Will the state of Florida rise again?
College football in Florida was about swagger. About bravado. About Danny and Tim. About the U and Prime Time, about Bobby and Steve and Howard and Jimmy. About ridiculous speed. About NFL talent.
About every single program in this country being forced to change, just to keep up with the teams set on warp speed at Miami, Florida and Florida State.
But do you know who is changing now? The three revolutionaries. Or former revolutionaries. Rather than leading the pack, Miami, Florida and Florida State are collectively playing catch-up -- not just to everybody else, but to the former versions of themselves.
Mediocrity has replaced excellence. Last season, Florida State was the only one of the Big Three to finish in the final AP Top 25, at No. 23. A 28-year streak of having at least one team from Florida ranked in the Top 25 was snapped during the regular season. The next-best team in the state, record-wise? FIU.
For a more stark illustration, look at the NFL draft, generally an affirmation of all the incredible talent these three programs have historically developed. There are no players from Miami, Florida or Florida State projected to go in the first round in the latest mock draft from Mel Kiper. The last time the draft was devoid of any first-round talent from at least one of the three? 1980.
What has happened? Coaching instability, recruiting misses and a changed landscape have impacted all three programs. But perhaps most of all, an unprecedented run of success has set the bar so high, our expectations for the three have become unrealistic. No other state has seen the collective rise Florida saw in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.
The truth is, we may never see that collective success ever again. College football is too different, and programs are more prone toward down cycles today than ever before. Scrutiny has grown exponentially. Coaches do not stick around as long as they used to. Neither do assistants. Finding a program with stability is as rare as the Hope diamond.
"I don't know," Miami coach Al Golden says when asked the feasibility of the Big Three dominating again. "There's so much parity in college football now. There was a time when someone would come and be the fourth or fifth running back at Miami as opposed to going to a school where they could start immediately.
"With everybody being on TV now, and the success not only of nontraditional powers but non-BCS teams, those guys go and find a home somewhere else. So clearly there are teams right now that are doing well and doing it annually. We're just trying to get our program back to doing that."
Miami assistant Art Kehoe tells a tale, one that could be either urban legend or the truth.
"I heard a story," Kehoe says. "When Bear Bryant was at Alabama, he used to come here for the Orange Bowl; he loved Miami and he saw how it was growing and he stated way back in the '60s when [Howard] Schnellenberger was an assistant and they had Joe Namath and those guys, he was saying back then there's going to be powerhouses in this state."
Kehoe played under Schnellenberger and coached for Schnellenberger, so it may as well have been Schnellenberger telling that story. Schnellenberger began the Miami dynasty, and soon Florida State and Florida joined. Remember, none of these schools had much championship tradition or history before 1980. But they had visionary coaches and a growing recruiting base that is now one of the best in the nation at producing talent.
That talent grew as the population in Florida grew. In 1960, five million people lived in the state. That number mushroomed to 15 million in 2000. The influx meant more kids playing the designated state sport year round. That meant getting better high school programs, which meant getting better high school coaches. Kehoe has always recruited the west coast of Florida. When he began as an assistant in 1982, he had 31 schools assigned to him. In 2005, he had 53 -- in the same area.
All that talent naturally ended up at Miami, Florida and Florida State, before other programs clued in and started building their own pipelines. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a major program, and even many smaller programs, without a player from the state.
Talent only gets you so far, of course. A huge part of the schools' success was the coaches. Bobby Bowden was entrenched at Florida State. Steve Spurrier arrived at Florida in 1990 and stayed 12 seasons, transforming the Gators and the SEC after a rise under Charley Pell in the early 1980s was dashed because of NCAA violations. Miami had coaching turnover, but the Hurricanes had fine coaches in Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson. They were smart enough to keep the systems that worked in place, while earmarking their recruiting territory in the state.
Looking at what Bowden and Spurrier did in their time at their respective schools is more notable today. Only seven coaches in all of the FBS have been with their programs more than 12 years. Five more are going into their 12th season in 2012. To further establish coaching stability, assistants rarely left during that era.
The wins followed. Between 1983 and 2008, the three schools combined for 10 national titles and had a shot at seven others. In a 16-year span between 1990 and 2005, the Big Three finished ranked 13 times. No other state has ever accomplished that feat. Even more impressively, the trio finished in the top 10 four times in that span.
