steve Spurrier did in ’96 and Urban Meyer did in ’06 and ‘08, surely the next coach would be able to duplicate in Gainesville, right?
Ten years and three coaches after Meyer, this just in: National Championships aren’t falling off the back of turnip trucks these days. Which makes the Meyer era even more incredible. Almost nobody saw his success coming that quickly. And almost nobody would have guessed that it would end so quickly – let alone HOW it ended.
We’re not focusing on the re-litigation of the Meyer Regime, however it may be judged. One thing for certain though – the trap door slammed on the most successful four-year run in Florida football history in dramatic fashion.
I was somewhat privileged to have a front row seat of Urban’s final days due to my relationship as official biographer of “Urban’s Way.” At the moment, however, we’re focusing on the end of the 2009 season as it led into the first year of the new decade, starting in 2010, when Urban quit, un-quit, coached the 2010 season, then quit again.
Confusing though it may be, probably what Meyer should have done was to stay committed to the resignation he first made to Jeremy Foley instead of exercising a “mulligan.” There was a reason he changed his mind after a walk through The Swamp with close personal friend and strength/conditioning coach Mickey Marotti. It had as much to do with the welfare of his staff and families as it did his health.
Turns out nobody should have tried to follow the act of Urban Meyer after 2006 and 2008 – including Urban himself.
John Brantley IV, part of Gator royalty, was headed for the Longhorns in Austin, Texas as the nation’s most prized quarterback and Gatorade Player of the Year --until he and his father John Brantley III talked to Urban Meyer and met with his emissary Doc Holliday. Not only did Johnny grow up a Gator fan, he was the son of a Gator quarterback, but also the nephew of all All-SEC linebacker Scot Brantley, one of the most highly sought players in the history of Florida High School football. It was tough to walk out on genealogy, even for the chance to play for the congenial Mack Brown.
Even though he was going to red-shirt behind Tim Tebow, who would become the eventual Heisman Trophy winner in 2006, and somebody who had the skills to do it later at Auburn (Cam Newton 2010), Johnny chose the Gators, the team whom playing for had always been his dream. He realized he would likely be facing a three-year wait before becoming the starter. The Gators were about to be three-deep in five-star quarterbacks.
“It’s going to be a good story to tell down the road to my kids – yeah, at one time, to be on the team behind two Heisman Trophy winners. They’ll want to know, ‘what the hell happened to you?” Johnny told me a few days ago.
As Tebow and his teammates cued up the 2007 Heisman and a second national title (2008) in three years – and what some thought could become a third in four years – Florida suddenly had an embarrassment of riches.
Florida had quarterbacks galore and two nattys to build on. What could possibly go wrong in this decade starting in 2010?
I recently asked Urban what it was like on that incredible stretch run, winning those two nattys in three years, and he pointed out that the three 13-game win seasons in ’06, ’08 and ’09 and going 39-3 was due to “an incredible bunch of players” too numerous to mention.
Unofficially, the night the music began to die for Gator football under Meyer started Dec. 6, 2009 when No. 1 Florida was whacked by No. 2 Alabama, 32-13, in the Georgia Dome. Defensive star Carlos Dunlap missed the game following a DUI the week before and the troublesome week unfolded. The result was that Urban, after the SEC Championship game loss to the Crimson Tide, woke up fearing that he might be fatally ill, and decided to retire. The unraveling began taking place.
Lost in all that was the near-miss for Florida dominance, the success Johnny Brantley called like “being on top of the food chain.” ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, who would become a harsh critic of Meyer, points out that had the Gators beaten Alabama on Dec. 6, 2009 Urban would have enjoyed a 3-1 advantage over Nick Saban, which may have given Meyer the upper hand and could have denied Saban from the eventual anointment of the “greatest college football coach of all time.” A gigantic “What If.”
So Meyer was virtually out the door in December when his friend Mickey Marotti moseyed by after practice for a stroll through memory lane, reading off the signs in the stadium which were the hallmarks of accomplishments for that era. “National Champions. SEC Champions. Heisman Trophy.” Marotti would openly marvel at them.
There was a method to Mickey’s madness. Urban’s good friend also was going to be out of a job after the 2009, along with a close-knit staff. That was painful for Urban to think about – the assistant coaches, staff members and their families. Maybe this gave him a gentle nudge to reconsider.
Then Meyer remembered Foley’s offer to let him stay and hand over some of the day-to-day duties to trusted aide Steve Addazio, who had become offensive coordinator after Dan Mullen left for Mississippi State following the 2008 regular season.
A call to Foley confirmed that offer. So Meyer said “yes” on further review, relenting to stay after signing “a contract” with his family promising to be more diligent about his health.
But the magic never came back. Tebow left with a flurry after a 400-yard passing night against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. Urban’s voice didn’t command the respect and immediate response it once did after “handing off” his team to Addazio. Johnny Brantley and his teammates awakened to a new reality in 2010.
But the magic never came back. Tebow left with a flurry after a 400-yard passing night against Cincinnati in the Sugar Bowl. Urban’s voice didn’t command the respect and immediate response it once did after “handing off” his team to Addazio. Almost without fanfare, offensive coordinator Dan Mullen left Florida to become Mississippi State head coach. Johnny Brantley and his teammates awakened to a new reality in 2010.
Having enjoyed the ride, it was time for “JB Four” to prove his metal, but with a new offensive coordinator, new group of players and sort of a part-time head coach.
“It was the highest of highs, and then the lowest…” – Brantley caught himself in mid-sentence – “well, I wouldn’t say it was ‘the lowest of lows’… But going from the top of the food chain, and then you get humbled a little bit in those years. But it was a lot of fun, obviously. We had so many great players during that time with Percy Harvin, Tim, Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper – I could just go on and on. To this day I still tell people Percy is THE most athletic person I’ve ever been around.”
None of them were around to start the 2010 season. Not to diminish his teammates, Brantley pointed out that good players followed, “but it just didn’t click and we got humbled pretty quickly.” Johnny also pointed out that the team was still competitive, and “we were a fake field goal away from beating LSU and plays like that kept us for winning nine or ten games.”
For a moment it looked like Urban was back as the 2010 Gators started out with four straight wins. But then on a dark night in Tuscaloosa, with an expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium (100,000) lit up with new statues, Brantley and the Gators took a pounding from a renewed Alabama team fresh off a national championship. 3-1; Nick Saban’s rocket had left the launching pad.
Florida had started the season ranked No. 3 and finished No. 23, struggling to beat Penn State in the Outback Bowl to just go 8-5. Once and for all, Urban Meyer was no longer the Gator coach, stepping aside to become a consultant while a promising young head coach in waiting, Will Muschamp, took the reins. Muschamp brought former Patriots coach Charlie Weis with him as offensive coordinator. However, the offense went South, despite the efforts of two-year starter Brantley, and the Muschamp Era begin with a 7-6 record. Trouble was on the horizon.
Meanwhile, the more he looks back at those glory days, the more Brantley appreciates what his team accomplished as “very special.” He has the utmost respect for Mullen, whom he calls “an incredible play caller,” and senses more success around the corner.
“It’s starting to get that way again now,” said Brantley. “It was a very, very special time for the people around here and outside our little bubble. I’m sure it has been that way for people of Tuscaloosa for the last decade. Hopefully Dan Mullen can get them back to that. Looks like it’s turning that way.”