Updated: May 10, 2020
Bear Bryant once called the University of Florida football program “a sleeping giant” and said others would rue the day the Gators woke up. For nearly the better part of 85 years they slept, but when Steve Spurrier arrived in 1990 the alarm sounded as the Gators won the school’s first national championship and Rip Van Winkle awakened. Sixteen years later Urban Meyer doubled down and did it again and again, winning two in three seasons.
BY BUDDY MARTIN
Another in a series on Gator sports 2000-2009.
"I should've never left Florida.”-Urban Meyer
They were Butch and Sundance, or Sundance and Butch. However, both Spurrier and Meyer admitted in interviews with GatorBait recently that they made a mistake departing so soon. while the resources were plentiful and the cupboards anything but empty.
After winning the Gators’ first national title in 1996, Spurrier, was just 55 when he resigned in 2001 and became the highest paid coach in football with the Redskins. He returned to resurrect South Carolina football and became the Gamecocks’ winningest coach. Meyer arrived at UF four years later and left after the 2010 season with health issues at age 45 before going to ESPN and then Ohio State and winning a third national championship.
Together, Spurrier and Meyer won 187 out of 230 games at Florida over that period and were almost always in contention. They owned almost all of their rivals in big games with a couple of exceptions. Spurrier beat Georgia like they were the Washington Generals. Meyer went 17-2 against Georgia, Tennessee, FSU and Miami.
Spurrier was 68-5 in the place named The Swamp. During his six years, Urban went 36-5 on Florida Field. Ten home losses in 17 years!
Both walked away from a prosperous program that was flourishing under Jeremy Foley – one that may have been set up for many championships to come, but instead leaving Foley to struggle in a futile search for competent replacements. How do you replace Sundance and Butch?
One could only wonder what might have been accomplished at Florida had either, or both, not departed so soon. They may have been forced to building an annex on the O-Dome for a trophy room.
There will likely never be such a prosperous period at Florida as there was from 1990-2011.
So why did they leave?
Spurrier wanted to scratch an itch to coach in the NFL, so he took the plunge to DC. Urban had hoped and planned to stay longer at UF but after losing a friend to a heart attack and then developing chest pains for which he could find no immediate diagnosis, he resigned to work for ESPN -- going to Columbus one year later.
Spurrier told me a long time ago he should have stayed at Florida and described his departure as “a mistake.” In a lengthy interview for this article, I asked Meyer how he felt about his decision to leave Gainesville, even though his health helped dictate his resignation, and he replied recently:
“At the time I was having some significant chest pains. And you know, I just didn't love it anymore. It just consumed me. And I felt like I was becoming that old person one day who would sit in a chair and miss my kids growing up because they were so involved in everything. So, yeah, I look back on the ending, I wish it would have been much different. I knew about a month and a half after I left Florida. Then I said I'd made a mistake.
"I should've never left Florida.”
He also regretted it couldn’t have happened under different conditions.
MUTUAL ADMIRATION COACHES
To have two world class coaches within four years of each other is an embarrassment of riches that few schools have enjoyed.
Today, looking back at their successes, both Spurrier and Meyer admire each other’s work. In fact, Urban said he loved everything Spurrier’s teams did at the UF. Since then Urban has bought a home in Sarasota, he and Steve talk more and have become even better friends and may be seeing more of each other.
They both marvel at how different, yet similar, their Gator teams were. “We went at it different ways,” said Spurrier, “but when our teams left the locker room and went on the field they achieved the same result.”
Both had innovative offenses – and both were sneered at by some so-called experts early on. But not for long. Meyer brought the “Spread Option” from the Mountain West Conference where it was brandished successfully by Utah but later doubted among SEC denizens and soothsayers. Spurrier’s derring-do Fun’N Gun had its detractors for a while, but Meyer wasn’t one of them. The bold, brash Fun’N Gun changed all of college football and Meyer was right there cheering it on even though he and Spurrier didn’t know each other.
“I loved what coach Spurrier did when he came to Florida,” said Meyer, who admits Gator games were must-see TV for him. “He just didn’t care what people thought or said – he was going to run his offense. Everybody was fascinated by what he was doing. And we were all trying to figure it out.”
