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There were a couple of obvious differences. First, Gator fans were sitting on the sidelines again. The bleachers have returned and with the bleachers, the crowds have also come back. Even though the weather was chilly and damp there was a good sized crowd eager to see how Urban Meyer handled his first truly public day on the job at the University of Florida.
The second obvious difference was the way Meyer handled himself. Ron Zook spent his first spring practice sprinting from one drill to another. He was almost as much cheerleader as he was fitness guru. Zook's hustle was admirable and ever so visible. Meyer kind of blended in with the scenery for the most part. He was pretty much just another guy in a blue parka calmly walking from station to station, taking a good hard look at every player, every drill, every action and reaction.
He wasn't totally invisible. Early on he let everyone know who's the boss when he chewed out a slacker for loafing, sending a message to the entire team that if they choose to loaf through any more drills, it won't be long until they're thumbing through college football's yellow pages, hoping to find a new place of residence. Other than that outburst, you really had to look for him to find him.
As he moved from station to station, he would sometimes work a bit with the assistant coaches and occasionally he could be seen slapping a player on the back for a job well done. Basically, though, he was just soaking it all in, handling things like a ringmaster as he let his assistant coaches do what they're hired to do, which is coach.
As you watch him and how he goes about his business, it becomes indisputable that this is a man who has a reason and a purpose for everything that he does. There is not one detail that escapes him, nor is there a single drill done that isn't part of a master plan.
When practice ended, he stood confidently in front of the press and talked freely about that first day of spring practice, noting that because this is his third spring practice in five years at a new school, he's "tired of it" and that he "can't wait to have a third spring practice. I haven't had one and believe me, I'm going to have one."
He talked about how he wishes the offense was a little bit further along and how he hopes that his quarterbacks, Chris Leak and Josh Portis, will "let it rip a little more" on Friday and Saturday as they become a bit more familiar with what they are doing. He praised his offensive linemen for their "willingness to adapt and learn" and his wide receivers for being so athletic and talented. He praised cornerback Dee Webb for looking so good on the defensive side of the ball even though he was running track in the offseason.
He was like any new football coach putting in a brand new system with players whose abilities on the field he can only now become familiar. He also talked about the attitude of the team. If you're looking to find out where he's coming from and what direction he's taking the football team, this is the place to start.
"It was sloppy, as you would imagine the first day," he said. "You just notice the obvious things like too many balls on the ground in throwing and catching on offense. I asked the defensive coordinators how they did and they commented it was sloppy, but the intensity and the attitude, the things you can measure --- you really don't measure anything else now… the intensity and attitude are good."
Meyer likes players who have an attitude, but the attitude he wants is being shaped every bit as much by the way things are done off the field as the way things are done on the practice field. The attitude he's looking for is that of a player who understands that in football, as in life, there are winners and there are losers. In the Urban Meyer attitude, the winner is the guy who understands that he is part of a team and that being part of a team means holding up your end of a bargain that begins and ends with accountability.
He expects players to be responsible for their play on the field, for their intensity and dedication in the off the field programs designed around football, and for the way they live their lives when they are no longer under the supervision of the coaches. Players are expected to give 100 percent on the practice field and in games, just as they are expected to give 100 percent in the class room and how they live their lives. In his way of thinking and doing things, players who are slackers in their personal habits and personal lives will be slackers in the weight room, on the practice field and in games.
Slackers cannot and will not be tolerated.
So he has this thing called the Champions Club, the ultimate way of measuring who is handling responsibility. Champions get treated better than the non-champions and at the end of each quarter, Champions are treated to a banquet and honored for their commitment and dedication both on and off the field. Last week, as the previous quarter ended, the first Champions Banquet was held and there were approximately 20 who were honored, a good start, Meyer says, but certainly not where it needs to be.
"I'm glad to say that we need to get more people in the Champions Club," he said, "but it was probably the most I've had for the first time around. A lot of them didn't understand that if you miss a class or you're late for a meeting or you miss a workout or if you have something … even Mike Degory wasn't in the Champions Club. Was it his fault? No, he had mono and he missed some practices, but the bottom line is you can't miss anything for whatever reason so I just hope hope it grows. By the end of the third quarter, which is summer, you hope you have about 90 people in that Champions Club. If you do, there's a good chance you're going to win a bunch of games."
On the practice field there are even winners and losers. On Wednesdays and Saturdays the offense or the defense will emerge a winner. Once again, making practice a competition where there is a winner and a loser is all part of a master design to change attitudes and get players ready to compete for championships.
"Wednesday and Saturday during the spring you'll see a winner and you'll see the intensity pick up because the offense either wins or loses and defense either wins or loses," he said. "Those will be intense. Those will be good days to watch, a good day for me to watch. I want to see who competes and finishes and there's been an issue about finishing around here and I want to find out who's going to finish. Saturday will be a goal line and short yardage scrimmage so it will be a good deal for us."
As he surveys the intensity, he also sees something that's burning in the bellies of his players, at least most of them.
"I think we have good young guys here," he said. "I don't think there's bad people here at all. I think they want to win. I think they're starving to win. They are probably tired of hearing all this other stuff. When you come to Florida you come to play for SEC championships.
"That's the feeling I get and I think they'll almost do anything to get that done. If you don't want to do that then you don't want to come to this school. I think a good majority of them want that but everybody's not like that. There are a few guys still that I question whether they want to win championships and those guys won't be here that long."
As he walked away after day one of spring practice, some things were quite the same as any first practice under any new head coach at any school. However, there was no question that at the heart of the football program at Florida, there has been a major shift. Call it Urban Renewal if you will, but the rumble you are hearing is an earthquake on the way. The changes may seem subtle now but when the shaking stops the entire landscape will be redesigned.
Urban Meyer has a job to do and it's doubtful that anyone who spends more than five minutes with him questions that he will succeed.