GatorZone.com Senior Writer
TAMPA – Urban Meyer’s first season as Florida’s head coach in 2005 ended with a victory in the Outback Bowl, a 31-24 win over Iowa in the Gators’ last visit here.
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley reminded a crowded ballroom at the A La Carte Event Pavilion of that fact on Sunday night during the Outback Bowl Welcome Dinner.
“We really felt like that was the springboard to the national championship we won in 2006,’’ Foley said. “I honestly believe it started down here in Tampa.’’
The Gators reunited here Sunday to begin preparation for Saturday’s Outback Bowl against Penn State in what is Meyer’s final game as Florida’s coach. Meyer announced his resignation earlier this month.
He met with the Gators on Sunday afternoon to remind them why they are here and to seize the opportunity in one of the most-anticipated games of the bowl season.
On one sideline, you have Meyer, the game’s most successful coach the past six years with two national championships. On the other sideline will be Penn State’s Joe Paterno, who celebrated his 84th birthday last week and is already talking about his goals for next season.
“This is a great bowl and we can’t wait to do our best against Penn State,’’ Meyer said. “These are two programs that do it the right way.’’
As Outback Bowl president Jim McVay, Foley, Meyer and Paterno addressed the crowd, the two teams feasted on steak, chicken and ribs.
At the table where Gators senior Mike Pouncey and safety Ahmad Black were seated, the first plate of ribs went fast. A server quickly dropped off another plate. Overall, Outback Bowl officials reported that 5,400 pounds of food was served, including 900 pounds of ribs and 750 pounds each of steak and chicken.
When Paterno took the podium for a few brief remarks, Pouncey turned from his plate to listen to what Paterno had to say. As speculation over his future at Penn State constantly makes the rounds on the Internet, the Nittany Lions say not to expect Paterno to join Meyer in retirement next season.
“We are around coach every day. There is no truth to these rumors at all,’’ Penn State senior receiver Brett Brackett said. “He’s passionate. He loves what he does and he does a great job at it. He puts 100 percent into it. He is really hands on. He’ll be in your face and pretty vocal.’’
Paterno had the best line of Sunday’s dinner when his wife Sue joined him on stage to accept a gift basket from McVay.
“That’s my wife, not my daughter,’’ Paterno quipped.
“The guy is a freak of nature,’’ Nittany Lions defensive tackle Ollie Ogbu said. “I don’t think I would be 84 and I’d be coaching. I think I would be down here in Florida on a beach chair day in and day out relaxing.
“He loves this stuff. We love him for it. I’m happy I’ve been a part of his life for five years. I will always remember him.’’
The Gators will talk to the media after Monday’s practice at the University of Tampa, and like the storyline that has followed Penn State much of the season, you can bet Meyer’s final game will receive most of the attention.
Meyer, 46, quickly rebuilt the Gators into one of the nation’s elite programs, winning a national title in only his second season and two in his first four seasons. Florida enters Saturday’s game with a 7-5 record and something extra to play for since Meyer announced he was stepping away from coaching to spend more time with his wife, Shelley, and their three kids.
Prior to the holiday break, Gators receiver Frankie Hammond talked about the importance of sending Meyer out with a victory.
“We definitely want his last game to be a win,’’ Hammond said. “Coach Meyer has done so much for this program and is one of the greatest coaches of all-time. He deserves to win his last game.’’
McVay told a story about the Outback Bowl almost fading away after a couple of years due to financial issues. More than 20 years later, the 25th annual game at Raymond James Stadium has added buzz.
The combination of Meyer’s final game and the legendary Paterno’s vow to continue coaching is more than McVay could have imagined when the schools accepted invitations.
“We are going to have a lot of fun,’’ McVay said Sunday. “The Gators, the Nittany Lions – this is going to be a very special week.’’