In between appearances at booster club gatherings, assembling a coaching staff and traveling back and forth from Austin, Texas, to Gainesville to visit his family, new Florida football coach Will Muschamp spent a significant amount of time this spring getting to know his team. But as he began to learn players' names and life stories he discovered something that disturbed him. Most of them didn't know each other very well. And that, Muschamp thought, cannot be good for building a team.
So he asked strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti to devise a plan designed to build and strengthen team chemistry. The theory, Muschamp reasoned, is that come October and November things are going to get tough, adversity is going to set in. And only strong teams will survive — those who know and can rely on each other.
"When the NCAA did away with athletic dormitories it hurt because generally the class you know is the class you came in with," Muschamp said. "You don't get to know the other guys as well, especially if they are on the other side of the ball. So we tried to create some leadership groups this summer that were made up of teams. It was guys that you would never think would have to interact with each other, or would never have to call and make sure they are at workouts."
The players are giving it high marks.
"We have a program called the fourth-quarter program where (Marotti) just puts us through all types of tough obstacles," junior defensive end Lerentee McCray said. "They wanted us to come together as a team. If we weren't a team, then we would be there all day. So we had to become closer as a team to accomplish that goal."
The result, players said, is a much closer, family-type group of players.
"It's hard to explain, but this is just a real close team," senior receiver Deonte Thompson said. "Everybody is pulling for everybody else. We know now that we can't win, we can't be the team we know we can be, if we aren't close."
Muschamp also changed the setup in the locker rooms and had players' lounges put in where the athletes can gather between meetings and study sessions.
"We took the locker room and we didn't really do it by position or by class," Muschamp said. "We kind of separated it. We put old, young, offense, defense — guys that would never interact with each other unless they had to. And we put their lockers toward each other. We've gone back and put a players' lounge back in the locker room. We built that and we think that's important. … And a lounge upstairs so they've got two different places where they can go and relax."
The bond-building isn't just about players making new friends. Muschamp has told his team that true leaders must be fully invested — on and off the field. Sophomore defensive end/linebacker Ronald Powell now understands that concept much better. He was among that highly touted freshman recruiting class last season that created a rift with older players, which caused discord all last season.
"A lot of times, to be honest, I was the type of guy that I stayed to myself," he said. "If a guy didn't talk to me, I didn't talk to him.
"Now it's like I've got to step in and be a leader. I've got to still be me, but be friendly — 'How's your day going?' — really get to know guys and really get to know what they go through."
Whether the chemistry building and aesthetic changes lead to more victories this season, only time will tell.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her coverage at gators.tampabay.com.