FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Urban Meyer arrived late to a room packed with ex-Gators, writers, photographers, radio talk hosts and television anchors from all over the nation for the press conference where he was introduced to Gator Nation. He was late, we were told, because he was talking to his new football team. Little did we in the media know that Meyer will almost always be late when it comes to a media function because there will always be a team or player meeting or a recruit to call. The media has never been nor ever will be his top priority.
On that first day, Meyer talked about implementing a plan to win at Florida, a plan that included players living their lives right, going to class, and proving on a daily basis that they're worthy to be called Gators. Everybody in the room knew he could win --- the results at Bowling Green and Utah proved that --- and no one doubted that he would clean up the off the field mess. The question of the day was how many players would he run off while cleaning things up? How many would buy into enforced discipline after three years of slack times that saw far too many players involved in incidents that resulted in arrests or police complaints?
The first day impression was that Meyer would not tolerate slackers or malcontents. There was no question that this is a my way or the highway kind of coach who would demand that players play hard in practice to earn playing time, perform in the classroom and learn to be good citizens away from football. My thought was that this is someone who can be a friend but he will never be a player's buddy. Friends will tell it to you straight. Buddies will try to cover for you. Meyer's not one to cover for you if you're out of line.
SIGNING DAY IMPRESSIONS: At the afternoon press conference on National Signing day where he announced his first class of recruits, Meyer talked about class headliners like David Nelson (Wichita Falls, TX) and Nyan Boateng (Brooklyn, NY), both of whom were US Army All-Americans, and cornerback Avery Atkins (Daytona Beach), who was rated among the best in the country at his position. He talked about recruiting quarterback Josh Portis in Los Angeles just a few hours after leading Utah to the Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt. Those were nice stories, but the one that got everybody's attention is how he stayed up most of the night to win the battle for Jon Demps, the big, fast, intelligent linebacker from Pensacola Washington.
The night before signing day, Demps started waffling on his commitment to Florida. Word leaked out that he would sign with the School Out West and that sprung Meyer and defensive coordinator Charlie Strong into immediate action. They spent the next several hours talking to Demps and to his mother, Millicent, going over all the things that were right about Florida and why Florida was the best choice for Jon. When dawn broke, Jon Demps was a Gator and Urban Meyer not only had a real jewel for his recruiting class, but he had won a critical head to head war with the School Out West.
The signing of Demps helped offset the sting of losing out at the last second to the School Out West for Antone Smith, the stud running back out of Pahokee, and Matt Hardrick, the huge offensive tackle out of Orlando Edgewater.
My signing day impression of Meyer was that this is a guy who could not only put together a very respectable class of recruits in a short period of time but also that he wasn't afraid to go toe to toe with the recruiting machine that is the School Out West. I think that in retrospect, he would have walked away in Los Angeles if he could have envisioned what a nightmare Patricia Portis (Josh's mom) would become. Meyer can skip purgatory on his way to heaven. He's learned first hand about the fiery arrows and darts of hell right here on earth.
IMPRESSIONS FROM THE MEYER TOUR: There were 20 stops along the Meyer Tour of Gator clubs and at each outpost, there was record attendance. There were no tickets to be found anywhere and the atmosphere was electric, almost like waiting for a rock star. The speech was pretty much the same at every stop and there were the endless lines of autograph seekers. It's safe to say that Meyer signed more than 10,000 autographs along the way.
There were some moments to remember along the way such as the guy in West Palm Beach who had Meyer autograph his tattoo. As soon as the meeting was over, he went straight to his local tattoo parlor to have Meyer's signature made a permanent part of his body art. Meyer autographed a satellite dish in Jacksonville. In Ocala, Nathan Meyer sat behind dad and showed what it's like to be six years old and thoroughly bored.
The moment of moments, however, was at Belle Glade where Ray McDonald's mother stood up during the question and answer session. With teams streaming down her face, she spent the next couple of minutes thanking Meyer for Ray's improved attitude and most of all, his improved grades. She encouraged Meyer to keep on making the players accountable in every phase of their lives.
