GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida hasn’t won three consecutive games since Marco Wilson's infamous shoe toss.
The Gators have been on a roller coaster of sorts since that foggy night in the Swamp in December 2020. Win one, lose one. Win two, lose three. Up and down with no noticeable progress or sustained momentum.
It’s been a head-scratching, stomach-churning three years for a fan base accustomed to winning and competing for championships. Coach Billy Napier might be on the verge of providing some relief.
Coming off a 29-16 upset of then-No. 11 Tennessee, the now-25th-ranked Gators (2-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) hope to handle success better than they have in recent years. For Napier, it’s as simple as keeping his players on edge as they prepare for Charlotte (1-2) and a potential three-game winning streak Saturday night.
“When you get beat and you go to the locker room and you’re on the bus after the game, you got zero text messages, right?” Napier said. “When you win and you play on national TV, you’ve got 268 text messages.
“All of a sudden, everywhere you go, somebody wants to compliment you rather than looking at the ground, kind of going the other way. That’s what I’m getting at here.”
Napier has experience keeping teams grounded, relying on principle-centered leadership that he explains as “trying not to compromise your approach relative to the outcome.” It helped Napier turn Louisiana-Lafayette into a Sun Belt Conference power between 2019 and 2021.
Can he do the same in Gainesville?
Stacking wins would be a start. Florida lost 18 of 30 games between Wilson’s cleat throw against LSU and a season-opening loss at then-No. 14 Utah on Aug. 31. Stunning Tennessee in front of a raucous home crowd could prove to be the turning point — for the program and for Napier.
Napier had made it clear that last year’s team “couldn’t handle momentum.” The Gators beat then-No. 7 Utah to open the season, soared from unranked to No. 12 and responded by losing at home to No. 20 Kentucky. They won at Texas A&M and hammered South Carolina in back-to-back weeks in November, then lost at Vanderbilt for the first time since 1988.
“Reality is that you don’t accomplish anything significant by staying in your comfort zone,” Napier said. “I think we were uncomfortable for two weeks (after losing to Utah). We were frustrated. We were angry. We were embarrassed. That allowed us to have an edge and certainly affected the way we prepared for Tennessee and helped us play the way we played.
“It’s important that we keep that. We have discipline. Discipline ultimately is making yourself do things that you don’t want to do. Our consistency is going to be key.”
It starts against Charlotte, which precedes three straight league games against Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Win all four and Florida would set itself up for an Eastern Conference showdown against two-time defending national champion Georgia in Jacksonville.
Of course, Napier won’t let his team look that far ahead. And for good reason.
“Last season, when we got a bit of success, I feel like it kind of blew our heads up a little bit,” cornerback Devin Moore said. “This year, we’re putting more emphasis on the approach of ‘OK, that happened Saturday. Sunday (is a) new week. Let’s get to it.’”
Added guard Richie Leonard: “Another point of emphasis was don’t let this carry over, don’t linger on this Tennessee win too long.”
Napier had 268 texts when he checked his phone after the victory. He wanted to delete them all, but he ended up going through them “as fast as possible.”
“It’s magnified here,” he said. “They want to tell you all about it when it’s bad and they want to tell you all about it when it’s good.
"I think it’s important that we have something that we can stand on independent of that, a process and a system, and we can eliminate the external and say, ‘Hey, am I doing the best I can for the team today?’”