"He's entirely unique and different from any coach I've ever known or seen," said Culpepper, who lettered as a lineman three years for Coach Ray Graves (1960-62), before Meyer spoke to the Capital City Gator Gathering Wednesday night. "He's completely assured of his particular program and how he's going to do it. He enforces that with the boys. He's all about discipline but he seems to like the boys and they seem to like him too. He makes me excited about the future of Florida football."
Culpepper has a rather unique perspective about Gator football. He played for Florida, has been a reliable booster for quite a number of years, and his son Brad was an All-America defensive tackle for the Gators in 1991. He's been involved with Florida football under Woodruff and Graves as a player, and as a booster under Doug Dickey, Charley Pell, Galen Hall, Gary Darnell, Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook. As a lawyer and politician, he's been influential in legislative affairs that have concerned the university over the years.
While disappointed that the past three years have not been the best for the Florida program either on or off the field, he is proud of the way that Meyer has handled the transition in the past four months. Culpepper believes that Meyer has the football program back on the right track both on and off the field.
"I have to credit Coach Meyer and the way he took over the program," said Culpepper. "He's obviously the general and he's in charge. He had a great track record coming in from Utah. We were all hoping that this would be the kind of coach we would end up with and he's done a great job."
Culpepper said that now that Brad has retired from the National Football League, his son is enjoying life as a lawyer in Tampa for the firm Morgan and Morgan.
"Some people down there in Tampa have been talking to him about running for state senate," Culpepper said, "but when I was talking to him just the other day, he said he's really got a good life and he isn't sure he wants to change that. He's having a ball learning to try cases as a lawyer and coaching little league."
* * *
The Capital City Gator Gathering was the tenth consecutive sellout on the spring tour of Gator Clubs for Meyer. Held at the Leon County Fairgrounds, just a couple of miles from the campus of the School Out West, a crowd of more than 800 came to hear Meyer talk about the team and its chances for a successful 2005 football season. Meyer emphasized once again that if the team has a good summer, "buckle your seatbelts because it's going to be a lot of fun" but added that if there are the discipline problems that plagued the offseasons as they did the previous three seasons, "unbuckle the seatbelts because it's going to be very average."
FSU Diploma as shown at Tallahasee Gathering
The closest thing the Gators football coach came to a zinger against the School Out West was when he was talking about how tough it has become to get into school at the University of Florida. Noting that less than 25 percent who apply to Florida will gain acceptance, Meyer said "That's why they go to these other schools because they can't get in in Gainesville."
* * *
Jim Tartt, from nearby Sopchoppy, has become one of Urban Meyer's favorite football players. The 6-2, 320-pound offensive guard whom Meyer described at a Monday night Gator Gathering in southwest Florida as a "couple inches away from being round" has endeared himself to the new football coach at the University of Florida in just four months.
"He is a wack job, he really is, but he's a good student and I love the way he plays the game," Meyer said. "I have favorite players and I'm not ashamed to admit it. He's a great player, a really tough dude."
Meyer said that he recently got a call from St. Patrick's Catholic School where his six-year old son Nathan attends. Nathan gets excited about alligators and Tartt, understanding Nathan's love for the reptiles, dropped in at St. Patrick's along with Gator defensive end Javier Estopinan. Tartt had brought a small alligator ("about 3-4 feet long" Meyer said) and taped his mouth shut.
"He knew my son likes alligators so he got him out of class so he could hold and pet an alligator," said Meyer with a laugh.
* * *
Meyer praised Chris Leak for his developing role as a team leader. Meyer said that when he first got to Gainesville, Leak would be watching film alone, but now, at Meyer's insistence, he's begun to reach out to his teammates to become a vocal and charismatic leader. Meyer said that recently, he walked into a film room and Leak was there with nine or ten teammates, watching film and looking for ways to improve.
Getting Leak to become the vocal leader wasn't easy. Quiet and unassuming, Leak has always been more comfortable leading by example, but Meyer told the quarterback that it was time to become the vocal leader as well.
"We had to tell him you are the general of the offense, don't take that lightly," Meyer said.
While much was made early in the spring of getting some mechanical issues worked out in Leak's throwing motion, Meyer said that getting Leak to lead teammates was a greater issue.
"He can be a great leader and that's more important than changing his throwing motion," Meyer said.
Meyer said that backup quarterback Gavin Dickey will see the field as a quarterback and as the team's number five receiver.
True freshman quarterback Josh Portis, he said, "had a dynamic spring and it's going to be hard to keep him off the field."
* * *
Before the meeting, Meyer answered questions for media in attendance. He said that the team's leadership vacuum had much to do with the youth of the team.
"Leadership, you have to develop that," Meyer said. "They played a bunch of young players in the past two years. If they continue to play like they did they will be very average this year. If they can step up like they're supposed to at this time of their careers, we could be pretty good."
The coach said that while much has been made of his efforts to toughen up the team, it's not completely about on the field toughness.
"The toughness element is not just one thing," he said. "It's not just are you tough in the offensive line. It goes much deeper than that. Are you tough enough to make the hard decisions like on a Thursday night during the season are you going to sit your tail at home? Are you tough enough to make that decision? I don't think they were [the past three seasons] and they've been called out on it. It will be interesting to see how they respond to it."
Meyer said he liked the way Auburn showed toughness and trust during its 12-0 season in 2004.
"When you start talking about toughness and trust, I think Auburn had that last year," he said. "You watch the way they played and the way their team rallied around each other in close games. You saw that with the New England Patriots. You saw that at Utah."
* * *
Asked about players leaving school early for the NFL Draft, Meyer said that if a player can be drafted in the first round or early in the second round that it's the right thing to do, otherwise he thinks they should stay in school.
He said that he felt that it would have been better for his career in the NFL had Ciatrick Fason stayed in school, but "he left for all the right reasons. He told me he wanted to be a good husband and a good dad to his two children."
* * *
Prior to Meyer's speech, National Alumni Director Randy Talbott, who played defensive back and coached under Doug Dickey, talked about when he became the director for recruiting National Merit Scholars to the University of Florida.
Talbott said he talked to former teammate Lee McGriff, who was on Bobby Bowden's staff at the School Out West, and McGriff said that recruiting National Merit Scholars was better than recruiting football players.
"Lee said it was just like recruiting football players except there are no rules," said Talbott.
A little later, when Meyer took the podium, the coach looked at Talbott and good naturedly said, "No rules in recruiting? That must be one helluva deal! Back when you (Talbott) were playing that's the way they used to recruit anyway. I've heard those stories!"