Rome wasn’t built in a day, but when Steve Spurrier came to Gainesville on the very last day of the 1980s, he very quickly remade Florida football.
Matt Zemek, 14Powers.com
Spurrier was hired on December 31, 1989. In his first season as Florida head coach, the 1990 Gators finished at the top of the SEC standings. They weren’t awarded an official SEC championship, but they were the best team in the conference, and they didn’t need a two- or three-year plan to get there.
Spurrier was one of a kind. Urban Meyer was pretty good, too. He took over for Ron Zook in the 2005 season and needed only two years to turn the Gators from a mediocre team into a national champion. He needed one year more than Spurrier to restore Florida’s relevance, but he built UF to a greater height than what Spurrier had achieved.
Those examples show that Florida is a place where coaches can win big and don’t need half a decade to make it happen. When Florida fans talk about the Gator standard, they don’t just refer to success and winning; they refer to an aesthetically pleasing product and the presence of football which is not just athletically superior, but also clever and smart. The idea of a slow rebuild with many stages and a lot of bumps in the road is not what Gator fans have in mind when any coach is hired. Dan Mullen, for all his flaws (mostly in the realm of talent acquisition, where he lagged behind Kirby Smart and Nick Saban in the SEC), gave Florida several productive seasons. The problem was that those productive seasons didn’t build on each other. The Gators didn’t get progressively better on a one-way trip to the top. They had their moments, but steady linear growth which culminated in annual pursuits of the national championship – something which happened in the Spurrier and Meyer years, to varying degrees – did not emerge.
The unfortunate reality for Florida fans is that if the Gators are going to compete for national titles, second-year coach Billy Napier is not going to create instant results. He isn’t going to bring the Gators significantly closer to the holy grail in 2023. This is the bitter pill Gator fans have to swallow: Progress is coming, but slowly. It just isn’t going to happen very rapidly in Gainesville. Two words underscore this point: Graham Mertz.
It was shocking to see Florida accept Mertz as a transfer quarterback. Why the Gators would think Mertz’s college career could be salvaged (and would be worth salvaging in the first place) is an utter mystery today, several months after the Wisconsin quarterback changed schools.
Understand this about Graham Mertz: He was the proverbial “coach killer” as Wisconsin’s quarterback. Longtime Badger head coach Paul Chryst, who had won several Big Ten West Division championships and had won multiple New Year’s Six bowls at Wisconsin, was fired because of the implosion of the program with Mertz flailing under center. Chryst couldn’t figure out how to get Mertz to play better over the course of multiple seasons. Wisconsin’s repeated stumbles on offense exhausted the Badgers’ patience. A program known for stability at the head coaching spot – with Barry Alvarez leading the program for many years and then handing the baton to Bret Bielema and then Chryst (after Gary Andersen’s brief and aberrational tenure in Madison) – made a quick-trigger move by ousting Chryst, a loyal coach who had no designs on working anywhere else.
Then came the second coach whose career was knocked off course by Graham Mertz.
Jim Leonhard, who was Chryst’s defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, is one of the elite defensive minds in the country. He was a natural choice to be named Chryst’s permanent replacement, but when Wisconsin tabbed him as the interim coach, the Badgers wanted to see if he could get more out of Mertz.
He couldn’t. The Badger offense remained a mess, but it was not a mess Leonhard created. Surely, Leonhard – if given a chance to go into the transfer portal as UW’s permanent head coach – could find a good quarterback and build his offense from the ground up in terms of both scheme and personnel. He could put his own stamp on Wisconsin football. He wasn’t really given a full chance to do that, having been saddled with Mertz and being asked to improve him in a short period of time with an interim staff.
Yet, Wisconsin clearly was expecting more from Leonhard. The administration wanted the interim coach to make tangible progress with Mertz as a basis for giving him the permanent job. Because Leonhard struck out with Mertz, Wisconsin turned to Luke Fickell of Cincinnati for the permanent job.
Graham Mertz got Paul Chryst fired, and he prevented Jim Leonhard from getting his dream job as the permanent head coach of Wisconsin. Two coaches, one year. Mertz sent two coaching careers in unwelcome directions.
Billy Napier wanted Graham Mertz? Billy Napier thinks he can solve Mertz? This is an even bigger gamble in the realm of coaching and transfers than Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith thinking he can solve D.J. Uiagalelei’s throwing yips. Uiagalelei helped Clemson win 10 games and score a division championship last year. Mertz didn’t do nearly as much at Wisconsin, with Iowa (2021) and Purdue (2022) winning Big Ten West titles instead of Wisconsin.
It’s really hard to give Florida the benefit of the doubt this year with Graham Mertz in the saddle. A program which couldn’t maximize Anthony Richardson’s skills is now tasked with trying to squeeze a good offense from Graham Mertz.
Florida’s 2024 recruiting class is tremendous: No. 4 in the country, and with fewer recruits than No. 3 Michigan and No. 5 Notre Dame. Help is on the way in Gainesville, but it doesn’t seem likely to show up in 2023. This is a long-term improvement project under Billy Napier. That’s not what Florida fans want to hear, but it’s the reality they will almost certainly have to accept … unless, miraculously, Graham Mertz becomes a really good quarterback this autumn.