Inside the collapse of Florida college football’s Big Three

·16 min read

For anyone old enough to remember the glory days of Florida’s Big Three, the Florida-Florida State game has become hard to stomach.

From 1990-2000, every matchup between the Gators and Seminoles was a clash of top-10 teams. Six times, both were in the top five.

But when they met last November, neither had a winning record. The Gators had already fired Dan Mullen, giving the game an interim coach for the third time in the last four meetings. A series that once decided national championships now determined who went to the Gasparilla Bowl.

That’s how far Florida college football has fallen.

“The last few years watching and calling the Florida State game, you just don’t see the teams like you used to see,” said Shane Matthews, a former Gators star quarterback and current analyst.

It’s the same with FSU-Miami. The white-hot rivalry had three consecutive top-three meetings from 1991-93. The only significance of their last three meetings? A loss to a mediocre rival got Willie Taggart fired at FSU and was the point of no return for Manny Diaz at Miami.

Once the center of college football, Florida’s Big Three is broken. Last fall’s combined record (18-19) was its worst since 1976.

“It’s been a downward spiral,” said SEC Network analyst Chris Doering, the Gators’ all-time leader in touchdown catches.

The Big Three rose to power decades ago because of the right people with the right approach at the right time. Its unfathomable downward spiral, then, began with a polar-opposite perfect storm.

Wrong people, wrong approach, wrong time.

Wrong people

The most obvious reason for the Big Three’s collapse starts at the top: disastrous coaching hires.

There are no overarching themes. They whiffed on coaches from the Group of Five (Al Golden), the Power Five (Taggart) and the NFL (Ron Zook). They erred on outsiders (Jim McElwain) and insiders (Diaz, Randy Shannon).

Mullen succeeded at player development but failed at recruiting. Will Muschamp succeeded at recruiting but failed at player development. Neither lasted four full seasons in Gainesville.

The problems continued down the organizational chart. The state hasn’t had a coach win the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant in two decades.

“We had great assistant coaches…” said Forrest Conoly, a college football commentator and offensive lineman on FSU’s 1993 title team. “You just don’t get that anymore.”

Instead, you get more misses and more turnover.

Three assistants from the glory days became national championship head coaches. But only three assistants from the past 11 staffs have become major head coaches with winning records. One of them is Diaz, whom the Hurricanes fired after he went 21-15.

FSU has had a new offensive coordinator in four of the past five seasons. The Gators haven’t had one last four seasons since Mullen (2005-08); Larry Coker was the last one at Miami (1995-2000). Is it any wonder that all three have struggled to develop quarterbacks?

Administrators caved to fan bases that soured quickly. Since Mark Stoops left FSU’s staff to take over Kentucky in 2013, the Big Three has had 11 different head coaches. Each school has canned at least one coach after fewer than three full years.

Though each decision was justifiable on its own, the firings have fueled a cycle of mediocrity. Coaches are stuck with players they didn’t recruit. Players are stuck in systems that don’t fit. Attrition leads to weaker rosters, which leads to more losses, which leads to more firings and more attrition.

“The constant turnover every three or four years just doesn’t allow you to have any sort of continuity, man…” Doering said. “I think that’s one of the faults of the fan bases, right? The lack of patience.”

Coaches are the easy scapegoat, but there’s plenty of blame to go around. One failed hiring can be an anomaly. Three (or more) in a row is an institutional failure — one exacerbated by the wrong approach.

Wrong approach

When former Seminoles quarterback Drew Weatherford took a recent tour of the equipment room and training facilities, the FSU trustee was unimpressed.

“There was some lipstick put on,” Weatherford said during February’s board meeting, “but to a certain degree, it had actually regressed from when I was here.”

His last snap was 14 years ago.

Former Miami quarterback Mark Richt had a similar epiphany when he took over his alma mater after the 2015 season. The Hurricanes were one of the only Power Five programs without an indoor practice facility — a logistical problem, given the state’s regular downpours.

