Posted: 11:35 a.m. Friday, Sept. 20, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
I try very hard not to care about anything Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi says or writes. Bianchi was once an excellent columnist — I read the Sentinel's sports section every morning from about 1996 until I left Brevard County for Florida in 2007 — and a good reporter, and so his transition to professional troll has become one of the sadder things about the Sentinel's decay. Bianchi writing about the prospect of Florida losing Will Muschamp to Texas is, of course, trolling, and so I spent some of my Thursday night thinking about whether it was worth giving Bianchi attention and respect by engaging with and/or responding to his article.
It is. And it's important for Florida fans to do this because it seems clear that Bianchi is going to be one of the most important media figures of Muschamp's tenure at Florida, because one of the most powerful men in college football has his ear.
Bianchi's column is built on two things: A quote from "someone close to Muschamp" and his selective use of overreacting Gators to build a narrative. This is the former:
"The Texas job is a job any college coach would have to consider, and that includes Will," someone close to Muschamp told me the other day. "I'm not saying Will would take the job, but he would listen. Why wouldn't he?"
The latter, which Bianchi admits is mostly "just few smart-alecky fans ... after UF was upset by Miami," is used in service of this argument: "I've thought for a long time that Gator Nation doesn't truly appreciate what Muschamp is doing to rebuild their program." Bianchi, who also wrote a thoroughly execrable column about Florida's attendance woes — from the perspective of an empty seat — after the Gators' season opener against Toledo, seems firmly in the corner of someone who would like to see more support of Florida and its head man.
Bianchi also wrote a column prior to the Florida-Miami game that had the not-at-all-shocking report from someone "very connected to the UF athletic program" that the game would likely be the last in the regular season between the Gators and Hurricanes. But it's not the substance of Bianchi's report that matters there — it's the person providing it.
"Connected to" is not "in," and Bianchi goes on in the Miami column to call his source an "influential Gator" and compare him to "another famous Gator booster." Bianchi's pretty clearly saying that the Miami column sources from what a booster told him, and that makes sense — it stretches credulity to think someone in the Florida football program was going to be talking to Bianchi days after he faulted Muschamp for his part in the flap over an erroneously reported suspension.
Similarly, I'm interested in the "source close to Muschamp" Bianchi quotes in his Thursday article. That's not "a friend of Muschamp," or "a source close to Florida football" — it's a "source close to" a coach, who helped transmit some messaging about how alluring and tempting the Texas job is for "any college coach." Who, exactly, would want to say that, and fan flames about a potential future departure, just two days before Muschamp's team begins SEC play?
I have a guess: Jimmy Sexton.
Sexton is Muschamp's agent, but he's also the agent for a ton of other big names in football — Alabama coach Nick Saban, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, and Tim Tebow are the three most important for our purposes. This makes him a power broker, the sort of guy who fielded a call from a Texas regent inquiring about Saban's interest in coaching Texas in January.
For Sexton, instability at Texas is a dream. His clients include the best possible target for the job in Saban, the second-best possible target for the job in Muschamp — and, make no mistake, Muschamp really is probably the second-best target for the job from Texas's perspective, as both the closest thing to Saban available and a young, hot coach with some Texas connections — and a slew of other candidates like Fisher who stand to benefit from a protracted Texas coaching search and all the dominoes it would knock over. It doesn't even matter if Saban, Muschamp, and Fisher all eventually turn down Texas: If Sexton can use the leverage of Texas's supposedly limitless support to get raises for his clients, his clients end up happy and Sexton ends up making more money.
Hell, placing a client in the big chair at Texas might, in fact, be less profitable for Sexton than using Bevo's shadow as a bargaining chip. Muschamp left Texas for a better job, but it seemed like there was enough frustration with something — waiting to be the head coach, coaching staff politics, a terrible offense — at Texas for him to do so in an instant. That Texas regent who reached out to Sexton about Saban subsequently had a meeting with Mack Brown asking about his interest in retiring, a pretty potent reminder that there's going to be political manuevering even the greatest Texas coaches have to deal with in Austin.
Add those factors to the demands placed on the Texas head coach by the school's ESPN-run Longhorn Network, the Longhorns' slip to at least second place in the Lone Star State in terms of on-field product, and the bizarre and ugly scandals the school's athletic department is dealing with, and the Texas job looks a lot better on paper than it does from the coach's office, especially for Muschamp. It would be a lot easier for Muschamp to stay, and continue building Florida into a juggernaut, than for him to jump to Texas and start his second rebuild in five years.
I think Florida is a top-five job in college sports, and probably Muschamp's dream job; Bianchi, citing Muschamp's Gainesville childhood and SEC roots, hints strongly at the latter. I also think Florida's likely to match any reasonable offer for Muschamp, because Jeremy Foley's legacy rides on Muschamp staying and succeeding in the long-term, and because there simply aren't any better candidates for the Florida job on the dream map than Muschamp. Florida's also one of four or five programs in the country that has little to fear when it looks at Texas's warchest: The Gators' coffers are nearly as full.
Muschamp knows that. So does Sexton. But it's Sexton's job to represent his clients as well as he can, and he wouldn't be doing it if he weren't carrying their water.
Additionally, I think Muschamp's probably coming to terms with Florida fans being slow to embrace his defense-reliant style more now than ever before — Florida's got one of the five best defenses in the country, and maybe the best, but Florida's offense lost it a game its defense did everything possible to win, and so no one has spent much time over the last two weeks praising Florida's defense outside of Tennessee's football offices — and I would not at all be surprised to learn that Sexton tried to communicate some Muschamp venting about that to Bianchi.
To me, Sexton being Bianchi's source just makes sense: Muschamp's frustrations are certainly legitimate, but he can't say them out loud (see Pelini, Bo), so Sexton might be his conduit; even though it's endlessly amusing that a columnist who helped more than any other to mythologize Steve Spurrier's Fun n' Gun would be the person tasked with obliquely explaining a Florida coach's frustrations with fans who slobber over offense in the press, Bianchi gets a story out of it; Sexton gets to keep playing the Texas ace, sure it will pay off one way or another, and feeds a hungry mouth. (Also: Would it be ridiculous to postulate that Bianchi's fealty to Tebow, a Sexton client, is partly a stance taken to ensure that Sexton knows Bianchi is a sympathetic ear?)
This matters in general because, if Sexton is Bianchi's source, we can better interpret what Bianchi writes; it matters to Florida fans because Sexton is going to be part of the Florida football program's orbit for as long as Muschamp is coaching the Gators.
But it probably doesn't amount to anything more than a smart gambit in the grand chess game of college sports from a couple of the savviest players around.