I went to all but two stops on the Meyer tour and came away with the impression that this is a coach who would much rather be back in Gainesville where he can daily impact the lives of his players. He handled the tour well enough to fire up the Gator Nation but it became more and more obvious that he was the proverbial fish out of water. He's a coach, not a public relations guy. The other obvious impression I got was that Meyer really didn't know just how passionate Gator fans are about their team until he did the tour.
AUGUST IMPRESSIONS: By the time August arrived with two-a-days, the attrition stood at five (Channing Crowder and Ciatrick Fason early entry to the NFL, Taurean Charles dismissed for actions before Meyer arrived, and Tree Morant and Dane Guthrie transferred). That in itself was a real victory and proof that the players had truly bought into what Meyer and his assistants were preaching.
At media day, Dallas Baker welled up with tears when he talked about how Meyer had made a difference in his life. Baker scored a GPA above 3.0 in the spring, Summer A and Summer B and he recalled the moment when he called his mother to tell her that he had come home with a 97 on a microeconomics test. Baker went from high school to prep school and then had to sit out his freshman year at UF because of academics.
Jarvis Herring talked about his transformation from malcontent and underachiever to team leader. He spoke with pride about being the one who goes downtown to check the bars to see if there are players in places they shouldn't be instead of being the one who was always at the bars long after he should have been home. He talked about how Meyer had instilled a new sense of pride and how his mother loved the "new" Jarvis Herring.
There were plenty of stories like that and plenty of stories about how the team slogged its way through one practice after another in brutal August heat that reached record levels. Meyer said that the team had potential, but even then, he warned that a lot of things had to go right for the Gators to be as good as they could be.
My August impression was that if Meyer was the fish out of water while he was doing the Gator club tour, he was definitely back in his element on the practice field. What makes Meyer tick is leading 85 young football players and preparing them for 11 pre-appointed battles. If you really want to see Meyer in his element and at his best, watch him during practice where he is completely organized and totally focused. Watch how he knows when to encourage and when to get in a player's face. He has mastered the art of team building.
SEPTEMBER TO REMEMBER IMPRESSIONS: The first two games were tune-ups. The Tennessee game is the game to remember in September. It's one to remember because of the ferocity of Florida's defense and because Bubba Caldwell was lost for the season returning the opening kickoff of the second half. Meyer talked about the blow that losing Caldwell was in the post-game press conference but nobody had a clue just how much of the Gators' offensive plans went down the tubes when he went broke his leg.
After the game, everyone wanted to talk about how Florida's defense had kept Tennessee on its side of the field the entire second half and how Florida's offense went conservative, taking field goals at the end of three long drives in the second half and zero risks.
A week later, Caldwell's absence was put on the back burner because Jemalle Cornelius had a breakout game. Cornelius was electrifying and at the same time it was a shot of novocaine. No Bubba Caldwell? No problem! At least that's what people were thinking after the Kentucky game in Lexington.
I know that Meyer had coached some big games as an assistant and a few as a head coach at Bowling Green and Utah, but that night he led the Gators to victory over Tennessee before one of the loudest, most raucous crowds The Swamp has ever seen made this a real September to remember. The first two games of the season were Romper Room. The Tennessee game was definitely a real slice of the big time.
IMPRESSIONS OF A ROLLER COAST OCTOBER: The full effect of Caldwell's loss was felt in October starting with Florida's first loss of the season in Tuscaloosa to Alabama. Cornelius went down with a high ankle sprain in the second half of that game and suddenly, the Gators were lacking speed and playmaking ability on the outside at wide receiver. Alabama exposed a weakness in the Florida secondary that wouldn't be corrected until Reggie Nelson moved from a part timer at the nickel position back to full time safety.
Over the next two weeks, Meyer would be called "Urban Liar" and "Urban Crier." He was called liar by a Jacksonville columnist who claimed the coach lied about Florida injuries prior to the homecoming win over Mississippi State. Meyer didn't lie and since no one asked questions about injuries, he didn't feel the necessity to inform the press. He was called "Urban Crier" when he broke down in tears in the press room after a heartbreaking loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. Meyer was in tears because he had spent 20 minutes trying to console a team that was devastated by this loss.