“Miami won so much with so little for so long that they didn’t really understand why we needed to try to keep up with the Joneses…” said Richt, now an ACC Network analyst.

Florida didn’t, either. Steve Spurrier didn’t need flashy buildings to win championships, so why would his successors?

That mentality was evident one spring when Spurrier walked into the Gators’ team room, looked around and made a comment that stuck with then-coach Jim McElwain: Nothing’s changed around here.

“That’s a telling sign,” McElwain said.

Though all three programs have upgraded their facilities, they failed to keep up with the Joneses, who built palaces with waterfalls and mini golf to maximize efficiency and wow recruits. The Gators are the only state program on 247Sports’ list of the nation’s top 25 facilities. At No. 19, Florida sits fifth in the SEC East and 10th in the conference (12th if you count future members Texas and Oklahoma).

Though the list is subjective, the fact that the Big Three’s best facilities are ranked between Illinois and Kentucky is, well, a telling sign.

So, too, is the fact that no state program ranked in the top 10 nationally in assistant coaches’ salaries last season, according to USA Today’s database. And the fact that none built support staffs like Alabama.

“It’s about complacency,” said CBS Sports’ Kevin Carter, the former Gators star defensive end.

And, according to some, a lack of institutional commitment.

After an Outback Bowl win in January 2017, McElwain said he was looking “for the commitment that we get from the administration moving forward.” Analyst Kirk Herbstreit questioned whether football matters to Miami administrators during a September segment on ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

Jimbo Fisher’s thirst for improved infrastructure and newer, bigger and better buildings spurred his decision to leave for Texas A&M in 2017. Nine months after his exit, the Seminoles announced plans for a $60 million football-only complex pegged to open in 2021. Construction still hasn’t begun.

By taking the wrong approach, the Big Three fell behind off the field as they fell behind on it. And that caused them to get lapped in the one area that matters most.


Talent exodus

In January 2017, Ray-Ray McCloud, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott posed for a photo together at Raymond James Stadium to celebrate their historic triumph.

All three had grown up in the Tampa Bay area. All three were top-90 national recruits.

And all three won a national championship at home — not for Florida, FSU or Miami, but for Clemson.

Of all the problems facing the Big Three, the two dozen analysts, coaches and former players interviewed for this series agreed that none are bigger than the talent exodus. It drives Catapult Sports scout Dwight Thomas mad.

“Every time I watch the games on TV, we’re gonna see those guys,” said Thomas, who has been involved in Florida prep football for 50-plus years and coached Gators/NFL legend Emmitt Smith at Escambia High. “But they ain’t gonna be in our uniforms, and they’ll be beating us.”

The numbers are striking.

In 1991, the state produced 15 of the Tampa Tribune’s top 100 national recruits. The Big Three signed 13.

In 2021, the state produced 13 of the 247Sports Composite’s top 100 national recruits. The Big Three signed four.

The drain is so significant that it has drawn the attention of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“I don’t want to see people going to Alabama and Clemson,” DeSantis said when he signed the state’s name, image and likeness bill in 2020. “I know they’ve got great programs, but I think there’s nothing better than winning a national championship in your home state.”

Apparently not.

Since the state’s last national championship (2013 FSU), 17 Floridians have started for title teams elsewhere. Georgia’s title hopes began to turn in January with a blocked field goal by five-star defensive lineman Jalen Carter (Apopka High) followed by a 67-yard run by top-50 recruit James Cook (Miami Central).

The steady talent leak has multiple sources. Coaches either didn’t or couldn’t connect well enough in the state (wrong people). Facilities fell behind, and perpetual turnover severed relationships between staffs and prospects (wrong approach). Social media and recruiting sites made it easier to find talent nationally, while easier travel and more televised/streamed games lessened the incentive to stay close to home — especially as neighboring powers like Alabama and Georgia improved (wrong time).

