Our year-end review of 2017 continues with some stories about teams in transition
The word “transition” can be big in the sports world. There are a lot of reasons an organization can find itself in such a situation.
Transition is rarely boring. Teams spend that time rebuilding, finding new people to put in charge, and preparing for their future.
As our year-end review continues, we look at a number of Florida sports stories that revolve around teams and college programs in various stages of transition.
9: Jeter, Actual Rich People Buy Marlins
Derek Jeter is not the principal owner of the Miami Marlins. There are houses in Tampa worth more than his share of the team.
Jeter’s share of the Marlins, however, is often irrelevant. One of baseball’s most storied living figures, Derek Jeter is now the face of the Miami Marlins. In buying into the team, he joins sports legends such as Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and Phil Esposito in the “never have to attend an Old Timer’s Game” club.
The sale of the Marlins was about as complicated as the involvement of the Miami Marlins would suggest. Offers were made, tentative deals were reached, groups came and went, and the smoke eventually cleared with Jeter and a group around him buying the team.
Political figures involved themselves in the bidding. Names like Bush and Romney showed up in the discussion. Throughout the process, speculation was largely negative.
Marlins fans, and baseball fans in general expected a new ownership group to likely gut the existing team, building a new one without Giancarlo Stanton’s enormous contract. Yet just a few weeks into this new era of Marlins baseball, what was expected to be a tough stretch has become so much tougher.
Miami’s ballclub will start from scratch in 2018, with a lineup now missing the big power hitters in the middle of the order and a team still shopping their best players. Fans are irate. Players want out. The outlook so far has been bleak, so much so that people are beginning to ask if this is the beginning of the end for the team’s time in Miami.
The club was in transition in 2017, seeking new ownership and a new direction. The Rays’ up-and-down season aside, that made the Marlins the most fascinating part of Florida baseball this year.
8: Chiozza at the Buzzer
Since Billy Donovan left Gainesville, sports fans all across Florida wondered if that was going to signal a long-term slide for Florida Gators basketball. Donovan won the team two national championships in a row not that long ago, but with Florida being decisively a football state in the college sports world there was a worry that the Gators’ success was entirely tied to Donovan.
Thanks to Chris Chiozza, that worry has been eliminated. There is indeed life after Billy Donovan, and the Gators made a deep NCAA Tournament run this year that was punctuated by Chiozza’s three pointer to eliminate Wisconsin.
Mike White’s Florida squad had been quietly making waves in the SEC all year, splitting their season series with the vaunted Kentucky Wildcats and with Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks. The guard-heavy Gators liked to keep a frantic pace and move the ball around the way a college team should. “The extra pass” meant something in Gainesville this year, and it gave Florida extra games.
Chiozza’s buzzer-beater is high in the running for Florida’s biggest single sports highlight in 2017. It’s up there with UCF’s Mike Hughes defeating South Florida late with a kickoff return TD, with all the highlight-reel goals that featured Steven Stamkos assisting Nikita Kucherov goals, with any shot at The Players, and with any Giancarlo Stanton homer.
There is nothing like March Madness, there is nothing like a buzzer-beater, and in 2017 there was no last-second shot better than Chiozza’s.
8: The Fall of Jim McElwain
\While the 2016 Florida Gators Football team had been defined by a strong defense, Gator fans prefer high scores. This is why Jim McElwain was brought to Florida from Alabama in the first place, to take a rising defense and add to it an offense worthy of playing on a patch of grass named after Steve Spurrier.
In Felipe Franks, the Gators had a new quarterback who was expected to show a lot of promise. More offensive recruits were on the way. Coming into the season, it was clear that 2017 would be make-or-break for McElwain.
When Florida failed to win a single football game in the month of October, the coach’s fate was firmly sealed. The offense was not progressing, Franks hadn’t lived up to expectations, the defense took a step back, and on October 29 the school announced that McElwain had been fired.
A reported deal with Chip Kelly fell apart at what seemed like the last minute, though many might have struggled to imagine the headstrong Kelly working well along a man sometimes called “Stevie Superior.” The former Eagles and 49ers head coach chose to go to UCLA instead.
Scott Frost was considered, but the program stayed away. Perhaps they knew that Frost, a Nebraska man at heart, was targeting a return to Lincoln all along. Certainly, Florida’s coaching search was not as disastrous as Tennessee’s, where the Volunteers felt the need to back out of an agreement with Greg Schiano (yes, that one, there is only one Greg Schiano) due to overwhelming backlash against the potential hire.
The job eventually went to Dan Mullen from Mississippi State. Mullen of course was a longtime Urban Meyer assistant, including at Florida, and after a successful tenure in Starkville he was excited to return to Gainesville.
7: Gone Fisher
Sometimes, the balance of power in the college football world is hard to figure out.
Jimbo Fisher had the job at Florida State. He had been with the Seminoles so long that he worked under Bobby Bowden as the HC-in-waiting before taking over. Having won a national championship himself and kept the Noles near the top of the rankings on a yearly basis, Jimbo Fisher came into the 2017 season as a well-loved Florida sports figure.
After a disappointing season for FSU, Fisher took the head coaching position at Texas A&M, a prominent football school that has not won a national championship since the 1930s. He did this despite not being under threat of losing his job in Tallahassee, at least not until another season like this.
To replace Fisher, the Seminoles turned to Willie Taggart. Taggart had already been established as the head coach at the University of Oregon, one of college sports’ richest programs thanks to booster Phil Knight. With the Nike empire at his fingertips, Taggart’s Ducks could have their pick of any prospective college football player they could talk to long enough. In the end, that mattered little as Taggart left for Florida State.
Perhaps more bizarre was the fan reaction. Jimbo Fisher, a coach with a ring, left town. This was not considered that big of a deal to many Seminoles fans, especially with such a rough season fresh in their memories. The logic seemed to suggest that it might be time for a fresh start at Doak Campbell Stadium. Now the Noles will get that start, and Fisher will embrace a new challenge in College Station.