Florida interim coach Charlie Strong was walking down the long hallway under the Georgia Dome on Friday night when defensive end Steven Harris gave him a bear hug and pat on the head.
Gator fans across the country could use a hug right now.
For the third consecutive time, Florida's season ended with a thud. The Gators haven't won a bowl game since 56-23 over Maryland in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, 2002. But after the 27-10 loss to Miami in the Peach Bowl, Strong said the team has nothing to be ashamed of.
"Last year, I would say we were embarrassed because I don't think we played well," Strong said of the 37-17 loss to Iowa. "We didn't look good with the penalties and the mistakes, but it's not like we were totally embarrassed. The first half, I thought, we played well defensively. But I didn't think that our kids gave up."
Strong said he refuses to make excuses but believes the ups and downs of the season finally took their toll.
Now the Gators look ahead.
A new era and incoming coach Urban Meyer arrive Tuesday.
"Definitely there's a lot to look forward to," center Mike Degory said. "We understand that we have a lot of talent, and we understand that we finished the season real strong besides this game. There's a lot to keep your head up about. Obviously, losing to a rival in a big bowl game and really not playing up to your potential really puts a damper on it."
Most players agreed there's work to be done to move the Gators, who won their final three regular-season games and finished 7-5, back to elite status. But how much and how quickly it can be accomplished remain to be seen.
"I don't think there's a long way to go, but we've still got a lot of things we need to work on," receiver Jemalle Cornelius said. "I think this offseason will be interesting. A lot of guys will be motivated. A lot of guys will be excited for the new coaching staff. So we want to take this season as something to learn and grow from and try to prepare for next year. It's embarrassing the way we lost. Coach Meyer has got the job. Now it's up to him to try to get us going in the right direction."
STILL THEIRS: Miami coach Larry Cokerjokingly said Thursday that the State Cup would remain in his office in South Florida. He was right.
With a regular-season win over Florida State and a win over the Gators, Miami (9-3) is considered the state's best team. Coker has not lost to the Gators or Seminoles since taking over in 2001.
Yet it's still not good enough for a storied program such as Miami.
"I don't characterize it as a bad season, but we expected better," Coker said. "At Miami, a BCS game is the expectation. But we've had a very good season, and I'm proud of it."
NOT SO SPECIAL: With the departure of coach Ron Zook, the Gators' special teams were in disarray. Miami returned a punt and blocked field goal for touchdowns in the first half, and Matt Leach missed a 41-yard field goal. Although defensive line coach Jerry "Red" Anderson took over the special teams, it was primarily done by committee.
"Jerry was trying to get them up," Strong said. "But it really did hurt us not having (Zook)."
LATE ARRIVAL: Miami native and senior right tackle Jonathan Colon missed the first half with a virus and struggled afterward.
"It was pretty crazy because all week long I busted my butt. I just woke up (Friday), and I was throwing up all day. I had to have IV medication," he said. "I didn't feel ready to go. I was too groggy and drowsy.
"But when they came back in at halftime and told me the score, I just couldn't take it. I had to try to do something to get out there and help the team out. But it was a little bit too late."
CROWDER'S STATUS: Florida linebacker Channing Crowder, eligible because he sat out the season after graduating from high school, said he expects to hear from the NFL on his draft status early this week and will enroll in spring classes just in case.
"I don't want to miss out on anything if I do stay," he said.
Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Kenny Parker is pondering a return. Parker played two plays in 2001, missed the 2002 season after major back surgery and continues to play in pain. Parker was granted a sixth season and said he'll talk with his family then make a decision.
_ ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times staff writer