GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The text message from Gators coach Will Muschamp arrives as a daily reminder.
Each player gets the same missive.
The one Wednesday reminded them they have 92 days until they report to fall camp. Muschamp will send the same note Thursday, subtracting a day.
Once he reminds them of how long they have until practice starts, he asks a single question.
“Are you better?”
The Gators proved they were last season, going from 7-6 in Muschamp’s first season to 11-2 and a berth in the Sugar Bowl.
With spring practice and exit interviews with players in his rearview mirror, Muschamp has turned his focus to Year 3. For now, the team is primarily in the hands of strength and conditioning coordinator Jeff Dillman and his staff.
For the next month much of Muschamp’s time will be spent speaking to boosters and fans around the state as part of his annual spring speaking tour.
He kicked off the tour Wednesday night a short drive from his office at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, speaking to approximately 300 members of the Titletown Gator Club at the Hilton across 34th Street from campus.
Muschamp was in good spirits. He was relaxed and cracked several jokes during his time at the podium, looking like a man confident that his master plan leading one of college football’s marquee programs is coming to fruition.
When a female fan took the microphone and asked for a special request, Muschamp delivered, leading a rendition of “We Are the Old Boys of Florida” while draped by a pair of cheerleaders and the crowd on its feet.
Muschamp’s message to those in attendance was that better days are ahead in Florida’s quest for its first SEC championship since 2008.
“We’re an ascending program,” he said. “We’re certainly on much more solid ground than we were two years ago. I’m real proud of where our football team is right now.”
Muschamp is confident that junior quarterback Jeff Driskel is the right guy to lead them to greater success.
“We would not have won 11 football games last year if Jeff Driskel had not been our quarterback,” he said. “I do know that.”
He views sophomore Matt Jones as a player on the “verge of being a big-time back in the Southeastern Conference.”
Muschamp is confident that D.J. Durkin is the right guy in charge of the defense. He praised new assistants Joker Phillips, Brad Lawing and Jeff Choate for the way they have fit in.
Muschamp expects the offensive line to be stronger and while there are question marks defensively, he said he has no concerns about the unit’s talent level.
As he said all spring, the Gators need to get better at receiver but the talent is deeper at the position than in his first two seasons. He also praised offensive coordinator Brent Pease for “putting his ego on the shelf” last season and scaling down his playbook to fit the Gators’ personnel.
In his first speaking engagement of the spring, it’s obvious Muschamp is more comfortable with his team and in his role as the face of the program.
He was reminded of the program’s rise when eight Gators were selected in last week’s NFL Draft and six more signed free-agent contracts.
“This is a four-prong process. It’s evaluation, it’s recruiting, it’s development, and it’s coaching,” he said. “Over the last two years I think Gator Nation has seen that our staff recruits extremely well and evaluates extremely well. As I’ve said, we inherited a talented, young team when we got here, and we’ve done a really good job of developing and coaching those players.”
Muschamp is headed to Atlanta on Thursday morning for the official announcement of the SEC Network, scheduled to launch in 2014. He will then fly back to Florida for a speaking engagement Thursday night in Tampa.
He’ll touch on many of the same subjects he did here on Wednesday and then take questions from fans.
Two years ago when Muschamp first went on his spring speaking tour, it was his official introduction to Gator Nation after years away from his time growing up in Gainesville. A year ago the message focused primarily on what the Gators needed to do to get better and return to relevance nationally.
They did that last season by climbing all the way to No. 2 in the national polls at one point before capping the season with a disappointing loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
Meanwhile, Muschamp will continue to send out those text messages for the next three months. But perhaps more than the past two years, the players know exactly what to expect.
“Exit interviews went very well,” Muschamp said. “Everybody has a real clear understanding whether it’s from the football standpoint, academic or strength standpoint where they are.”
They all know there is work to do if Florida is to return to the top of the SEC and compete for a national title.
So does Muschamp.
“I understand the mountain we were climbing our first year and we’re still climbing that mountain,” he said. “We’ve certainly gotten to some better footing as far as climbing the mountain right now.
“We still have a lot of treacherous steps in front of us. I’m going to control the things I can control, that’s our football team.”
Muschamp quipped that he still gets occasional emails from fans telling him how to do his job better.
“Most of them will do it in an email with a fake name, ‘Gator Dave’. That’s fine,” he said. “The fans for me have been very, very positive.”
He said getting out to meet fans during the spring is an important part of his job. He appreciates their support, especially during these economically difficult times and after a difficult first season.
The support appeared mutual Wednesday as fans waited in line to get an autograph and meet the head coach.
When Muschamp finished singing “We Are the Boys of Old Florida” and the crowd sat back down, he offered a reminder of how far the program has come in his short time in charge.
“Now, through all kinds of weather, we all stick together — some of y’all didn’t hang with that the first year,” he said. “Shame on you. I know, I know, I’m kidding. Everybody’s great, actually.”