GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida had grown accustomed to playing in big games — SEC Championship, Sugar Bowl and the BCS Championship — under Urban Meyer.
It was a shock when the Gators finished 8-5 in Meyer’s final season. Will Muschamp took over the reins last year and guided the team to a 7-6 mark and a victory over Ohio State in the Gator Bowl.
This was a far cry from the days when Chris Leak and Tim Tebow donned the Blue and Orange.
Many pundits questioned why Florida was ranked in this season’s preseason top 25 poll, when it checked in at No. 23. Very few people outside of Gainesville could foresee how one move allowed the Gators to return to national prominence.
It had nothing to do with a new play, a new scheme or the decision to start Jeff Driskel at quarterback.
Instead it involved Muschamp reconnecting with an old friend from his days at LSU — Jeff Dillman, a Rockingham native.
Making his way to Gainesville
The journey from Richmond County to Gainesville was a long and windy road for Dillman.
The former Raider lettered two years at Elon before an illness forced him to the sidelines. After recovering, Dillman decided to transfer to Appalachian State and believed his football career was over.
Instead, Dillman played two more seasons under long-time coach Jerry Moore and helped the Mountaineers capture the Southern Conference championship in 1999. Dillman remained a part of the football program for another two seasons as a student assistant as well as working with the strength and conditioning program.
He received his Exercise Science degree in 2001 and faced a difficult decision — become a football coach or go into the strength and conditioning field.
Dillman went with the latter and started sending out resumes hoping for an opportunity. He got one, at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“I was supposed to be the GA (graduate assistant), but I was bumped up to an assistant position,” Dillman said. “However, I was making GA wages. You have to pay your dues.”
During his tenure with the Warhawks, Dillman worked with nine different teams when he had a chance to join forces with one of top names in the collegiate strength and conditioning field — Tommy Moffitt.
Dillman made the move from Monroe to Baton Rouge to join Moffitt’s staff at LSU. This is when Dillman and Muschamp first became acquainted. Muschamp was the defensive coordinator under Nick Saban, while Dillman was assisting Moffitt in helping the Tigers capture the 2003 BCS title.
“I give all the credit to him (Moffitt),” Dillman said. “I work to be like him everyday. He’s like a father to me and it all started with him.”
In addition to his work with the football team, Dillman aided the men’s and women’s basketball and baseball teams as well as the gymnastics program and the men’s and women’s tennis squads.
Then in 2006, Dillman felt the tug to return to his home state when the head strength and conditioning position with Appalachian State became available.
“Coach Moore drove down for the day to see how I coached and trained my players,” Dillman said.
In five years, Dillman worked his way from a graduate assistant at ULM to the top man with the defending FCS football champion.
The Mountaineers continued their winning ways with Dillman, adding titles in 2006 and 2007. He was on the sideline in “The Big House” when Appalachian State pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college football history, beating then No. 5 Michigan.
It wasn’t too long until Dillman was on the move again, this time accepting the position as Head of Physical Conditioning with the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla. in 2009. Dillman was in charge of overseeing the strength and conditioning programs for all of the academy’s teams as well as several professional athletes including Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, NFL players Christian Ponder and Randall Cobb as well as former NL MVP Joey Votto.
As Dillman settled into his position with IMG, changes started to occur at UF which would impact him in the near future. Meyer announced his “retirement” on December 8, 2010 and Muschamp was named as his replacement within four days.
Less than a year after leaving the Gators, Meyer was hired at Ohio State. A month later, Meyer recruited his strength and conditioning coach at UF, Mickey Marotti, to join him with Buckeyes.
Marotti’s departure left a void in the Griffin/Oakley Strength and Conditioning Complex and that’s when Muschamp reached out to his old friend.
“I did my research and asked former players what the atmosphere was like there,” Dillman said. “This is one of the best strength and conditioning jobs in the country. I’m blessed to be around these great young men and women. There’s no better job out there.”
Dillman’s impact on the Gators
When Dillman was hired on Jan. 3, he brought a new philosophy to Gainesville, just like Muschamp was doing on the football field.
Muschamp wanted to get away from the spread offense which Meyer preferred and bring a little smashmouth football to “The Swamp.” The task to ensure the Gators were able to make this transition fell onto the broad shoulders of Dillman, who was more than willing to whip the team into shape.
Florida opened the season with four straight wins, including a victory in College Station against Texas A&M and Heisman-hopeful Johnny Manziel. Then came the real test if the Muschamp-Dillman reunion was going to pay off — facing No. 4 LSU.
It wasn’t easy as the Gators trailed 6-0 at halftime, before scoring the game’s final 14 points to pull off the upset. After the game, Dillman’s offseason workouts were credited for having a big role in allowing Florida to rally for the win.
“Hey, when I look down there and they’ve got their hands on their hips and our guys are still raring to go, I mean that’s a product of what they’ve done from the summer on,” Florida offensive coordinator Brent Pease said. “I believe our guys got stronger as (the game) went along.”
Driskel added Dillman warned the team about what was in front of them during the summer.
“He said going in, ‘It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to pay off,’ and you’re going to see results,” Driskel said. “We’re definitely seeing them now.”
Muschamp has also noticed the difference in how his team has responded this season, going 11-1, a No. 3 ranking in the BCS standings, and a date with the Louisville Cardinals in next month’s Sugar Bowl.
“The players began to build confidence in what they’re doing when they saw themselves getting stronger,” Muschamp said. “They understood we were a more physical team.”
Even though people inside and outside of the program have been impressed with Dillman’s work with the Gators, he deflects all of the compliments to Muschamp and his staff as well as the players.
“At the end of the day, it’s the program,” Dillman said. “It goes back to Coach Muschamp and the kids because they worked their butts off. We all have a job to do and Coach Muschamp let’s me do my job. All the kids come in and believe in what we are trying to accomplish.
“Coach is big on keeping it real. My staff and I will be honest with a player, but we also want to keep a positive environment. I have a philosophy of actions trigger feelings and feelings trigger actions. Good things come out of being positive and negative things come out of being negative. I always try to be positive while training an athlete.”
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com.