By BUDDY MARTIN
It was like a playoff win. When you measure the residual fallout from Florida’s timely Outback Bowl victory you can easily label the triumph one of most important of Jim McElwain’s brief era.
However, with the rest of the state schools closing in on Gator Country, there isn’t much time. The UF’s recruiting universe could be shrinking after the mammoth season for rival Florida State and the landing of Charlie Strong by South Florida. Plus two others big names checking in at Florida Atlantic and at Florida International — Lane Kiffin and Butch Davis.
All eyes of the Gator Nation were focused on Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium — many of them gazing cynically through a glass darkly. I’m not going to exaggerate it as mutiny, but clearly they would have wanted Florida’s coach to walk the plank if he couldn’t answer some questions on the field.
Turns out, it was exactly the kind of convincing win McElwain’s Gators needed to finish strong and wipe away the bleak memory of last year’s bowl disaster.
Of this I am certain because both their jubilance and their skeptical attitude was reflected in the responses to my in-game Tweets (I’ve never gotten so many). Including one about that last statement on the “convincing win,” which immediately got 50 likes. For a relatively small-time Tweeter (@buddyshow), that’s big.
It began with my pregame Tweet:
“Is this Florida-Iowa Outback Bowl more important because of recruiting or as a referendum on the McElwain/Nussmeir offense? #Gatornation”
BAM! They hit it like a big bass popping a top-water plug at feeding time.
Clarke19 wrote: “@buddyshow Recruiting. Without a QB can’t pass judgment on offense. Then again it would be nice if he could develop a quarterback.”
Followed by RPMurphy: “@buddyshow Main reason: 2 see if a coach can get his players to play for pride & respect. No more acting as if playing all out is voluntary.”
After Austin Appleby’s second interception I tweeted:
“If I’m McElwain I’m warming up somebody in the bullpen. Anybody. #Gators #outbackbowl”
Immediately there were 10 responses, all in agreement.
The big breakthrough and turnaround came with the amazing run by Mark Thompson, when I Tweeted this and the floodgates opened:
“So there’s the Mark Thompson we’ve been hearing about in practice — looking like a WR as he streaked 85 yards for the game’s only TD. Wow!”
Here came Tweetville! Words began flowing more positively as young Chauncey Gardner made two huge Right-time/Right-place plays to seal the deal and the MVP award.
In this world of lightning-quick communication, one can almost surf along with the tide of emotions as the situations and moods change. So it can be misleading as well and wrong to take judgments from emotional burps.
In the end, there was this:
Seemingly escaping a second straight death spiral, McElwain pulled up the stick on the final day of the season to avoid back-to-back, crash-and-burn, oh-for-three meltdowns.
If you heard McElwain’s voice quavering in his Outback Bowl post-game TV interview, you could feel the pressure hissing out of his soul after two years of futile attempts to satisfy the insatiable appetites of the entitled Gator Nation.
McElwain managed to cobble together a squad from a triage where there were more crawling wounded than walking wounded and posted a 9-4 season. It could have been the second straight SEC East title and 10-4 season, but Florida was deprived of a cupcake win when the date and venue for LSU bumped the game vs Presbyterian. So 9-4 were the numbers.
And in the scheme of things, with a referendum on his offense and coaching skills held in question by critics — don’t they always? — winning the Outback Bowl may have been McElwain’s second finest hour at Florida. Second only to the win over LSU in Baton Rouge as No. 1.
It’s all about how you finish the job. Last season, McElwain’s Gators blew a tire in the final stretch. This time they lapped the field, crushing Iowa like a wet cornstalk, 30-3, and sending out a signal that there is still a pulse in Gainesville.
Let’s be clear here — the past 27 Florida outings have had nearly as many valleys as hills. The offense? Still struggling but improved, thanks largely an explosive, Outback Bowl record: An 85-yard catch-and-run touchdown run on a screen pass to Thompson.
Who was that masked man, anyway? And why hasn’t the JUCO transfer been touching the ball more? Well, a suspension for marijuana usage was one reason.
The best offense, as always, was Florida’s big-play defense: The huge pick-six by Gardner and a second interception by the the trash-talking freshman — both in the fourth quarter. Even a young trash-talker had better sense than not to give credit to the front seven. Actually, a Front Four with a bunch of stand-in linebackers left over from the carnage — scrubs who were asked to play like SEC starters.
Gator fans owe a big debt of gratitude to the defense — especially the Front Four and secondary.
There should be one final tweet, however:
@AAppleby12 Austin Appleby: “Goodbye and thanks for giving us all you had. Sorry we were so tough on you. Job well done.” #Gatornation
In fact, I think I’ll Tweet that one right now.
(Buddy Martin has been one of America’s great sports journalists as a columnist, editor, broadcaster, author and TV producer for five decades. He has won close to 200 awards, including an Emmy. He co-wrote the best-selling book “”Urban’s Way” with coach Urban Meyer and recently releasased his latest book, co-authored with Steve Spurrier, titled “”Head Ball Coach. My Life In Football, Doing It Differently — and Winning.” The book is available on Amazon and already is a best-seller.
He is a third-generation Floridian and journalist, having begun his early career at the Ocala Star-Banner where his father and grandfather also launched their careers. From there, Buddy had a distinguished career in newspapers as editor/columnist at Florida Today, Gannett News Service, the St. Petersburg Times, The New York Daily News and The Denver Post. As managing editor of The Charlotte Sun in Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Martin directed coverage of Hurricane Charley which won many state and national awards — and was one of three finalists in the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.
For his role as an associate producer and editorial consultant for the NFL Today Show on CBS, Buddy was awarded an Emmy.Returning to his hometown a few years ago, Martin has served as editor in chief of Ocala Magazine and a columnist for Ocala Style.
Martin is the author of eight books. He also wrote the autobiographies of two Hall of Fame athletes – Terry Bradshaw and Dan Issel — and was awarded an Emmy while working with Bradshaw on “The NFL Today” at CBS Sports.
Among the awards he or his newspapers have claimed were best Best Lifestyle Section nationally (Penny-Missouri), Best Sunday Sports Section nationally (APSE), Best Feature Writer New York State (Associated Press) and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news (2005). He has been named best columnist or sports columnist in Florida for both magazines and newspapers six times.
Buddy is a Gator through-and-through. He was educated at the University of Florida.
He is a regular contributor to woodypaige.com.)