UF's Kurt Roper been coached since childhood to revive Gators' offense
GAINESVILLE, Florida -- Whenever coach Bobby Roper summoned his boys to have "a talk," they knew what was coming next. The three sons had been conditioned, just like the defensive backs their dad trained, to read a quarterback's eyes.
"We were moving [...] I don't even know why we're talking," Kurt Roper said, recalling family meetings about his dad taking a new job with a laugh.
Kurt, the middle son, and his two brothers, Dan and Zac, never knew anything but the nomadic life of a football coach and had few complaints.Roper recalled experiencing all corners of the U.S., living "coast to coast, north to south [having] friends all over the country."
Being a coach's son in a college town had other benefits, though.
"I thought I was the lucky guy in school that everybody thought, 'Wow, he gets to go out on the football field' or 'he gets to go in the locker room after the game,' " he said.
It was no surprise then that Roper, now the offensive coordinator at UF, eventually followed his father into the profession.
"I don't think I could have had a better childhood," he said.
But being the new kid on the block has its challenges, too, even at age 42. Gainesville is the latest stop in Roper's own coaching journey. To get there, Roper bid farewell to Duke and head coach David Cutcliffe, Roper's mentor, after six seasons and accepted the challenge to resuscitate the Gators' moribund offense.
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“He kind of makes the game of football fun again”
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As Saturday's season opener against Idaho nears, everything has gone pretty much according to plan for Roper. National media views him as the potential savior of UF's program -- and coach Will Muschamp's job. Gator Nation was treated to 606 yards offense last April during the spring game, a jolting contrast to showings of UF's 2013 offense. Meanwhile, the Gators' players love their new OC and his up-tempo, spread offense.
"I felt like he came in and took control, and kind of won everybody over from the jump," senior receiver Andre Debose said.
Debose, who received a medical hardship waiver for a sixth season, has seen offensive coordinators come and go. Roper is his fourth at UF but is different, Debose said.
In addition to a scheme that produced 60 touchdowns last season at Duke (UF scored 27), Roper brings a winning personality to the Gators practice field. During a recent practice, Roper, a former all-state quarterback out of Oklahoma, demonstrated a pass route for his receivers, spiking the football soon after making the play.
"I would rate it as a 42-year-old man that's stiff," he later quipped, assessing the effort.
Debose and his teammates gave the play a thumbs-up.
"He's a very down-to-earth guy," Debose said. "He kind of makes the game of football fun again, rather than work, work."
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“When he's on the field he's really intense”
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The Gators may see Roper as fun, but he is still a hard-driving football coach at his core, similar to his father, who is now 71, retired and mellowed with age.
"He was really a no-nonsense guy," Roper said.
Bobby Roper was an old-school defensive coach and served as coordinator the Johnny Majors' 1976 national title team at Pitt. Zac, now the quarterbacks coach at Duke, said his dad used to head-butt his players during practices, bloodying his own nose at times and jump onto dog piles during goal line drills.The elder Roper could chew out a player with the best of them, but at the same time share a lifelong bond with him.
"I was 12-, 13- or 14-years old and guys from my dad's coaching past would call the house to check up on him," Zac Roper said. "I always thought that was pretty cool that you could have a relationship with guys that you coached that aren't just four- and five-year relationships just while you were there."
Zac and Kurt Roper opted to coach the other side of the football, but embodied their father's passion for coaching. The quick-witted Roper like to keep things light, but he senses what buttons to push, whether to give a player a pat on the back, an extra rep or two, or a kick in the pants.
"When he's on the field he's really intense, when he's off the field he's a really funny guy," guard Tyler Moore said. "I like that about him."
In the process, Roper, like his dad once did, looks to establish relationships that go deeper than Xs and Os.
"He's a guy you want to play for," tight end Jake McGee said. "More than just learn the fooball plays, he really wants to know how you're doing as a person and making sure everything in your life is going well. When you see your coaches care about you it makes it exciting to come play and really get to work."
Zac, who had served on the same staff with Kurt for a dozen years, is not surprised UF's players have taken to his older brother.
"I figured that would happen, but those transitions can sometimes be interesting," he told the Sentinel. "It's good to hear because that has to take place. The guys have to buy into not only the system and the schemes but also who's there coaching and putting those things in place."
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“Every play is really a play to score”
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Kurt Roper clearly loves his work, and it is contagious. He invests a piece of himself each day into his job.
"He's going hard every play," receiver Valdez Showers said. "He's like a player out there. He loves the game. He's always got energy. There's not one day where he comes out there down.
"He's always up-tempo, so you want to be up-tempo. That's the way the offense goes."
Roper's offense undoubtedly will be an upgrade from 2013, when UF averaged an SEC-worst 18.8 points. Style points were fewer from an unit hamstrung by injuries and a conservative philosophy under former offensive coordinator Brent Pease.
"It was more about possessions, getting the first downs, things like that," Showers said. "This offense is about making plays, taking shots and getting in the end zone. Every play is really a play to score."
DUKE OFFENSE UNDER KURT ROPER
DUKE OFFENSE UNDER KURT ROPER
"His offenses are going to be disciplined and structured, and ultimately that's going to lead to other things," Roper said. "That's going to lead to explosive plays; that's going to lead to quarterbacks knowing when to [move onto the next down;] that's going to lead to a quarterback knowing when he has an opportunity to take a shot and make a big play.
"I think you're going to see an aggressive offense. All those things lead to points."
After three seasons of offensive futility under Muschamp and a 4-8 finish in 2013, Gators' fans are hungry for touchdowns, big plays and wins. Roper left Duke offering the promise to deliver them. A husband and father himself, Roper has never lived anywhere longer than the six years he spent in Durham, N.C.
Yet, Roper knew it was time to make the next step toward his goal of becoming a head coach. If that day does arrive, it might be a sad day for Gators' fans after all the promise Roper carries with him. But it also would mean Roper had succeeded where others had failed.
Roper knows better than anyone, a good football coach rarely settles down until he retires.
"I think ultimately he felt like he needed to get out of that comfort zone to progress in his career," Zac Roper said. "Sometimes, you have to take a risk."