I remember it like it was yesterday. Almost seven years ago today, I opened up my acceptance letter to the University of Florida. I was ecstatic, not only because I was going to a great school for in-state tuition, but I would also be able to go to The Swamp to cheer my favorite college football team, the Florida Gators.
Even though it was an exciting time for me, the Gators football team was in a downturn. The Steve Spurrier era brought six SEC Championships, a National Championship, the Fun ‘N’ Gun Offense, but most importantly, SEC and national prominence. But after Spurrier left to become the head coach of the Washington Redskins, the Gators entered the dark years of the Ron Zook era that, out of principle, I refuse to discuss. Gator fans understand.
But then, hope. Zook was fired in the middle of the 2004 season and after the season ended, the search for the next coach began. There was a young coach who had already had much success in his four years of running a football team. That young coach’s name was Urban Meyer. Meyer was the head coach at the University of Utah, where he had led the team to an undefeated record and Fiesta Bowl win over Pittsburgh. Florida and Notre Dame were his two primary pursuers, and Meyer chose Florida.
People who weren’t there don’t understand the hype that came with Meyer’s hiring. Meyer was a hero at Florida before the Gators even took the field for the 2005 season. Heck, I was even part of a Facebook group called "Praise Urban Meyer and Eat Cake." Some of the more cautious students kept reminding the rest of us that Meyer had not won anything at Florida and that we didn’t even know if his spread offense would be successful in the SEC. Doubting Urban Meyer’s prowess was blasphemy to me.
During his first season, Meyer went 9-3 and beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Chris Leak was the leader of the team and Florida had a great recruiting class. Three of those recruits were WR Percy Harvin, LB Brandon Spikes, and a quarterback from Jacksonville named Tim Tebow. This recruiting class would go on to become arguably the most successful in college football history.
Meyer’s second, third, fourth, and fifth seasons at Florida were the stuff of legend. Florida beat a heavily-favored Ohio State squad (spoiler alert: Ohio State appears again in this story) in the 2007 BCS National Championship, Meyer coached Tebow to a Heisman Trophy in 2007, and Florida held the highest-scoring offense in college football history to 14 points when they beat Oklahoma for the 2009 BCS National Championship. The stretch ended with a 2010 Sugar Bowl win against Cincinnati, after losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship. Despite the relatively disappointing ending, the Gators program was on fire. The Gators had won three BCS bowl games in four years, recruited some of the top players in the country, and were considered one of the top programs in college football.
But what we didn’t know until later was that Meyer had to be hospitalized after the SEC Championship Game loss to Alabama. Initial reports were that it was a heart condition, but Meyer claimed it was just dehydration. Nevertheless, his health had forced him into an early retirement, and it was announced that Steve Addazio would take over the Gators program. Gator Nation was worried, but our fears were lifted when Meyer reported that, after a short break to rehabilitate, he would return to the sidelines at Florida.
It was a close call for Florida fans. After all, Meyer was more successful up to that point than our previous coaching demigod, Steve Spurrier. Meyer was about to take over a team led by former Gatorade Player of the Year, John Brantley. Brantley broke Tebow’s major state records in high school and hopes were high for the legacy’s future at Florida (Brantley’s uncle played at Florida).
We know what happens next. The stone-footed Brantley was a horrendous fit for Meyer’s offense and did nothing to help fans forget about Tebow. But more importantly, Meyer looked absent. Meyer spent the previous five years pacing the sideline and screaming at players and officials with the fury of a thousand suns. But not during the 2010 season. No, the television cameras caught Meyer hunched over with his hands on his knees many times. The passion was gone. The Urban Meyer Florida fans had come to know and love wasn’t there anymore. Passion was replaced with apathy. Rumors began circulating about re-retiring and it seemed inevitable.
He retired. Again. The program was left a shell of what it once was and Urban Meyer retreated to the safe confines of the ESPN Bristol studio. He provided analysis of college football this past year and remained around the game he loved. But apparently, it wasn’t enough.
Urban Meyer accepted the Ohio State head coach job today, replacing interim head coach Luke Fickell. He was out of football for 11 months. That’s it. After health scares and claims that he needed to focus on his health and his family, Meyer will return to coaching, return to recruiting, and return to the pressures of success at Ohio State.
Meyer was revered at Florida. He had the kind of job security there that almost no coach in the country enjoys. If he wanted more money, it would have been given to him. He had access to one of the richest recruiting states in the country. Florida was one of the premier programs in the country and Meyer was the creator. He took the Gators to heights that Spurrier could not. Meyer created something special at Florida. He could have been to us what Woody Hayes was to Ohio State.
There was a time that I thought Meyer would be the head coach at Florida for 20 years. Apparently, I was naïve. I should have known that this was his nature. Meyer wasn’t tired of coaching. He didn’t want to focus on his health or his family. If that were the case, he could have had the involvement in the program that he will at Ohio State. Meyer was just tired of coaching the Gators. That is what hurts the most. College football fans, especially those who attend or attended the school, identify with their team. They want the head coach to identify with the team as well. Players come and go, but coaches are the ones who are supposed to provide stability.
Meyer was the face of Florida football. With all of Tebow’s success, it was Meyer who would continue to lead the Gators long after Tebow or anybody else to come left.
Now, Meyer will stalk the sidelines at Ohio State next season and likely for the foreseeable future. He will bring the spread offense to the Big Ten in hopes of returning the Buckeyes to the national spotlight. And it will probably work. While he is there, the Gators will try and rebuild after two disappointing seasons, including the stumble all the way to 6-6 this year and an afterthought in the SEC.
All the while, I’ll be trying to gently remove the knife protruding from my back.