It is indeed as Coach Doc Holliday said in West Palm Beach a couple of weeks ago, "like having Elvis in the house." Every Gator Gathering is sold out and at most venues the crowd is a new record by a wide margin. The crowds come to see for themselves if the new coach is indeed the real deal. The crowds come in with an edge of anticipation and excitement tempered by a tad of skepticism. They leave fired up and wondering why they have to wait three months for football season to begin?
At nearly every stop there are the Gators from six different decades there to show their support. Meeting the old Gators has been the highlight for me, especially getting to spend a few moments with Coach Ray Graves. Hearing him talk about how proud he is of how "his boys" have made something of their lives is almost as inspiring as Meyer.
There are questions I get asked at every stop by Gator fans and Gator Country subscribers. Here are the four questions that have been asked of me at every one of the 14 stops I've made along the Meyer tour:
1. Isn't this a gimmick offense? What will happen when the Meyer offense goes against the bigger, strong and faster linebackers that he will see in the SEC?
First off, repeat after me. This is NOT a gimmick. This offense is a brainchild of a very sick mind, one that is determined to see what happens when you mix Tom Osborne, Steve Spurrier, Knute Rockne, Woody Hayes and Bill Walsh all together. You get this hybrid of all hybrids, a mutation that is capable of changing shapes in front of your very eyes, much like an amoeba.
Confused? Okay, let me put it to you this way. The offense has the option principles that you see in Tom Osborne's Nebraska offense. It's got the downfield throwing principles of Darth Visor himself, Steve Wonder, now of South Carolina. You have the old double wing running game of Knute Rockne and if you watch all the motion and shifting, it may even bring back a memory or two of the Notre Dame Box Formation. It's got the line it up and we'll stomp you in the dirt principles of Woody Hayes, and for a final little thrill, there's the short game principles of Bill Walsh's West Coast offense.
You have all those things thrown into one offense which means the offense can adapt on the field to whatever the defense throws its way. By spreading the field, the offense creates a numbers game. If you don't have enough people in the box to stop the run, then by golly, the run is what you're going to see. If you load up the box with too many people to stop the run that means you've left the receivers in one-on-one coverage. As wide receivers Coach Billy Gonzalez has said, let's see someone with the horse collar around the neck and knee braces trying to cover Jemalle Cornelius or Bubba Caldwell down the field.
If you put one extra guy in to stop the run and you don't have the security blanket of a pair of deep safeties, then you see the Stevie Wonder principles come into place. That's when you see that deep slant over the middle go for big yards and lots of touchdowns.
If you decide you're going to stop it with the blitz, then watch how the offense becomes very West Coast. Watch Chris Leak count to two and then hit Chad Jackson or Dallas Baker in stride on the quick slant and notice how much green space is suddenly between the Florida receiver and the defensive pack.
And, since Florida has so much speed at the wide receiver positions, if you decide you're going to double up on one or two receivers, that means the tailback and the quarterback are fairly much unaccounted for. That's when you see the option. If they account for the tailback but not the quarterback, that's when you see the quarterback run wild.
In the simplest of terms, this is an offense that creates 11 one-on-one matchups that makes the defense account for the quarterback on every play. If the defense doubles on someone, that creates a numbers mismatch for the offense and that's where having a smart quarterback who can count and read the defense comes into play. When Leak comes to the line of scrimmage, he starts counting how many are in the box and that tells him if it's going to be run or pass. Then he starts counting the defensive backs to see who's got the one-on-one coverage and if he sees a 4.3 guy like Bubba on a linebacker, that's where the ball is going automatically. If everyone is accounted for but the quarterback, then Leak will run. If they double the outside receivers, that means Leak and the tailback will be running the option and some of the other goodies built into the running game.
So, gimmick? Not at all. It's a well conceived offense that is probably 10 years ahead of its time because it incorporates so many ways to break down a defense and create mismatches. And to get back to the second part of the question, yes the linebackers in the SEC are faster than those in the Mountain West Conference … but so are the running backs and receivers that Meyer now has at his disposal. The increased speed of the linebackers is negated and trumped by the increased speed of the Florida wideouts.
Here is where it also gets very interesting because to cover Florida's speed, teams will typically sacrifice tackling and physicality of linebackers and safeties for the speed of extra cornerbacks. Corners are usually the least physical players on the field with the exception of kickers and they are usually the worst tacklers on the defense. If Florida spreads the field out and there are extra corners in the game watch the Gators run the ball while the defense's surest tacklers are watching the game from the sideline. Should the defense try to play the Gators straight up, then the game becomes a total track meet because there's no way linebackers can keep up with some of the speed guys Florida will put on the field.
2. Do you think that all this talk about increased discipline, The Pit and the Champion's Club is going to cost Florida some good recruits?