"Consistency in head coaching and staffs," FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said when asked the single-biggest reason the three rose at once. "Miami had the most rotation, but Steve and Bobby were here forever, and their staffs very rarely changed, just a guy or two every blue moon. They got ahead and got that momentum. It's a matter of teams establishing winning and keeping the local players home."
The consistent success stopped at Miami and Florida State first. Florida has slid dramatically, only three seasons removed from winning a national title, because of coaching instability.
Miami is on its third head coach since the 2007 season, and has yet to win an ACC title after claiming five national championships. Florida State started slipping in the final six seasons under Bowden, and has not won the ACC since 2005. Florida dealt with Urban Meyer quitting, then returning, then quitting again. Will Muschamp is its third head coach in the eight years since Spurrier left.
Schemes have changed. Coaches have changed. Assistants have changed. Long gone are the days Kehoe lived through, when he kept his job through five head coaching changes. In today's world, staffs are cleaned out when changes are made at the top, or assistants are lured by bigger money elsewhere. You rarely find an assistant who is retained when a new coach arrives. For that to happen five times would be as likely as Bowden coming out of retirement for one last hurrah.
"The money's changed," Fisher said. "There wasn't any money in coaching back then, so guys didn't have incentive to jump from job to job to job. Now, people are throwing around large amounts of money because of TV. That's allowing schools to pay more, so it's drawing people out."
A lack of talent has hurt as well. Players were either evaluated poorly or not coached up. Miami had the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation in 2008 and has zero rings to show for it. In 2009, Miami's 18-year streak of first-round draft picks came to an end.
Florida, meanwhile, had nine seniors in its 2011 class. Only two players were invited to the NFL combine, tied for the lowest since 1985. No junior has declared for the draft since 2004. No player made the SEC first team on offense or defense for the first time since 1971. The Gators played most of last season with 68 scholarship players.
"Obviously, we're in a little bit of a down cycle as far as our talent level," Muschamp said. "You can watch our last two pro days. The facts are the facts. We can point at whoever we want to point at. At the end of the day, there weren't a bunch of pro scouts at our pro day. So, with that being said, because of our recruiting base, this is a place that you can flip quickly. This is a place you can turn quickly."
Fisher and Golden believe the same. All three programs were ranked in the top 10 of the ESPNU recruiting class rankings in 2012 for the first time in three seasons. But no coach puts any real stock in recruiting rankings.
It's the final rankings at the end of each season that matter. What was once a staple is now a rarity. Florida, Florida State and Miami have not finished ranked together in the final AP Top 25 since 2005. They are now chasing ghosts of themselves.
"If you live in the past, you stay in the past," Fisher said. "You have to make your own history. We talk to our kids about a great tradition. But I'm not interested in that. We're going to respect that, but we're going to make our own tradition. Because kids today, what are you going to do for me? What am I going to do? So we talk about the past history, that it can be done here, but we can make new history."
Florida, Florida State and Miami have enough talent in their backyards to rise again, along with resources and young up-and-coming head coaches. But it is much more uncertain whether they can rise again together.
That's especially true when you consider what has happened while the three programs have dipped. Programs like Alabama, USC, Oklahoma and LSU have cycled back up. The SEC is a radically different league than the one Florida dominated under Spurrier. The East Division has been turned on its side. Once-perennial doormats South Carolina and Vanderbilt are no joke anymore. Neither are six consecutive national titles. (Two of which belong to Florida.)
Miami may face a steeper climb with potential NCAA sanctions looming. The Hurricanes survived sanctions in the 1990s when Butch Davis was head coach, winning their most recent national title in 2001 under Larry Coker. Of the three, national expectations for the Hurricanes are the lowest.
"If we don't win, I will be the most perturbed human being that could ever live," Kehoe said. "I will not be able to live with myself if we don't win. We work hard, we have a heck of a staff. I don't think about anything else but us winning. I know we're going to win. I'm utterly convinced of it."
Some bravado is left in Coral Gables.
Kehoe unpacks a Ziploc bag full of championship rings, relics from a past never fully appreciated.
Not until now.
Andrea Adelson covers the Big East for ESPN.com.
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