At first the Fun’N Gun was almost all through the air, with Shane Matthews, Terry Dean, Danny Wuerffel, etc. at the control panel. As it evolved, Spurrier usually used the ground attack in the second half of the games to control the clock once he was able to achieve a substantial lead (which was often). Unless, of course, he happened to be “hanging 50 on Georgia in Athens” or rolling up a 52-20 licking on FSU in what turned out to be a title game. Then it was no holds barred. And by the way, he was still going to vanquish his foe when he could. No knee-taking.
If he wasn’t the father of the forward pass as reinvented and redefined for college football, then Spurrier was at least a second cousin. But he could turn on a dime. Later at South Carolina, he used the running game to ring up three straight 11-win seasons.
“You know, there there's two types of offenses today,” Meyer said. “You have the Air Raid and you have The Spread. And then I guess you have the Spread where you throw it. The majority of time, that's not what we did. We were basically a glorified I Formation team that still believed in our athletes in space -- not allowing defenses the box up on you. So, you recruit to that. A guy like Percy Harvin was the ultimate H Back. That's what you wanted. If someone had made a decision to load the box on you, you had an athlete like that that just really you couldn't handle him one on one.”
Meanwhile, in his early years at Florida, Urban was mostly utilizing the ground and pound – especially once he found “the greatest short yardage guy I ever coached” in Tim Tebow. And to think how close Meyer’s team came to not signing Tebow, who had been romanced torridly by Mike Shula at Alabama and admitted had been leaning toward Tuscaloosa. That frightening thought shook Urban the day he got on a plane with co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison to go visit Tebow.
“I was worried we lost him,” Meyer recalled. “You know, Alabama had such a head start on us. And Tim is such a ‘relationship’ person. Mike Shula and his dad did an excellent job recruiting them and we were kind of coming in late. We had another commitment from another quarterback. I was trying to (rationalize) in my mind to say, ‘OK, if we lose Tim, we'll be okay.’ I'll never forget. Greg looks me right in the eye on the plane and said, ‘if we lose Tebow it could set our program back 10 years.’ It just kind of like, hit me in the jaw and I realized that he was right. And pretty much at that time, the hay was in the barn. I mean, we worked so hard at recruiting Tim and his family. You know, we had about a year and a half to catch up on Alabama and we did finally.”
That was 2006 and there was already a quarterback at Florida named Chris Leak, a 5-star senior from Charlotte, N.C.
PLAYING TWO QBS IN 2006
Tebow or Leak?
How would Meyer handle the issue of two quarterbacks? Well, he went to the example by the Head Ball Coach, who did that back in ’97 with Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise in back-to-back wins over South Carolina and No. 1 ranked FSU.
Again, Spurrier yinged when others yanged.
“It was a really unusual, unique set of circumstances that allowed us to play two quarterbacks,” said Meyer. “I know coach Spurrier did it once. Other people have tried to no avail. You got to really give credit to Chris Leak and people in his family. And Tim’s family. Both were good enough probably to be starters anywhere in the country. And it's my obligation to play people to help us win. And there is one point where you're almost we're thinking of making a quarterback change. Chris was struggling a bit. The fans were obviously excited about Tim, who was a golden boy of recruiting. And then every time he walked on the field, the energy he brought!”
So why didn’t Urban make the change?
“I just felt Chris still at times gave us the best opportunity and he earned that right … Tim brought in an incredible amount of energy to our program. And he was the best short yardage player that I've ever had. And he gives you a quarterback who can you do two things. The term I used is, ‘you equate numbers immediately.’ That means if your quarterback turn around and hands off to the tailback, you lose one player. If it's a direct snap to the quarterback and use him as a running back at times, that's called ‘Single Wing Offense.’”
Both agree that while you have your eye on the big prize, so much of winning a national championship comes through a bit of fate. And the best way to get there is the proverbial “one game at a time.” One season at a time. And one conference championship at a time -- tantamount to a playoff game. On that count, Meyer and Spurrier excelled. Between them they have won 17 conference titles.
“You compete for that conference championship,” said Meyer. “And I would say it wasn’t just our goal, but it was the focus of our program. And I think when you start talking about national championships, whenever we talk about setting goals, we were very different than a lot of people. There was never a national championship (talked about) around the facility … If I did hear people talk but I usually try to say that we stay away from that. That's just too many variables …”
For instance, Meyer said there was even a vast difference between the Gators’ two championships in 2006 and 2008. He feels that the 2008 team was “one of the best in college football history” and played its way to the top through excellence. Not so much the 2006 squad, which had to master internal strife and get some help from the luck of the draw in other conference playoff games just to make it to Glendale, Arizona for the showdown with Ohio State.
