Over the past three decades the road to the college football national championship has consistently run through the state of Florida. Commencing in 1984, with the upstart University of Miami Hurricane’s shocking upset of the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Orange Bowl, virtually every year has seen at least one of the state’s Big Three (UM, Florida and Florida State) contend for the ultimate title. Nine of those years culminated with the championship trophy elevated by Florida athletes (UM won five championships, UF three and FSU one).
Things changed this past season, however. For the first time in recent memory, none of the state’s Big Three exhibited championship caliber play. UM and UF both attained disappointing 7-5 records, while FSU, which for the first time since 1999 defeated both state rivals, came closest to qualifying for a BCS game, losing this past weekend to Virginia Tech 44-33 in the ACC Championship game and finishing the regular season with a record of 9-4.
Questions abound about the future of these three programs. With the resignation of UF coach Urban Meyer yesterday (citing family reasons) following on the heels of UM’s dismissal of coach Randy Shannon two weeks ago, the longest current tenure of any Big Three coach is that of FSU’s Jimbo Fisher, who has been at the helm for all of one year.
The seemingly lengthy and successful reigns of Steve Spurrier and Meyer at UF, Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson at UM and, most notably, Bobby Bowden at FSU, are now merely memories (in the case of UM distant memories). Bowden stepped down at the end of the 2009 season, after thirty-four years as coach of the Seminoles. For a period of fourteen years, from 1987 through 2000, Bowden’s teams dominated, attaining a record 152-19-1, and winning no fewer than ten games in any season (the fact that Bowden’s teams won only one championship over that period is a testament to his refusal to remove UM from his schedule; several of those years, the only obstacle in FSU’s road to a championship was an untimely loss to the Hurricanes). Bowden was forced to resign when his team faltered over the following decade, and relinquished coaching duties to his long-time assistant, Fisher. While Fisher’s first year as coach saw his team qualify for the ACC Championship game by winning the ACC West title, it remains to be seen whether he will ever approach the level of success attained by Bowden.
Meyer’s resignation at UF, while lamented, is neither surprising (Meyer briefly resigned last year due to health reasons, but reconsidered) nor fatal to what has been one of the most successful college programs of the new millennium. Spurrier and Meyer have elevated the UF program to an elite level, and the school will have no problems enticing a high profile coach or recruiting the type of players that will keep the Gators near the top of the rankings.
UM, on the other hand, must contend with a decade of less-than-stellar play, and the perception that the program has dropped a notch from its glory days. After engaging in a very public pursuit of former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, the school was spurned by Gruden, who elected to remain at his present position with ESPN, where he is a commentator on Monday Night Football. With Meyer’s resignation, UM must now compete with UF for some of the coaches on its list – a competition that favors UF because of its recent successes and enhanced national reputation.
Only time will tell how quickly the Big Three will be able to restock their teams and once again contend for the ultimate prize. Until then, college football fans will have to settle for less glitzy championship game matchups such as this year’s between Ducks from Oregon and the other school from Alabama.