Despite 49 years in the profession and a long history of blue-chip players, Hillsborough High coach Earl Garcia said he no longer knows who to call at the Big Three. His previous contacts are all gone.

“When you have that revolving door at the Big Three,” Garcia said, “it trickles down to the high school coaches.”

Longtime national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell said the figure most responsible for the slide is, ironically, former Gators coach Urban Meyer. When he started to have success in what the late Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger called the state of Miami, it opened up the rest of Florida to outsiders.

“It’s almost like blood in the water,” Farrell said.

The sharks swam in. Alabama won the 2020 national title at Hard Rock Stadium with three south Florida starters in the secondary (Josh Jobe, Jordan Battle, Patrick Surtain). Clemson poached superstars C.J. Spiller (Lake Butler) and Sammy Watkins (Fort Myers). Ohio State plucked future top-three picks Nick and Joey Bosa out of Fort Lauderdale.

Their invasions would have been damaging enough on their own. But they were devastating because they hit at the wrong time, as a pair of factors beyond the Big Three’s control were beginning to bubble up — including another exodus.

Wrong time

James Thomson did not want to leave Florida.

He was born and raised here. His family lives here. He had a successful coaching career here, leading Gainesville High to its first state title game in three decades.

So why did he defect to the Atlanta suburbs? Money.

“It was the only factor,” Thomson said.

But it’s a huge one.

As of 2019, at least 44 high school coaches in Georgia had six-figure incomes, according to First Coast News. In Texas, the Dallas Independent School District recently boosted its average salary to more than $122,000 to stay competitive in another football hotbed.

The head coaching stipend in Hillsborough County: $3,736, a figure that’s on par with other Florida districts. When Thomson left Georgia for Winter Haven High this offseason, he took a 60% pay cut.

At least 260 prep coaches have left Florida for Georgia in the 25 years Thomas has been keeping track at Catapult Sports. One of the most recent was Madison County High’s Mike Coe, a four-time state champion whom USF coach Jeff Scott called “one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around.”

“High schools in our state and our area, they’re kind of the minor leagues for us, right?” Scott said. “So you want those guys developed and coached the right way.”

Scott wasn’t calling out prep coaches, but the point is clear. When top high school coaches leave for greener pastures or burn out because of low pay, players’ development “absolutely” suffers, Brevard County athletic director Andrew Ramjit said. And that trickles up to colleges.

Though Florida remains a top producer of NFL talent, its immediate college impact is slowing. Over the last five years, the number of freshman All-America or all-SEC performers has fallen 44% from its historical average. That suggests Florida players need more time to develop — a problem, given the lack of patience among college administrators. And because state rosters are historically filled with players from the state, the brain drain hits the Big Three especially hard.

Ramjit, the co-founder of the Florida Coaches Coalition, sees another issue. Just as college coaching turnover affects recruiting, so, too, does prep coaching turnover.

“You’ve got brand-new coaches coming in that don’t have these relationships with those college coaches,” Ramjit said.

Or maybe they do have those relationships — with coaches at some of the state’s upstart programs.

Big Three? Four? Five?

Bring up the Big Three to Terry Mohajir, and his face lights up.

“Oh, I’m glad people include us with Florida and Florida State,” UCF’s athletic director said. “That’s good.”

But what’s good for the Knights has hurt the Gators, Seminoles and Hurricanes.

When the Big Three began to dominate three decades ago, UCF was playing at a lower level (Division I-AA). USF’s program hadn’t even launched.

Now the Bulls have a more recent top-25 finish than FSU, while the Knights have more New Year’s Six bowl appearances in the playoff era than Miami and beat Florida in December to win the unofficial state title. The last time two state teams finished in the top 10 together wasn’t a pair from the Big Three; it was FSU and UCF in 2013.

Even though the histories and reputations of UCF and USF don’t compare to their older brothers, their presence still makes an impact on fan support and recruiting.

