Once upon a time football was king in the state of Florida. Pardon the fairytale introduction, but there's no better way to put into context the utter collapse of the national programs at the University of Florida, Florida State and Miami.
Considered as national elite programs at one time, now the Gators, the Seminoles and the Hurricanes are mired in the mediocrity of "also-rans." Three programs used to competing for and winning national championships find themselves as far removed from the BCS this year as finding snow in the Sunshine State.
Analysts agree that in the cyclical world of college football, all three will likely make a return to the top. The talent level of high school players in Florida would support that, but this isn't just about talent.
The fall from the pinnacle of campus gridiron can be traced to three very questionable decisions, one at each program.
At Miami, school president Donna Shalala was faced with a dilemma. The Hurricane football program under Larry Coker was bringing some unwanted national attention to the forefront.
Coker was the winningest coach in the history of the school, having won 80 percent of his games even though the 2006 season was not one of his best. After winning his first 24 games in a row as head coach at Miami, Coker went on to post a 60-15 overall record and captured the 2001 BCS title.
However, the 2006 season was filled with turmoil off the field. There was the highlight-reel on-field brawl against crosstown rival Florida International that eventually forced the cancellation of the series, then the tragic shooting death of defensive tackle Bryan Pata.
On the field, the Hurricanes suffered through a late season four-game losing skid, and barely missed a losing season, escaping with a Thanksgiving night win over Boston College. Shalala was convinced the program needed a complete retooling, firing Coker amid a wide outcry of support for the popular coach.
Since that dreadful decision, Miami's record is a very average 33-28 including 5-5 this season. The once proud and even pompous program is not even considered one of the best in its own conference—the ACC—which is more well-known for its basketball than football.
Just over 300 miles up the Ronald Reagan Turnpike, things are not much better in Gainesville.
The Gators under first-year head coach Will Muschamp find themselves in need of one more win to just be bowl eligible. Florida has back-to-back home games against Furman, a football championship subdivision program, and archrival Florida State.
General consensus is that Florida will get that qualifying win against the Paladins, but all bets are off when the Seminoles roll into the Swamp.
The Gators' issues can be traced back to the decision by Urban Meyer to step aside as head coach. Meyer had guided Florida to the 2006 and 2008 BCS National Championships, had cornered the market on recruiting in the state and had essentially brought the swagger back to the program.
Following the 2009 SEC Championship game, Meyer was admitted to a Gainesville hospital suffering from chest pains and dehydration. He eventually would announce his resignation but later recanted and decided he would take a leave of absence to address health concerns and spend time with his family.
Meyer returned to the sidelines with the Gators for the 2009 season, but other issues were starting to arise in Gainesville. Reports that Meyer and athletic director Jeremy Foley were butting heads over football-related decisions circulated. Foley, who is known as a no-nonsense businessman among athletic circles, is not the most popular figure in Gator Nation.
Enter Will Muschamp.
A fiery assistant coach who had worked for Nick Saban at LSU and Mack Brown at Texas, Muschamp took over the Gator program and has struggled. Florida finished the present season with a 4-4 Southeastern Conference record, only their second non-winning league record since 1988.
The lack of recruiting in Meyer's final years in Gainesville has been mentioned to blame, but there is a very important fact to consider. The Gators signed the consensus No. 1 recruiting class in February 2010, when Meyer was a mere 30 days from walking out the door.
Muschamp's hiring is not the decision that led Florida football down the path of the mediocre. In all actuality, Muschamp is likely to rally the troops and return the Gators to the national elite eventually.
However, the decision Meyer made to step away from Florida, and Foley, has left Florida football twisting in the wind, and not even a factor in the SEC.
When you think Florida State football, you naturally think Bobby Bowden. The legendary coach roamed the sidelines in Tallahassee for 34 years and had only one losing season—his first in 1976. Bowden set a remarkable record with FSU that may never be broken as the Noles won at least 10 games in every season from 1987 to 2000 and a Top 5 ranking in the Associated Press final poll.
Bowden won two national championships at Florida State, 1993 and 1999, and his program was a contender for the title most years.
However, the fatal decision that put the Seminoles behind the eight ball was the one to keep Bowden's son Jeff as offensive coordinator for longer than he likely should have been.
The younger Bowden stepped down as offensive coordinator at FSU following a loss to Wake Forest in 2006, but most believe that was one year too late. The Florida State offense struggled mightily in the 2004 and 2005 seasons, going from being one of the nation's most potent to average.
Yet, father Bowden stuck by his son, and rightfully so, until the pressure became too great calling for change. If Bobby had moved Jeff into a different role on the staff following the 2005 season, there is an excellent chance that the Noles would have rebounded back to the top more quickly.
Jimbo Fisher took over in Tallahassee last season and has made incredible progress in rebuilding the Noles. Florida State was ranked among the top five in the nation prior to an early season tussle with Oklahoma, but a series of injuries and poor play doomed the possible run toward a BCS title.
Florida State is closer than Florida or Miami to returning to the top of the hill in college football. Many believe that the Seminoles are poised to make a run for the championship next season. Plus, FSU has one of the nation's top recruiting classes committed for next year.
Yet, one decision could have changed the complexion on the present situation.
These are lean times in the state of Florida among its three powerhouse programs. One decision in each case turned a national contender into just another ordinary program. The challenge is there for Al Golden in Miami, Muschamp and Fisher. But, decision making must improve at each school, from top to bottom.