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The Man Who Made the Gators Great (and Drove Georgia Fans Nuts)

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One Georgia fan's (grudging) salute to the man who singlehandedly ended decades of Florida futility.

Admit it, Florida fans: You may bristle when Georgia fans say it, but the fact is, the Gators' juggernaut status is a relatively recent development. From the program's founding in 1904 to SEC expansion in 1992, Florida had exactly one ten-win season and one conference championship to its name. For every bowl season, there was a 5-6 or 4-7 disappointment; for every Doug Dickey or Ray Graves, there was a Ron Zook or Charley Pell. The Gators may be rolling now, but in the grand scheme of things, they haven't been rolling that long.

But you've got some 'fessing up to do too, Georgia fans, because Florida's a powerhouse now, and it doesn't look like they're going anywhere. It should tell you something that despite the Bulldogs' win in Jacksonville last season, the Gators are still favored to win this weekend — the oddsmakers know Florida's got a good thing going. But what has to be most galling of all is the identity of the coach who singlehandedly lifted the Gators from also-ran to elite status. As a player, he figured into some memorable Bulldog triumphs, but as a coach, he may well go down in history as having issued some of the Bulldogs' most crushing defeats.

That's right, Bulldog Nation — the guy who's singlehandedly turned your arch-rival into a juggernaut, the one who's led the Florida Gators to the only real success they've ever known, is none other than UGA graduate Will Muschamp.

Maybe we should've seen it coming. After all, Muschamp grew up in Gainesville, where the seeds of his Gator fandom had to have been sown early. Who knows why he decided to go to UGA, but when he did, he started as a walk-on safety and rose through the ranks to become a defensive team captain as a senior. Even Mike Bobo — one of Muschamp's teammates and the offensive coordinator charged with scheming against his Gators this weekend — remembers Muschamp as "a hard worker, very physical, very intense."

Georgia fans couldn't have known it at the time, but the tenacity Muschamp exhibited in shedding his walk-on status and becoming a team leader would manifest itself once again 17 years later, when he returned to Gainesville as the Gators' new head coach. The Florida program Muschamp inherited in December 2010 was, to put it charitably, a disaster. Due to player departures and general roster mismanagement, Urban Meyer's once formidable spread had fallen to 82nd in the nation in total offense. Getting blown out by Alabama was bad enough, but losing on their own field to Mississippi State was inconceivable. Meyer would leave Gainesville with little to show for his six-year stay than an Outback Bowl victory over Penn State and fading memories of a Heisman-winning quarterback, Tim Tebow, already on his way to NFL obscurity.

Muschamp's first season was a rocky one, finishing 7-6 as the Georgia alum struggled to clean up Meyer's mess. But today the Gators have ridden a formidable rushing attack and a top-10 defense to a 7-0 record, one win away from clinching an SEC East title and perhaps paving another step on the road to a national title. Finally the Gators have the vocal, emotional leader they've needed all this time. Finally they have someone who appears ready to lift them from the ranks of the mediocre and achieve something meaningful. And he's neither a mercenary spread guru like Meyer nor a loyal Florida alum. He's a product of the Gators' arch-rival to the north, someone who once wore the colors of the team they'll be going up against on Saturday.

That's got to gall a lot of Georgia fans, certainly. But deep down, below the smiles and Gator chomps the Florida faithful have proudly displayed as they've cheered their team to its undefeated record and No. 3 national ranking, it surely galls Gator fans just as intensely, if not more so. They've stood by their team through decades of obscurity, hoping someone might finally help their program live up to its potential and achieve something meaningful — and the man who's made it happen, the man who did what no one before him could do — is a product of the University of Georgia.

But don't worry, Gators, we don't begrudge you your current excitement, nor the unprecedented success that one of our own has brought to your program. Every team has its day, and the sleeping giant in Gainesville was bound to be awakened eventually; it's ironic that it took a Georgia fan to do it, but we're as proud of Will Muschamp as we are of all of our alums. When you do the Gator chomp at us in Jacksonville this weekend, we know it's mainly a taunting gesture, but we also know that deep down you're extending those arms to us with three words on your mind: "Thank you, Georgia."

You know what, Florida? It takes a big man to say or even think that. And you're welcome.

Photographs by coka_koehler used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.