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College Football: Will Muschamp’s Three-Fingered Salute

The Florida Gators’ embattled coach finally beats Georgia, but is it enough to save his job?

Will Muschamp celebrates with his team on the field after an NCAA college football game in Jacksonville, Florida on Nov. 1st, 2014.

Will Muschamp celebrates after the Gators defeated the Georgia Bulldogs on Nov. 1st, 2014.

Stephen B. Morton/AP

Shortly after Will Muschamp placed his career into the hands of a Publix bag boy, he did something that seemed to sum up his baffling tenure as Florida’s football coach: He held up three fingers.

I’m sure that, in Muschamp’s mind, there is an inherent logic to this gesture. I’m sure that, while most coaches would hold up either one finger to signal an extra point after a touchdown or two fingers to call for a two-point conversion, Muschamp has some valid reason for choosing to throw up three. Maybe it’s as simple as Muschamp figuring he’d bridge the vexing gap of understanding between extra points and field goals; maybe he got so excited about the success of his fake field-goal call that led to the touchdown that he momentarily lost control of his digits. Maybe he was either taunting or expressing sympathy for the plight of Todd Gurley; maybe he was gesturing toward the illuminati, or the Van Buren Boys.

I will admit I have no idea what Muschamp’s thought process is. But then, I’m not sure there’s anyone left on earth that understands Will Muschamp’s thought process anymore. Even the majority of Florida fans seem to have pegged him as a bafflingly slow-witted creature from another planet. At some level, this perception is probably unfair to Muschamp, who had a solid reputation as Texas’s coach-in-waiting before he defected to Gainesville, and who just happens to resemble the sort of oafish football coach you might cast in a movie about reckless partying teenagers. But part of it is because Muschamp has dragged a program that’s been known, at its best, for innovative and risk-taking offenses to an unprecedented level of lethargy.

On Saturday, the Gators limped into a rivalry game against Georgia with a 3-3 record (one of those wins was a 10-9 grind against Tennessee; one was a 36-30 triple-overtime thriller against traditional SEC doormat Kentucky; the third was over Eastern Michigan). Two weeks earlier, they’d gotten throttled 42-13 by a not-particularly-great Missouri team, despite giving up only 119 yards in total offense. No other coach in the previous decade has lost a game giving up that few yards; Muschamp has done it twice, which is why it seemed likely the Georgia game was Muschamp’s last hope for receiving a temporary occupational reprieve. His teams the past two seasons have not just been bad on offense – they’ve been the sort of dreadful that makes you want to hurl construction materials at your flat-screen. 

Florida Gators wide receiver Michael McNeely (31) runs the ball into the end zone for a touchdown on a fake field goal

So what happened on Saturday? Well, it was probably just a blip on the EKG. In throttling the Bulldogs 38-20, the Gators ran for 418 yards on 60 carries. That fake field goal turned the game around, and gave them momentum, and for once it didn’t matter that Florida quarterback Treon Harris threw a total of six passes, because at least for an afternoon, the blunderous monster that Muschamp had been trying to defibrillate back to life for the past couple of seasons briefly blinked its eyes and sat up on the table. It was effective football, even if it was something that stood at the polar opposite of what might be called “enjoyable football.”

Afterward, Muschamp mimed removing a primate from his back, largely because the media had spent much of the previous week pointing out that he had never been on the winning end of this game, either as a player at Georgia or as a coach at Florida. This, too, was unfair to Muschamp, given that his coach at Georgia was Ray Goff, a bumbling failure that Steve Spurrier used to taunt like a nearsighted schoolchild. But then, I suppose Muschamp, by virtue of going 4-8 last season and 8-11 the past two seasons (including a demeaning loss to Georgia Southern in 2013), kind of engendered this sort of confirmation bias about his abilities.

Saturday was a good day for Muschamp – he even earned some empathy by evoking the memory of his recently deceased dad – but I still can’t imagine he’ll have many more at Florida. He’s too far gone by now. Everything he does is viewed as a gaffe in the making. This is a clan that was spoiled by the Fun ‘n’ Gun of Spurrier and the offbeat brilliance of Urban Meyer; even the failure that came between was spectacularly weird. Muschamp isn’t really any of the above. His teams play pretty good defense, and frustratingly inept offense, and that’s the kind of formula that might have gotten you by in 1968, but now it feels like watching an octogenarian attempt to board a bus.

And maybe that’s not an entirely fair characterization, either, given that Muschamp won 11 games and went to the Sugar Bowl in his second season as the Gators’ coach. But the problem is that there’s really no sense of momentum or intrigue or excitement at Florida. There is nothing to sell the Gators (to recruits, to fans, to the national public at large) as a rising stock in the suddenly wide-open SEC East. There is only a sense that Florida is waiting for the next big thing, and that they’ve long since determined that Muschamp is not that thing.

Somewhere, I have to imagine, a man with his own inherent and perhaps unorthodox logic about college football is on the verge of coaching the Florida Gators next season. It’s just not the guy throwing up those fingers.

Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb

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