NEW ORLEANS -- In the final news conference before Wednesday nights Sugar Bowl, Florida coach Will Muschamp was asked a question that insinuated his team would be taking Louisville lightly simply because its a Big East opponent and considered inferior.
I think thats hogwash, Muschamp said. Every game is important. As a competitor, I dont care what youre doing, want to go play in the parking lot, its important. With the University of Florida, theres a lot of pressure in every game. Were expecting to win them all.
That mentality sums up Muschamp and the No. 4 Gators (11-1), who enter the Sugar Bowl as a near two-touchdown favorite over the No. 22 Cardinals (10-2). Florida is just one year removed from a 7-6 season that left lingering doubts about whether or not Muschamp was the man for the job. But here they are, back in a BCS game for the seventh time in school history, and his players said they attribute their success and quick turnaround directly to Muschamp and how he runs the team.
Fifth-year offensive lineman James Wilson has been around the program since 2007. He listened as former coach Urban Meyer announced his departure just before Florida left for this same bowl and New Orleans in 2009 only to backtrack and return. He watched the news as Meyer then departed once more, this time for good. And although both Meyer and Muschamp quickly elevated the Gators into national contenders, Wilson said he immediately noticed one distinct difference between the two coaches.
I just knew that [Muschamp] didnt pick favorites ever, Wilson said. Thats different from coaches that have been here. Hes really just a show-me guy. Show me what youve got. If you perform and go hard every day, he respects that. Thats what really made this thing a team effort.
Wilson and several of his teammates said Muschamps consistency in his attitude and approach week in and week out regardless of wins, losses or circumstance has been paramount in their development. The long-used and perhaps cliché statement that teams adopt the mentality of their coaches certainly seems to ring true in Floridas case.
When I first got to Florida, [I told the players] they needed to take ownership of the football team, Muschamp said. I dont know that we did that in our first year. The accountability and the responsibility that this is your team, its not mine. But I certainly think this year we have taken some ownership within the team. Weve handled a lot of the discipline within the locker room. A lot of those things when you have those things you start to have some special things happening with your football team. And I think [Louisville coach] Charlie [Strong] would say the same thing because I think he and I have a lot of the same personality.
To the degree that Muschamp has impacted the Gators return to expected heights, the same could be said for Strong elevating his team to new ones.
Strong and Muschamp share the same blue-collar, team-first mentality, and its serendipitous that they would be pitted against each other in Wednesdays game. Strongs first coaching job was at Florida, as a graduate assistant in 1983, and he made multiple return trips, including a stint as defensive coordinator/assistant head coach from 2002 to 2009.
Strong recruited a large portion of the players on Floridas roster who have helped turn the program around, and he said that seeing them on the field Wednesday and hearing the band play the fight songs he spent many formative years singing will be a sentimental moment.
And it is his team. Although he had to wait more than two decades for a shot at being the guy, Strong was a hot name for job openings this postseason, garnering interest from several SEC schools. But he chose to stay, to continue what he started.
Despite all the story lines, the importance of this game hasnt been lost by either coach or team. Muschamps Gators would likely earn a top-five preseason ranking with a win, something that affected their chance to play for a national title this season despite having the countrys best résumé. And Strong and Louisville just want to keep climbing.