GatorZone.com Senior Writer
TAMPA, Fla. – The sun was just beginning to rise over Tampa’s Harbour Island early Saturday morning when Urban Meyer walked out of the team hotel.
Meyer didn’t look like a man whose coaching career was a few hours from ending.
As he had all week here in preparation for the Outback Bowl – his final game after six seasons leading the Gators’ football program – Meyer looked at ease as he strolled out in dark dress slacks and a white shirt.
The Gators had already made their way outside as music – the same tune used at The Swamp when the Gators enter the stadium after Gator Walk – blasted from loudspeakers in a nearby van.
Senior offensive linemen Mike Pouncey, Carl Johnson and Marcus Gilbert swayed back and forth to the music, lost in their own pregame ritual. Duke Lemmens and Deonte Thompson blocked out the world with their headphones as Shelley Meyer, their coach’s wife, walked past on her return from a pre-dawn run.
Soon, Urban Meyer’s intensity shot up. He produced a thundering clap and three words: “Time to walk.’’
Instantly, the players and coaches fell in line behind the man who coached his 80th game on the Gators’ sideline Saturday.
The morning walk-through Saturday was like most of the 79 others during Meyer’s tenure.
Director of strength and conditioning Mickey Marotti barked “water down, boys, water down,” as the players passed a grand piano stacked with apples, oranges, bananas and water in the hotel’s lobby.
It was going to be hot, and Marotti wanted to make sure the Gators were prepared for the conditions they would face later at Raymond James Stadium.
Once Meyer’s clap got the day started, the players took a 15-minute walk around Harbour Island that ended in the back of the hotel. The teams then split up with the defense going over assignments underneath a parking garage, and the offense working out in an adjacent parking lot.
Meyer re-entered the hotel to go over notes while offensive coordinator Steve Addazio and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin led their groups through drills for the next 20 minutes. The team then went back into the hotel for position meetings for the next half hour.
After that it was time for breakfast, where Meyer and Addazio spoke to fire up the players. The players gave both coaches – Addazio is leaving to start his new job as Temple’s head coach this week – a round of ovations during the festive meal.
The mood surrounding the day started to take shape shortly after the team ate.
The players didn’t know it as they entered a large ballroom for their pre-game motivational video, but Meyer had invited a special guest: former Navarre High football player Ian Lockwood.
Meyer’s ability to instantly take over a room emerged once the players settled into their seats. The assistant coaches and support personnel stood in back of the room.
Meyer, standing underneath a large video screen at the front of the room, led a team tradition known as the clap drill. He then gave part of his pre-game speech as a fiery intensity swept over him.
“The game of football, it’s a lifestyle,’’ he shouted. “Respect it. Your God-given ability to play the game, it’s a gift. Use it. Do it for the guy next to you.
“We have four hours together today. It’s a chance for us to make someone’s day a little brighter.’’
Senior Ahmad Black was the first player Meyer asked to speak. Freshman Trey Burton followed Black.
“It’s the last time we’ll all be together,’’ Burton said. “Let’s go win this one for Coach, for our seniors, for everybody in this room.’’
When Meyer introduced Lockwood, who recently underwent a second surgery for brain cancer and is the person Meyer spent his evening with after announcing his resignation on Dec. 4, the room got quiet.
You could hear a pin drop when Lockwood removed the skull cap and revealed his disfigured head from a second recent brain surgery.
Meyer hugged Lockwood as the teenager faced the group of more than 100.
“I fell in love with this guy about two years ago,’’ he said. “He has such love and passion for this game.’’
Lockwood played his final game in October for Navarre High and had brain surgery a few days later at Shands Hospital in Gainesville. His prognosis remains grim. But his spirit was captivating Saturday.
“I miss football,’’ he told the players. “I’d do anything to be able to play again.”
The team then watched a video of some of its best plays of the season as music blasted throughout the room.
The video’s ending came with a special message after a clip from Denzel Washington’s movie “The Book of Eli’’ set the tone.
One game left.
Let’s go beat Penn State.
Once the team arrived at the stadium, Meyer’s mood lightened as he waved at fans and walked beside his son Nate in a mini-Gator Walk outside the stadium. When he turned the corner toward the Gators’ locker room, it was time for a quick interview with ESPN’s Suzy Kolber.
Pouncey could tell Meyer enjoyed his final day on the job.
“He was in high spirits the whole time,’’ Pouncey said after the game. “He felt good about our game plan. He felt good that the guys were ready to play. No matter what happened, we didn’t feel like we were going to lose that game because it was dedicated to that kid.’’
After the team returned to the locker room after pre-game warm-ups, the ultra-intense Meyer quickly reappeared as he walked toward where the players’ side of the locker room.
“Let’s go Gators. Let’s go Gators,’’ he yelled.
The players chimed in, too, as music blared in the backdrop.
After a couple of minutes of chanting from players and various other motivational cries, Meyer delivered his final message before the Gators took the field for the final time under his direction.
“One last time,’’ he shouted. Give it all you got. You’ll remember it for the rest of your lives.’’
The final game of the Meyer Era wasn’t a classic performance. But it did have a classic moment symbolic of the Meyer tenure.
With the game tied 7-7 midway in the second quarter, 5-foot-9, 175-pound freshman Solomon Patton gave it all he had.
Patton broke through Penn State’s line to block Anthony Fera’s punt. Florida sophomore Lerentee McCray scooped up the football and raced 27 yards for a touchdown.
Meyer, a special teams guru, went crazy on the sideline. When Patton finally got within grasp, Meyer was in his face and as excited as he has been all season.
It was the 21st blocked punt for Florida under Meyer. Florida improved to 16-0 in those games.
“We used to know how to do that around here,’’ Meyer quipped. “That was awesome. It changed the game.’’
The Gators had plenty of other moments Saturday that had Meyer scratching his head like he has often in his final season. Quarterback John Brantley’s early interception; a failed fake punt by Chas Henry, who took off running when Meyer wanted him to pass; a fumble by Burton inside the 1-yard line that Penn State recovered in the end zone.
But nearly 10 hours after that sun began to rise on Meyer’s final day as Florida’s head coach, the ending of Meyer’s tenure was all sunshine.
With Penn State moving down the field on a potential game-winning drive, Black picked off a pass by Matt McGloin and raced 80 yards the other way.
Touchdown. Game over. A fitting end to Meyer’s career considering the player he calls a “friend’’ and the “best safety in America’’ clinching Meyer’s 65th win at Florida.
When it was over, Meyer walked away knowing the Gators made somebody’s day a little brighter. He thanked many of them at Raymond James Stadium with waves and hugs on the field.
Ian Lockwood was one of those people. Meyer presented him a game ball.
And then, after his final press conference, Meyer hopped on a golf cart with Shelley and their three kids – the people he plans to get to know a lot better in the coming months -- to begin their journey back to Gainesville. That’s where they still plan to call home.
On this day, it seemed a perfect way to ride off into the sunset.