TALLAHASSEE — James Wilson and D.J. Humphries stalked up and down UF’s sideline, preparing the Gatorade cooler for celebration as the final seconds ticked off the clock on Saturday in Tallahassee.
In a scene usually reserved for championships, the two offensive linemen waited for a window of opportunity to give coach Will Muschamp his celebratory bath.
With 15 second remaining, Wilson and Humphries finally found their opening, splashing Muschamp square in the back with the cooler of purple. Florida’s coach let out a few claps, a double fist-pump and a smile — a much-deserved celebration befitting a national title.
“That was the most excited we’ve been in a while,” center Jonotthan Harrison said. “We’ve worked so hard to get what we’ve earned. I’m proud of the team.”
Later that night, Notre Dame beat USC 22-13 to ensure that UF won’t play for the BCS championship. The Gators aren’t even going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. But this is a team of champions.
After a year of slow starts and near disasters, Florida looked like a championship program on Saturday. The Gators locked down the fifth 11-win regular season in school history with their best performance of 2012 in a 37-26 win against rival Florida State.
“That was a culmination of our football season,” Muschamp said. “That football team showed you their resolve and their fight and their oneness and their togetherness, and I’m very proud to be a part of them.”
Regardless of what happens in the Sugar Bowl, UF’s season is already a massive success.
A team that entered the year with a soft reputation and a fringe top-25 ranking is now solidly No. 5 in the nation.
“We’ve had a fantastic year,” Muschamp said. “We have made tremendous progress.”
The Gators got there by taking on Muschamp’s hard-nosed personality and philosophy.
Florida won the turnover battle, showed resiliency by taking control in the fourth quarter, pounded the ball in the running game and played tough, physical football.
“It’s a full buy-in, from administration all the way down,” Muschamp said.
Part of that process is always pushing for more.
Muschamp insisted after the game that he still wasn’t satisfied, regardless of the accomplishments of one of the most overachieving teams in the nation and in school history.
“We haven’t won a championship,” Muschamp said. “Until you win a championship, I have a hard time saying we’ve arrived and we’re back at all.”
But the time for championships will come. Muschamp and Florida have laid a foundation on which greatness can be built.
Doing so required a major rebuilding process. Two years ago, coach Urban Meyer said Florida was broken. Last season, Muschamp called the Gators soft. Those memories propelled UF’s players to right the ship.
“We had a lot of hurt in our heart,” wideout Quinton Dunbar said.
Dominique Easley said earlier this season that he watched the defensive tape from last season’s losses on loop.
“[Florida State] had to feel the same pain that we felt,” Easley said.
Easley and the Gators inflicted that pain, purging their own in the process. The final bad memory has been flushed out. Florida is ready to move forward.
No one will remember how UF played down to its competition in wins against Bowling Green, Missouri, Louisiana and Jacksonville State.
Instead, the lasting image will be Muschamp soaked in purple with his arms raised above his head in celebration on the sidelines of Doak Campbell Stadium — the image of Florida getting back on top.
Contact Greg Luca at [email protected].