GatorZone.com Senior Writer
TAMPA, Fla. – Urban Meyer has kept the letter all these years. It was written 25 years ago when Meyer was finishing up his undergraduate degree at the University of Cincinnati and knew he wanted to pursue a career in coaching.
The letter from Penn State coach Joe Paterno – in response to correspondence from Meyer – didn’t contain the news the 21-year-year Meyer wanted to hear at the time.
“I asked him if he would be interested in at least talking to me about a position on his staff as a graduate assistant,’’ Meyer said during an Outback Bowl luncheon this week. “Coach Paterno was gracious enough to send me back a letter saying that after I get a little more experience, maybe come back and we’ll take a look at you as a potential graduate assistant.’’
Meyer looked over at Paterno as he ended the story.
“I’m going to send it off on Jan. 2 and see if I have enough experience now,’’ he said.
It’s been that kind of week for Meyer here, a celebratory and relaxed sendoff as he prepares to coach his final game after six seasons as Florida’s head coach. All Meyer has done during his time at UF is go 64-15 and win two national championships entering Saturday’s showdown with the Nittany Lions in the 25th Anniversary Outback Bowl.
More than the impressive on-the-field accomplishments, Meyer helped change the culture around the program that incoming coach Will Muschamp takes over on Sunday.
Meyer created the Gator Walk, renewed the connection with former players, and the program’s success under his leadership elevated Florida into perhaps more of a national program than it already was when he took over in 2005.
The Gators won BCS national titles in 2006 and 2008, and during the 2007 season, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow became the first sophomore in history to win the Heisman Trophy. In 2009, the Gators were ranked No. 1 and went 12-0 in the regular season before losing to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.
Meyer’s tenure was never boring and produced as many national championships as Paterno has won in his 45 seasons at Penn State.
But when talking to those closest to Meyer – his players – they say there is a completely different and deeper side to the highly intense and focused coach than just what fans saw on the sidelines.
Here is what several Gators had to say when asked what their lasting memory of Meyer will be:
Senior linebacker Brandon Hicks --
Hicks is going to remember the animated Meyer cheering on players during UF’s “Bloody Tuesday’’ practices. Hicks said players often chuckled when watching film of the sessions, especially glimpses of Meyer making wild body gestures as he reacted to hard hits and tried to motivate players.
“It’s like the funniest thing to see,’’ Hicks said. “You want a coach with good spirits and humor and who has a good feel for each and every person on his field.’’
Hicks knows how he wants Saturday to play out: an animated Meyer having plenty to cheer about.
“We are going to do everything we possibly can to get this win,’’ Hicks said. “I know it’s going to be an emotional time for all of us. He’s going to have some tears. Not everybody can say they had a great coach like that.’’
Senior linebacker/defensive lineman Duke Lemmens –
Lemmens came all the way from Westlake Village, Calif., to play for the Gators. Meyer was the primary reason.
The way Meyer spoke about his players – helping them reach their goals, building a team with people from different background – it all stuck with Lemmens when it was time to make a college choice.
“Best decision to this day that I’ve ever made in my entire life,’’ Lemmens said. “I’ll be forever thankful for that.’’
Lemmens said Meyer didn’t just give lip service to making a connection with his players. He lived it every day, asking the players about their classes, their families and just being one of the guys around the team’s football facilities.
Oh, and those pre-game speeches. That’s what Lemmens will remember as much as anything.
“He’s given some legendary speeches to us,’’ Lemmens said. “I’m just going to think of him as a guy who really cared about his players – would go to bat for them when it came down to it. He’s a players-coach.
“What you read in the papers and stuff, I feel like he is kind of a dying breed in this college football world. He does things the right way. I’m just happy I got to experience it. If I ever become a coach one day – which I hope to do – I’ve learned a lot from him.
“He’s had an amazing run.’’
Senior center Mike Pouncey –
Pouncey and brother Maurkice have shared the story many times about how after visiting FSU one weekend their senior season at Lakeland High, they stopped at UF on a whim.
They met Meyer and some members of his staff, and next thing they knew, they changed their commitment from the Seminoles to the Gators.
Pouncey said Meyer’s commitment to his players is what he’ll remember most about his time playing at UF. And the swagger the Gators took onto the field every time they played.
“When we stepped on that field on Saturday, there wasn’t a doubt in our mind that we weren’t going to win the game,’’ Pouncey said. “He is a real emotionally coach. He loves to attack other teams, especially on special teams. I think that really gives him the edge.
“When he is trying to go after one of those blocked punts, and all the energy he brings to the team, I think that’s what makes him different.’’
Senior linebacker A.J. Jones –
Jones, relating a sentiment very similar to Lemmens, said if not for Meyer, he likely would have not ended up at Florida.
However, they clicked from their first meeting and Jones decided to become a Gator.
What is Jones’ lasting memory of playing for Meyer?
“He was there for you. He wasn’t all about himself. He looked out for his players. He was a players-coach. To tell you the truth, that man is a genius. I think he will do OK with whatever he decides to do [after coaching].’’
Senior punter Chas Henry –
Henry would often sit in team meetings packed with more than 100 players and feel as if Meyer was talking directly to him.
“He could get a message across to everybody and kind of hit everybody – it doesn’t matter where you are from or the background you have,’’ Henry said. “His messages are really unreal.’’
Henry is anxious to see what Meyer says prior to Saturday’s game as he makes his final pre-game speech to the Gators.
“The way he has that command and respect over everybody is something I will always remember,’’ Henry said. “I think [his final one] is going to be pretty emotional and pretty intense.’’
Redshirt freshman linebacker Jelani Jenkins –
Jenkins said don’t be fooled by Meyer’s often steely public persona – he can make you laugh.
Meyer’s dry sense of humor caught Jenkins off guard at first, but as Meyer prepares for the next chapter of his life, Jenkins smiles at some of the memories.
“He had a lot of passion for what he did. He had a lot of passion for the game He was a smart coach. He was a players-coach,’’ Jenkins said. “I’m going to remember all the good times, all the laughter and fun times with him.’’
Penn State coach Joe Paterno –
As for the coach Meyer wrote that letter to 25 years ago, Paterno would be glad to add Meyer to his staff a quarter century later.
Meyer is stepping down at age 46 with 103 career wins. Paterno, 84, is major college football’s all-time winningest coach. When he was 46, Paterno had 63 wins.
In his final press conference before Saturday’s matchup against the Gators, Paterno provided a final take on Meyer’s career.
“I hate to see college coaching lose a man like Urban Meyer,’’ Paterno said. “He’s got a lot of class, a lot of poise. He’s got a lovely family.
“I hate to see him go.’’