GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – He walked alone in the darkness toward the team plane resting on a runway in Tuscaloosa around midnight on Oct. 2. Urban Meyer had the look of a man in deep thought and not too pleased about his evening.
A little while earlier, the team buses had pulled away from Bryant-Denny Stadium following a 31-6 loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama in a rematch of the 2009 SEC Championship Game. The loss was the Gators’ first since Meyer’s health scare 10 months earlier.
Meyer was one of the first people to board the plane for the flight back to Gainesville. Soon after getting settled into his seat, Meyer’s youngest daughter, Gigi, reached down and gave her dad a consoling hug before quietly taking a seat next to him.
In my one season covering the Gators with Meyer as their head coach, that’s the moment I’ll remember most about the man who propelled Florida’s football program to new heights during his six seasons. Meyer wanted a win that night, but when that wasn’t in the cards, he clearly needed a hug and Gigi knew it.
The stories about Meyer’s competitive nature, his desire for excellence, and his disdain for losing are plentiful around UF’s campus. He forgets to eat. He doesn’t sleep. He’ll study film and analyze every play as long as his body allows.
In many ways, Meyer has been the face of the prototypical 21st Century college football coach in recent years. But while many try and fail, Meyer produced results that catapulted him to the top of his profession over the past decade during stops at Bowling Green, Utah and Florida.
There’s another side of Meyer that we haven’t seen often.
Meyer talked a lot about family during his time in Gainesville, but a lot of coaches do that. Following his health scare in December 2009 and brief departure, Meyer returned to work in 2010 searching for a better balance between leading one of the nation’s top football programs and finding time with his family: wife Shelley, daughters Nicole and Gigi, and son Nathan.
Meyer, 46, hasn’t revealed much about his new perspective, at least publicly. But you got the sense that he wasn’t just providing lip service when he spoke of healthy changes. This fall, it wasn’t unusual for Meyer to stop a stranger in the hallway and ask about his family or to wave as he walked up and down the stairs at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium during lunch.
On the outside, Meyer kept his emotions in check except for those three-plus hours on the sideline on Saturday. As Meyer endured the first three-game losing streak of his career and an overall roller-coaster ride of a season, the fiery juices inside the Ohio native often bubbled to the surface.
The losing streak obviously ate at him, and when the Gators finally snapped it with a thrilling 34-31 win over Georgia on Oct. 30, a pumped Meyer called the win his biggest.
“We needed that. My family needed that, everybody needed that,’’ Meyer said. “A bunch of families in there [locker room] needed it. These guys have been to hell and back in the last three weeks.”
While Meyer’s lasting legacy at Florida will be two national championships and his spread-option offense led by Heisman-winner Tim Tebow, Meyer made an impact in other ways, too. He embraced Florida’s tradition – welcoming former Gators back to campus to speak to the team regularly – and as the team’s success grew, so did the support from boosters and alumni, specifically with the addition of the Bill Heavener Football Complex in 2008.
The news of Meyer’s resignation will shock many, surprise others, and elicit nothing more than a shrug from some considering last year’s events. Whatever your reaction or opinion of Meyer is, there’s no question that he was the right man for the job when named UF’s head coach on Dec. 4, 2004.
For those who care most about Florida football – Gator Nation – the feeling will be similar to the one they experienced when former head coach Steve Spurrier resigned following the 2001 season and left for the NFL.
Like then, Gator Nation knows an era has passed and a new one must be formed.
If the plan plays out according to script, Meyer will coach his final game in Tampa on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl. We don’t know yet what’s next for the most winningest active coach in college football with at least 10 seasons on the sideline.
When Spurrier abruptly left behind the most successful period in Florida football history, this is what Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had to say at the time:
“It’s certainly a sad day for our program,’’ Foley said. “It’s a passing of an era. It’s been a lot of fun for a lot of people. He brought us a program that we could only dream about.”
And then Spurrier was gone, and as he walked out the door, he took some of the swagger and success with him. But after a brief dip, Meyer arrived and immediately and did what some people didn’t think possible: elevate the program to heights never seen before around The Swamp, winning two national titles in his first four seasons and going 16-2 against traditional rivals Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State.
So as Meyer prepares to move on to the next chapter of his life and Gator Nation turns the page on the Meyer Era, Foley shouldn’t fret over what to say at Meyer’s press conference later today.
All he has to say are the same words he spoke nine years ago. They are as true today as then.