Wednesday night, a year later, Meyer gave another optimistic speech to the Gator Gathering but this time it was tempered with talk about where his football team was last season and where it is now. Last year he couldn't have forecast the kind of difficulties his team would go through before they finally came together in a positive way. Wednesday night, he admitted his team is closer to becoming a great team but there is still work to be done.
The Gators went 9-3 a year ago and they way they finished was encouraging. Meyer wouldn't call that a great team but they did take quantum leaps in that direction in their final two games when they completely undressed and exposed Florida State, 34-7, in the final regular season game and methodically whipped Iowa, 31-24, in the Outback Bowl. You could call those Lazarus wins because this was a team in the grave, just waiting for the dirt to be shoveled into the hole.
"We went through a season with some peaks and valleys … some substantial valleys," said Meyer. "There were some very disheartening times."
Name the problem, name the excuse, name the gripe or complaint --- Meyer says "I heard it all."
The week after the South Carolina loss (game 10), Meyer had a team on life support but that's when Vernell Brown, Jeremy Mincey and Jarvis Herring gave the Gators what Meyer knew they had been lacking all along --- a heart. It's ironic that it was these three particular seniors that grabbed the Gators by the lapels and shook them until they had everyone's attention. Coming into the season they were three guys who probably had as much or more to prove than anyone.
Brown was always the guy that everyone wrote off when they measured height and weight. Nobody bothered to measure his heart. Mincey was the guy who got to D-1 football the roundabout way, juco first and then to Florida so people questioned if he belonged. Nobody bothered to measure his determination. Herring was the guy that had made mistakes off the field. Nobody bothered to measure one man's pride and self-respect.
"All of a sudden I saw three guys kind of take it by the horns and they took control of the team," said Meyer.
Brown, Mincey and Herring wanted to leave the University of Florida as winners. They knew they couldn't do it alone and they made impassioned pleas to convince their teammates to put aside all the petty arguments, to stop all the finger-pointing and end all the selfish behavior. Meyer saw a team come together that November night in The Swamp when FSU was destroyed and he saw the team continue to build upon that success the entire month of December when they practiced for the Outback Bowl.
The momentum of those final two games carried over into winter workouts and the just-concluded spring drills. Meyer spent as much time team-building as he did taking the Gators through the paces on the practice field. He got a boost along the way from Coach Billy Donovan and his national championship basketball team. Meyer took the time Wednesday night to praise Coach Billy Donovan and his team for "doing it the right way" and mentioned that the football team can take a few lessons in unselfishness and caring about each other from their basketball brethren.
The coach made it perfectly clear that the Gators have talent and they have opportunity staring at them in 2006, but he also made it a point to tell the crowd that success is going to be determined by how far they have grown as a team. The Gators have the talent to be good. Talent is important but it's only one element of greatness.
"When you talk about a great team, it's 100 percent," Meyer said in post-Gathering remarks to a few members of the media. "Just going back to our basketball team … that was 100 percent. Last year [for football] was not 100 percent and I wouldn't put us at 100 percent right now … and what I mean by 100 percent everybody associated with the program, their feet are planted in the right direction. I wouldn't put us there yet but I don't think there are many teams in the country like that, especially in football. There are so many kids you're dealing with. I've been lucky to be around a couple of teams like that. You want to be a part of that."
Meyer pointed to the turnaround that Coach Jon Gruden orchestrated with the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2005. The Bucs went through two bad seasons after they won the Super Bowl but in 2005, Gruden got them back on the right track by finding players who have "the relentless effort to be great."
That's a term that Meyer likes because he says it applies to building a team the right way.
"I love that term relentless effort to be great," he said. "If you got that we love to have you and if you don't eventually you have to go move on. Everybody on our team doesn't have that right now."
Meyer's first team at Bowling Green five seasons ago couldn't begin to measure up to what he has in talent at the University of Florida, but he proudly points out that what he had at Bowling Green was a great team.
"I had an 8-3 team five years ago that I thought was [great]," he said. "That's what they were. That was one of the best teams I've ever been a part of. I think that by the end of the past season, I wouldn't call it a great team but it was pretty close to being a great team. Our guys were playing well, our guys were behaving, the locker room wasn't about a bunch of guys worrying about too many practices or why are we practicing too hard? It was just a bunch of guys going as hard as they can."
Great teams, he says, eliminate the issues that drag them down. Great teams are teams built with high character players willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. Character is built within the team and its' also recruited.
"That's why when we go out we talk to the principles, secretaries and janitors and the people who work in the lunch room," said Meyer. "The first thing you need is high character. In the history of competition and athletics, the best teams win. There's a reason why some teams are hyped up and then they fail because they don't have high character. That's something we try to do as much as anybody.
"I know everybody's gotten into that now because of the messes in college football that you read about. It's an embarrassment to the programs so number one you go out and find the kind of person that you're dealing with and then you have to get someone who loves to play football --- that means training, working, practicing, you can develop them into a great player. I think too often you get tied into what's a vertical jump? We won't recruit you if you're not a great athlete. I want to find out what kind of person you are, what kind of family you come from."
Great football programs are built with on the strength of outstanding recruiting classes filled with players with character that can be shaped and molded the right way. Meyer is proud of the fact the Gators have eliminated the off the field problems that plagued the program prior to his arrival but eliminating off the field issues and doing things like ensuring academic success --- "if you ask me where I'm at on a 1-10 [academically] I'm about a nine --- are only factors in the equation.
The next step is to field a team with far more than three Vernell Brown, Jeremy Mincey, Jarvis Herring-types. When he gets the Gators to that point, he knows that long-term success is a certainty.
"We're not a great program and we're certainly not a great team," he said. "We're a team with some good players. Our goal is to get to the next step."
GATHERING NOTES: Meyer wouldn't call Florida State by name. He called them "those guys" and gave a half-hearted tomahawk chop to the delight of the audience ... Meyer said that unlike previous years, this year's leadership committee he personally appointed. In past years, his teams have voted on the committee. He said he didn't like the way last year's committee led the team but said this group is made up of "great young men and they're making decisions for the betterment of Florida football." … Meyer said last year's offensive problems were in part because "we didn't have a lot of dynamic personnel surrounding Chris [Leak]" … He called Leak a "coach on the field." … Meyer said Tim Tebow's best characteristics are leadership and character … Meyer was enthused about the offensive line, praising Steve Rissler for leadership … Meyer said that with Cornelius Ingram in the mix, the Gators have four outstanding wide receivers … Defensive end Jarvis Moss was called "a dude" by Meyer. "You don't hear me say that too often but he's a dude." … Safety Terrance Holmes will not be with the team in the fall. Holmes, who will graduate in a couple of weeks, has suffered with a stinger injury to his neck and shoulder the past couple of years. Meyer said it's time to let that injury heal and that means the end of the career. "He was our right guard on punt and I wanted him to stay but he couldn't practice," said Meyer. "He couldn't even do tackling drills." … Meyer said there should be no academic casualties. The team is on track to exceed the fall mark when not a single scholarship player had a GPA below 2.0.