At each Gator Gathering, Coach Meyer takes as much as 90 minutes to sign autographs and inevitably, in each autograph line there is a former player. Always, the response from Meyer is one of genuine appreciation. The New Ball Coach may not be a part of the history of Gator football as was the Old Ball Coach, and he may not have had a hand in the building of the national championship team of 1996 as did the Former Ball Coach, but he is well aware of the contributions made by former players.
This past Monday night, it was Robin Fisher who was made whole again. Fisher was a nose tackle for Coach Charley Pell in the 1980s. He still holds the record for career tackles by a down lineman (348). He's gone on from Florida to a successful career as a State Farm Insurance agent in Titusville where he's been a solid contributor to that Brevard County community for the past 16 years.
Like a lot of the Gators of the 1980s, the letter that he received from Coach Meyer asking him to come back home to the University of Florida and be a part of Gator football again touched his heart. He came to the Gator Gathering because he's a Gator, but specifically because he wanted to shake the hand of the man who had made him feel wanted and needed again by the football program.
He could have pushed his way to the front and nobody would have minded, but instead Fisher waited his turn in the autograph line. When it came his turn, Fisher was introduced to Meyer as a former player. The New Ball Coach dropped his pen, stood up and shook hands. They spoke briefly and then Fisher walked away with a huge smile on his face.
"You know what, this is the first time since I've been gone in 20-something years… first time since Coach Pell's staff welcomed us back … and it's kind of great to be asked to come back home and the fun thing is I'm going to take him up on it," said Fisher. "I went to the spring game for the first time in I don't know how many years and it was really fun."
This is a familiar tune that is heard by the former Gators who were on those teams in the 1980s. For many of them their association with Coach Pell and the years of probation have been like a black cloud over the years they gave to Florida football, and for many, the past 20 years have been like a gaping, open wound that just won't heal.
Well, there is healing taking place now.
"When Coach Spurrier came here in 1990, we had that year of probation and there was still all the hangover from the probation from back when I played," says Kerwin Bell, who quarterbacked the Gators from 1984-87. "I think the 80s were a part of Florida coming into prominence but the probation that was a big part of that era.
"Steve (Spurrier) took us to new heights and I think everyone got so excited about where we were that they kind of forgot about the guys in the 1980s. I think the probation had a lot to do with it and people just wanted to forget the hard times, but most of the guys who played in the 1980s probably felt unappreciated."
Bell was never made unwelcome but a lot of that had to do with the fact he was a graduate assistant for the Old Ball Coach in 1990. He left to play a few more years of professional football after that fall but whenever he came back, he was among friends.
"I had it pretty good because those guys were my friends and we all hung around together," Bell said of the Spurrier staff. "I had it a lot better than most of the guys from the 80s, though."
Florida perhaps dealt with its NCAA problems more harshly than other schools. Pell and his successor, Galen Hall, were both fired because of the NCAA probations. Every school in the SEC except South Carolina has been hit with NCAA major violations at least once since the Gators 1984 probation and only Mike Dubose (Alabama), Hal Mumme (Kentucky) and Billy Brewer (Ole Miss) were fired. Perhaps the way Florida handled its probations, harshly punishing the coach on whose watch the violations occurred, has had a lot to do with the way the former Gators of the 1980s have felt all these years.
When Meyer first got the job, he made it clear that ALL former players would be welcomed back into the fold. He immediately sent out a letter to all the old players and that was well received. During spring practice, you would see a trickle of former players on the sidelines including players from the 1980s who hadn't been seen in years.
"Neal Anderson was up at the spring game this year," said Bell. "Now you want to talk about a miracle, that's one to get Neal there, but it goes to show you how Coach Meyer has done a good job of reaching out to the former players. Coach Meyer has done a tremendous job of making him feel that he's wanted and needed by the football program."
That Anderson would feel excluded for so long is difficult to accept. He had a marvelous career at UF then went on to have an outstanding professional career with the Chicago Bears. At every step of the way, Neal Anderson was humble and gracious off the field and a marvelous competitor on the field. Of all the old Gators who have gone on to fame and fortune, only two --- Steve Spurrier and Neal Anderson --- have used some of their resources to endow athletic scholarships to UF. Anderson endowed his scholarship in the name of his mother more than 10 years ago but he's been conspicuously absent from the Florida sidelines until now.
Meyer has bridged the gap that has existed between the former players, particularly those of the probations years. He's made the players feel comfortable, welcome, part of the family again. He's let it be known that they have certain rights and privileges as ex-players. He says that former players should be treated as special, but he has also invited them to come back to the practice field.
"I think when a former player comes back and he played a certain position he has an entitlement to come back and watch that position practice," said Meyer Monday night in Melbourne. "He also has the entitlement to grab a player who played his position by the arm and say we expect more of you than this."
The words alone are welcome to the former players, but more than words, they see the actions. They feel the passion of Florida football that Urban Meyer is embracing and once again, they are feeling a part of it.
"I think he's done a tremendous job in making us feel a part of Florida football," said Bell. "I've had the opportunity to be around him a bit and he always says bring the guys to practice. He wants everybody from the past to support the program and be a part of it. Coach Meyer has done a great job of making the old players feel good about Florida football. I think he understands the more you bring back the older guys the more it strengthens the program."
The Florida football program is indeed strengthening. When wounds heal, you're always stronger, and Urban Meyer is making sure the old wounds are being healed, one by one.