“Not that Miami, Florida and Florida State couldn’t beat those schools (for players),” Richt said, “but the wealth got spread even thinner.”

And even a slightly thinned-out talent pool matters.

What would the best player in USF history, quarterback Quinton Flowers, have done for middling offenses at Florida or Miami (who both recruited him as an athlete)? If top-100 recruit Ryne Giddins earned all-Big East accolades at USF, surely he would have contributed at any of the Big Three (who all offered him scholarships at Armwood High). Adrian Killins could have been a playmaker at The U instead of a standout rusher and returner at UCF.

An occasional in-state recruiting loss doesn’t explain the Big Three’s fall by itself. But string together enough of them — enough good players who would rather be USF’s top target than the No. 19 signee at FSU — and the depth weakens.

“People chip away, and it’s like a little pebble in the water,” said Joey Johnston, the former Tampa Tribune college football writer and current USF sideline reporter. “Over 20 years, it became a flood.”

Rock bottom

Just as a confluence of factors forged Florida, Florida State and Miami into the Big Three, it took a complex cocktail to cause them to crumble.

Coaching hires went from home runs to strikeouts. Facilities stagnated. Recruiting battles intensified with more in-state and out-of-state competition as Florida high school football began to weaken. And instead of major NCAA investigations hindering nearby powers, the Gators, Hurricanes and Seminoles were all hit with probation or bowl bans between 2009-20 — most notably the Nevin Shapiro scandal at Miami.

As the Florida powers slipped, other programs took their place. During the Big Three’s peak, Alabama, Clemson, LSU and Georgia combined for more losing records (13) than top-10 seasons (7). But they built the palaces the Big Three did not, and they’ve won every national title since 2015.

Improvements across the SEC and ACC made the state’s slides worse. From 1992-2001, the ACC had only three teams (other than FSU) finish in the top 10. The conference placed three in the top 15 last fall alone — four if you count partial member Notre Dame.

“Back in my day, the Kentuckys of the world…they weren’t what they are now,” said Shane Matthews, the SEC 1990-91 player of the year.

After beating the Wildcats 31 times in a row, UF has lost two of the last four in the series — and it could have been four out of five.

The Gators didn’t fall to that point suddenly. The Seminoles and Hurricanes didn’t, either. Their collapses were fed by years of hiring the wrong people and taking the wrong approach at what turned out to be the wrong time.

Those failures culminated in too many scenes like the one at The Swamp in November — another ugly Florida-Florida State game with another interim coach playing out another lost season — creating yet another unmistakable reminder that the Big Three is no longer big.

It is broken.

Coming Friday on Part III: Will Florida, Florida State and Miami ever be The Big Three again?

Then and now

Then: Offensive lineman Mike Pearson was a Parade All-American at Armwood High in 1997, then an All-American with the Gators.

Now: The last three top-100 prospects from Armwood all left the state: top-three national recruit Byron Cowart (Armwood), Under Armour All-American Leon McQuay (USC) and four-star running back Brian Snead (Ohio State).

Then: Escambia High’s superstar running back recruit, Emmitt Smith, signed with Florida and became a Hall of Famer in college and the NFL.

Now: Escambia’s most recent five-star running back, Trent Richardson, signed with Alabama, where he won a pair of national titles and became the No. 3 overall NFL draft pick.

Then: FSU landed another college/NFL legend, Derrick Brooks, out of Pensacola’s Booker T. Washington High.

Now: The Big Three couldn’t beat Alabama for another prized recruit from Pensacola Washington, Alex Leatherwood. The former top-five national prospect won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s top interior lineman in 2020.

Then: Warren Sapp went from Apopka High to become the Big East’s defensive player of the year at Miami and a Hall of Famer with the Bucs.

Now: Another dominant defensive lineman from Apopka, Jalen Carter, signed with Georgia in 2020 and is expected to be one of the nation’s top players this year. In December, four-star cornerback Nikai Martinez signed with UCF over Florida and Miami.