That's a great question because recruiting is indeed going to be affected by all the talk about discipline, but it's my opinion that the emphasis on increased discipline is going to HELP recruiting in a couple of ways. First, the players who aren't interested in discipline will blow off the Florida coaching staff pretty quickly, so we have a wheat separating from the chaff type of situation in recruiting. The Florida coaches will find out quickly who is and who isn't interested in being a Gator. Secondly, the players who are impressed by the discipline and impressed by the chances to prove themselves on a daily basis are going to come to Florida motivated and ready to get in The Champion's Club and do whatever it takes to avoid The Pit.
There are a lot of players who don't want the discipline and that's fine. Those are not the kind of players that Meyer wants on scholarship at the University of Florida. He's emphasized it throughout the tour that he wants the one percent of the one percent. He wants the kids who want the discipline, the ones who understand that the discipline breeds championship teams. Sure, you can win a championship with very undisciplined teams but to sustain the program so it doesn't collapse under its own weight ala Oklahoma during the Switzer years, there has to be a regimen of discipline. Let the kids who don't want the discipline go somewhere else and be a pain in someone else's rectals.
By talking so openly about the discipline and about running a tight ship, Meyer has made a national statement that Florida is no longer going to take problematic players. Florida's recent history with problem players has been a ploy of opposing coaches on the recruiting trail. Last year when Meyer and the Gators were recruiting David Nelson, Iowa tried to sway the tall wide receiver from Texas with plenty of talk about all the "thugs" at Florida and the total lack of discipline. Meyer won Nelson over by ensuring him that there would be discipline in the program. Discipline is also one of the things that swayed Millicent Demps when she put in her two cents with her son, Jon Demps, the terrific linebacker out of Pensacola. Millicent liked Meyer's approach to discipline and because she did, Jon will be a Gator.
Another side benefit of the increased emphasis on discipline is that kids who want to be a part of this program will understand up front that there are tremendous academic demands as well as demands to live life right off the field. There is no room in the program for kids who aren't willing to do the work in the classroom. The loafers and slackers in the classroom are going to go other places. The kids who understand that football provides the ticket to get an education are going to find Meyer's approach just what they are looking for. Kids who are far more interested in Friday night parties and being magnets for trouble aren't welcome, either. The entire atmosphere of the football program is going to be transformed to one where achievement is expected in every realm of the player's life, and that's a good thing.
3. Have you ever seen Gator Nation coming together like this?
Charley Pell started the spring tour of the Gator Clubs back 26 years ago and while Charley was a tremendous motivator, he never got the Gator Nation behind him like this. I think one of the reasons is because when Charley came to Florida, the Gators were still searching for that first elusive Southeastern Conference championship. Meyer comes to Gainesville three years removed from the greatest 12-year era in the history of Florida football so fans are hungry to get back to where the Gators used to be. At every stop on the spring tour, it is a sellout and usually a record turnout by a wide margin. I am told that the money is flowing into the booster coffers at a record rate.
Fans relate to Meyer and Meyer connects with them. His speeches at each Gator Club start out the same way with a couple of jokes and ice breakers, but once he gets into it, not only is he sweating and jacked up, he's got half the crowd ready to storm the Bastille. He is a tremendous motivator and if he can get crowds of grown men and women this fired up, then just imagine what he can do with a room full of 85 focused 18-22 year olds on game day.
All the seats are sold for the 2005 season and tickets are already being scalped, too, so that's a pretty good indicator that The Swamp is going to be a regular zoo on September 3. If the Gators hold serve those first two games (Wyoming and Louisiana Tech), The Swamp could be the zaniest place on the planet on September 17 when the fine folks from Dollywood come marching into town.
4. The Seminoles and Hurricanes are spending more time on their boards dissing Meyer than they are talking about their own teams. Do you think they're afraid of the Gators now?
Afraid? It would be hard to say that they are afraid at this point, but just let Meyer get the Gators off to a 3-0 or 4-0 start and the fear factor might ratchet up a few notches. Right now I think it would be safe to say that they are prepared for a worst case scenario over the long haul, i.e.; the Gators become the dominating power in the state and on the national scene.
Let's face it, Florida has advantages that they just don't have at FSU or at Miami. Florida's got more money, better facilities, better academics … better everything. Now, throw in the fact that Meyer is much younger than either Bobby Bowden or Larry Coker and not only is he younger, he looks like a kid next to the grumpy old men if you put their photos in a row.
Florida has a young, dynamic coach whose offense is straight out of Star Wars. The Gators are going to put points and lots of them on the scoreboard. Florida is going to be the exciting team to watch and you can bet the Gators will be on television as often as possible.
Meyer has the ability to unite the Gator Nation and he's showing he can get them to empty their wallets to keep the program going first class. Throw in the fact that the man can flat out recruit. If you thought he did a bang up job with just a month to work to bring in the class of 2005, just wait till you see the class of 2006. And, he is going to be here a long time. He has ZERO interest in the National Football League and he's looking at the Florida job as if this is the last stop on the highway. The fact that he's planning to be a long termer can't be good news to the folks in Tallahassee and Coral Gables.