Edward AschoffESPN Staff Writer
Ten years ago today, the Florida Gators were trapped in a nightmare.
Ranked fourth in the country, a team loaded with NFL talent and led by a Heisman Trophy winner and a national-championship-winning coaching staff tried to figure out how an unranked Ole Miss team that already lost to Wake Forest and Vanderbilt came into the Swamp and won.
Three lost fumbles. A blocked extra point. One-for-11 on third down.
“Everything stupid that could happen, happened to us,” Florida co-offensive coordinator/offensive line coach John Hevesy, who was the tight ends coach at the time, recently said of the game. “Everything bad happened.”
Ole Miss’ unthinkable upset was cemented when Tim Tebow, the reigning Heisman winner and a Mack truck in quarterback’s clothing, was stopped on fourth-and-1 at the Ole Miss 32-yard line with 41 seconds left.
A sobbing Tebow had to be consoled before making his way to his postgame news conference, tears still fresh in his eyes and on his cheeks.
But after a few minutes of taking questions, Tebow delivered a 34-second speech that is literally drilled into the side of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium around the corner from his own statue.
I just want to say one thing.
To the fans and everybody in Gator Nation, I’m sorry, extremely sorry.
I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come out of this.
You will never see any player in the entire country play as hard as I will play the rest of the season, and you will never see someone push the rest of the team as hard as I will push everybody the rest of the season, and you will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season.
Tebow made good on “The Promise” and his Gators followed him, as Florida won 10 straight, capturing an SEC championship and national championship.
“It’s unbelievable,” Hevesy said of Florida’s 2008 championship run. “To sit here and ask was [the speech] the reasoning, you don’t know, but you knew what you had on the team, and he motivated everybody within the team — coaches, players, trainers, hell, it didn’t matter. When a kid steps up and does it, you hope everyone’s following.”
Tebow’s speech galvanized the Gators, but coaches from that team are quick to point to Tebow’s leadership — and the leadership of those around him — as what really pushed that Florida team after such a devastating early loss.
“Anytime you’re going to have a great team, you’re going to have great leadership within, not just from the coaches,” said head coach Dan Mullen, who was Florida’s offensive coordinator in 2008. “They showed the type of team we had because that type of speech came from within, not from the top down.
“You saw Tim’s speech living out every day on the practice field and every Saturday.”
Ten years later, that’s what Mullen is looking for again. Not a speech, but a leader to guide what will no doubt be a roller-coaster season in Gainesville.
This time, he has no Tebow … or Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes or Major Wright to take hold of his Florida program.
What Mullen has is a complete rebuild and a search for a stable leadership core. It’s growing, Mullen says, but with a cultural overhaul on his hands, this isn’t an overnight fix.
“I think we have a long way to go in leadership right now,” Mullen recently told reporters. “But I think part of that is a lot of the guys are learning what we expect from them. I think they’re trying to figure things out.”
Naturally, that’s where the quarterback comes in. And at Florida, that’s been an eight-year revolving door.
Eleven quarterbacks have started games for Florida since Tebow’s departure after the 2009 season, going just 62-43, collecting just two divisional titles (the same number Tebow had as a three-year starter) and zero SEC championships (Tebow had one as a starter). Florida failed to average at least 400 yards per game in any season over the past eight years. Tebow-led offenses averaged 453.2 yards in 41 games. Of those 41 games, only 16 saw the Gators dip below 400 yards.
However, Mullen isn’t looking for the next Tebow. He’s looking for his next leader, and he’s feeling more confident about much-maligned redshirt sophomore Feleipe Franks, who enters Saturday’s showdown with No. 23 Mississippi State (6 p.m. ET on ESPN) with 12 starts under his belt and a rough Florida résumé.
In Franks’ 15 career games, he’s thrown for 2,180 yards with 21 touchdowns to 10 interceptions and has a Total QBR of 41.5.
You truly can’t compare the two, but what Mullen wants is to see some of the leadership qualities that made Tebow so endearing to his teammates translate over to Franks.
Often overwhelmed and underprepared last year, Franks is catching on to Mullen’s teachings and evolving as a leader in Year 2 as the Gators’ starter. And what’s helped him is going through last year’s 4-8 debacle and getting to reset with Mullen.
“It’s not easy [being a leader], it’s not easy at all,” Franks said. “It’s one of those things that not a lot of people can do.
“It’s easy to say we’re winning nine or 10 games every year; that’s when it’s easy to have fun and laugh. But when you’re losing, what kind of person are you? To be a leader, you have to be the same and never change for anybody.”
Franks said he lost some confidence during a freshman year in which he had a QBR of 27.6 and threw nine touchdowns to eight interceptions. But Mullen has worked to push last season out of his system and encouraged him to start clean mentally.
Franks, who has become a more vocal leader, said he’s done a better job erasing the bad and making sure his teammates don’t see him get too high or too low through Florida’s 3-1 start.
“Last year things were a lot rougher for us, and [Franks] going through last year definitely helped him excel and take those steps to being a leader, to being a true quarterback, to make him make those drives at the end of the game, to help pull the offense together when we were in rough times,” receiver Josh Hammond said earlier this season.
So far, Franks has thrown for 742 yards with 12 touchdowns to two interceptions in four starts. His touchdown-to-interception ratio is second only to Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (12-0).
Franks’ play has been average at times, but there’s undoubtedly been incremental improvement in Mullen’s offense, and his lack of turnovers and in-game energy with his teammates have helped their confidence in him.
“Feleipe is a great leader,” offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor said earlier this season. “Ever since we got the new coaching staff, he’s stepped up a lot as a vocal leader, and we’ve all rallied around him and just trusting in what he does.”
What Franks won’t do is try to be Tebow. He can’t. That’s not his game and that’s not who he is. Fortunately, the message from his coaches has always been for him to make his own path. Sure, it might be rocky, but it has to be his own, no matter the shoes this program is still trying to fill.
“It doesn’t matter the legacy that’s here; who are you? You gotta be you,” Hevesy said. “You set the standard for who you are. You can’t be [Tebow], don’t be him. There’s not going to be a duplicate him.
“Go build another fourth statue out there of the next guy. Go be who you are. Learn from the past, but don’t be the past.”
Regardless, Tebow’s legacy will weigh heavily on Franks’ every move, until he starts winning — really winning. It’s been nearly a decade, and until someone gets it right under center, Florida’s quarterback will have to answer to the legacy of the man with a plaque on their place of business.
But while Tebow’s speech and statue continue to loom over Florida’s embattled quarterback position, Franks said he doesn’t feel pressure. He’s honored to follow Tebow, but he’s focused on his own way.
“He’s a great example of what a good leader should do,” Franks said. “He put a standard down, and everybody has to live up to it.
“But I’m Feleipe Franks. I’m not Feleipe Tebow.”