Two weeks later, Meyer just flat outcoached Mark Richt and the Gators beat Georgia for the 13th time in 15 years. The Georgia people keep saying that Florida doesn't win that game if D.J. Shockley (quarterback) plays but consider this: Florida played the game without Bubba Caldwell, with Jemalle Cornelius operating no better than 70 percent on a gimpy ankle, Chad Jackson beaten up and going about 80% and Dallas Baker cut down with a sprained ankle in the first half.
I came away with three very strong October impressions. The first was the devastation of the loss at Alabama. Florida played poorly in practically every phase of the game. Were they ill-prepared or overconfident? I actually came away impressed with Meyer when he broke down after the LSU game. That's the kind of coach I want, one who wants it so badly for his team that a loss is like a dagger in the heart. The Georgia game showed me a coach who will do what he has to do to win, even if it's smoke and mirrors. He had no offense but he won with defense and toughness.
IMPRESSIONS OF THE FINAL MONTH: November provided three more very distinct portraits of Meyer. There was the Meyer who had to win the Vandy game in overtime, the Meyer who couldn't beat Steve Spurrier in Columbia, and the Meyer who outcoached and out-everythinged Bobby Bowden in the final game of the season at The Swamp.
The lasting impression of the Vandy game goes beyond Florida blowing a big lead in the fourth quarter and then winning in overtime. That the Gators won was almost obscured by Vernell Brown breaking a bone in his leg in the second half. During the Meyer Tour, the coach called the little guy "The Face of Florida Football." If anyone represented all the things that Meyer talked about on day one when he faced the media back last November, it is Vernell Brown, the smallest man on the team but the Gator with the biggest heart. In his post game press conference, it seemed that Meyer was more devastated by Brown's injury than he was elated by Florida's victory.
Losing in Columbia saw the Gators at their worst and yet they still had a shot to win the game. Florida was Murphy's Law in action that day and what made the loss so painful was that it was to Spurrier, the man who put Florida football on the map as a player in the 1960s and as a team in the 1990s. The questions that were prevalent after the Alabama game showed their ugly heads again. Were the Gators ill-prepared or overconfident?
Two weeks later, the best prepared, best coached team won the annual Florida-School Out West bloodbath. Urban Meyer closed out the regular season by crushing the Seminoles with a solid offense, a kick them in the butts till their nose bleeds defense and lights out special teams. Urban Meyer was better than Bobby Bowden that day and his team was infinitely better than the Seminoles.
I came away from November and the regular season thinking that even with two winnable speed bumps among the three that ended up in the L column, Urban Meyer has an upside that's better than what I thought when he came here last December. My lasting impression of the season is that Meyer can coach in big games, that he cares deeply about his players, and that he is willing to adapt to adverse situations. I liked that he didn't make excuses about injuries even though it's quite evident that injuries played a huge part in Florida's losses and in the lack of offensive production. I also liked that he started out his career at Florida 1-0 against the School Out West and setting a tone for the future with a good, old-fashioned stomping.
RECRUITING SEASON IMPRESSIONS: In the weeks since the win over the School Out West, Josh Portis has transferred out along with Skyler Thornton (grades, playing time) and Dawayne Grace (unresolved legal problems). Those negatives have been obscured by the job Meyer and his staff are doing on the recruiting trail where they are in the process of putting together the class of all classes. Florida stands to finish with not only the top recruiting class in the country, but unquestionably the best recruiting class in school history. When I talk to kids to do recruiting stories, they tell me two things: (1) nobody recruits harder than Urban Meyer and (2) nobody recruits cleaner than Urban Meyer.
I think that bodes well for the future. Back when he finished up his first press conference, I was convinced that Florida has the right coach at the right time in history. Even with a season that had three speedbumps, I'm still convinced that this is the right guy. I like the future of Florida football and I like the guy who's taking the Gators into the future.