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Gators great Mike Peterson back at Florida: ‘This is home’

A piece of advice Peterson heard six years ago was prophetic, leading to the national champion’s homecoming.
Florida Gators outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson is enjoying being back "home" in Gainesville.
Florida Gators outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson is enjoying being back "home" in Gainesville. [ MATT BAKER | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Mar. 30|Updated Mar. 31

GAINESVILLE — Former Gators star Mike Peterson wasn’t happy with the way his first stint on Florida’s staff ended.

He wanted a bigger role beyond strength and conditioning. He wanted more time around the program where he won a national title.

But as Peterson was preparing to leave for South Carolina in early 2016, he heard a piece of advice that still resonates: Sometimes you’ve got to leave home to come back home.

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“I didn’t know what that meant at the time,” Peterson said.

He does now. Peterson is back where he wants to be — back where he belongs — in blue and orange, midway through his first spring as UF’s outside linebackers coach and alumni liaison.

“This,” Peterson said, “is home.”

Mike Peterson helped the Gators win the 1996 national title.
Mike Peterson helped the Gators win the 1996 national title. [ Times (1997) ]

Of the dozens of moves coach Billy Napier has made as he builds an army of staffers, none fit as well as Peterson. He knows the position. He was an all-SEC linebacker who recorded almost 900 career solo tackles across 14 NFL seasons with the Colts, Jaguars and Falcons.

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In some ways, Peterson’s coaching career began in the league, when he had to practice calling out plays during meetings under Mike Smith (who later spent two-plus seasons as the Bucs’ defensive coordinator). Then he started presenting the defense for the week and tutoring younger players as his playing career neared its end.

Mike Peterson's NFL career included four years with the Falcons and this breakup of a Bucs pass.
Mike Peterson's NFL career included four years with the Falcons and this breakup of a Bucs pass. [ Times (2010) ]

Peterson knows how to coach in the SEC. In six years as a position coach at South Carolina, he groomed Kingsley Enagbare into an all-conference edge rusher and helped three others get drafted.

And he knows the program. Peterson was a part of the Gators’ 1996 national championship team under Steve Spurrier, served as a captain two years later and was inducted into UF athletics’ hall of fame in 2011.

“Everyone in his profession knows and respects Mike for his ability to get his players to play well and the relationships he has with his players,” Napier said. “He’s a great teammate, and he’s invaluable because of his knowledge of this place and the things that come with the University of Florida.”

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Peterson’s players have at least a passing reference of his history at UF. That was apparent recently when a player spotted a photo on the wall and did a double-take.

Coach, that’s you? the player asked.

Yeah, Peterson replied. Sometime that used to be me.

Mike Peterson starred as a Florida linebacker and is a member of the Gators' hall of fame.
Mike Peterson starred as a Florida linebacker and is a member of the Gators' hall of fame. [ Times (1997) ]

“I could care less if they know who the player Mike Peterson was as long as they know who the coach is,” Peterson said.

Mike Peterson the coach is demanding. He knows the standard around UF and holds players to it with everything, including effort.

Brenton Cox admitted to coasting during some plays last season. Peterson isn’t allowing it.

“He’s been preaching to me that if you’re not at the TV box by the time the play is over then it’s a loaf, you’re not running to the ball,” Cox said. “That’s helped me turn the other way and get going when I’m done with my rush.”

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If any Gators doubt the lesson, one clip they know well should convince them.

In the final minute of the first half against Florida, one of Peterson’s South Carolina players, Aaron Sterling, hustled from the backside of the play to chase down a scrambling Emory Jones. Sterling stripped the ball, leading to a scoop-and-score Gamecocks touchdown that deflated the Gators. Their 40-17 loss spurred immediate changes to UF’s staff and marked the point of no return for Dan Mullen.

The loss to South Carolina was one of the worst of Dan Mullen's Florida tenure.
The loss to South Carolina was one of the worst of Dan Mullen's Florida tenure. [ SEAN RAYFORD | AP (2021) ]

Peterson, then, had a role in the ripple effect that led to his return. Which means the advice he heard a half-dozen years ago was right after all.

He had to leave home to come back home.

• • •

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