“That (’06 national championship) never crossed our mind. You know, that was never something until we beat Arkansas (for the SEC title) that I remember the way the season played out. A lot of things had happened for us to even get in that game … One of the biggest things was at halftime in Atlanta. We're up seventeen to seven over Arkansas. And our S.I.D. Steve McClain comes up to me and says, ‘USC just lost to UCLA.’ And that kind of opened the door to some of the things to take place. But that was never a conversation in 2006 until it happened.”
That 2006 championship opened the floodgates for SEC teams, who won the next seven straight BCS titles (including the Gators again in ’08) which continued on for 10 of the next 14 even after 2014 College Football Playoff Committee took over in 2014.
Really, when you measure the biggest difference between the programs of Meyer and Spurrier at Florida and their coaching styles, there was one contrasting trait between them: Meyer was a recruiting machine and Spurrier looked at it as a necessary-but-somewhat annoying responsibility.
THE SECRET TO RECRUITING WELL
Not to say Spurrier didn’t recruit well, but while his talent level was ebb and flow, Meyer was a recruiting powerhouse. Almost every year Urban’s teams were Top 5 national or better. How did Urban do it?
“Well, I think first it's hard work. You know, there's a lot of times you can kind of get away with stuff without working really, really hard at it. And I'm talking about the head coach and the head coach has got to be knee-deep in recruiting. And I loved it. And it was something that I knew because the amount of time and effort you would be rewarded tenfold on with great athletes -- you're talking about college football.
“This is not professional football … But at the end of the day, your head coach has to be an elite recruiter and you’ve got to devote an inordinate amount of time. And I did because I realized there was no chance of winning without great players.”
THE 2006 DUSTUP
There were hurdles to vault right away in ’96 and it could have come unglued. After going into Auburn 6-0 as the nation’s No. 2 ranked team and getting whacked 27-17 in a painful 2006 loss, a spat between the offense and defense erupted. Linebacker and defensive captain Brandon Siler called out wide receiver Dallas Baker and quarterback Chris Leak for their unit’s lack of toughness. The defense was playing well but the offense had been struggling since 2005.
“It was during the season, a little bit of offense/defensive issues,” recalled Meyer. “And you know, that toughness question came up. We just couldn't run the ball and line up and pound people the way that championship teams have to. We lost to Auburn and in the locker room at Auburn, Siler kind of went after the offense a little bit, and Charlie Strong almost got into it with him. And so Charlie kept saying to me, ‘Coach you better break this thing up.’ And I said -- and I even told the team – ‘You keep going. I want to hear it. I don't want this to fester.’ If we're gonna be a team, we're gonna be team. And I want to hear the problems.”
And so the defense questioned the toughness of the offense. The offense was aware of this. Once it came out in the open, “we addressed it as a team. I agreed with the defense. And that became a point about the system. By the end of the season we had very tough offensive outfit.”
The hurdle was overcome. Then it was on to seven straight wins -- the SEC title game, the win over Arkansas and on to the desert for the BCS Championship win over Ohio State. But not without a big scare upon kickoff.
First, though, Urban asked his old boss Lou Holtz for advice about preparation.
“I remember Lou Holtz kept saying to me ‘don't play the game (yet),’ because typically my personality is ‘let's get ready now. We're going to win now.’ And of course, we're not. You know, he kept saying, hey, you don't play that game before January 8th at 7 o'clock or whatever time it was. And he kept saying that to me.”
He took Holtz’s advice and established the routine: Three phases. Phase 1 was all about fundamentals. Get back to work. Phase 2 was about preliminary game plan. “That means, you don't want to start installing things with players and then change it all the time.” Then Phase 3 is Game Week.
Except there was nothing in the game plan for being down a touchdown in the first 15 seconds. Speedy Ted Ginn took the kickoff to the house. Urban was about to become unhinged.
“It was typical me on the sideline,” said Meyer. “I wanted to find out what happened. I was getting after people when Brandon Siler came up and grabbed my arm and said, ‘Coach, relax, we got this. We're good.’ And I remember he grabbed my arm real hard. That was my friend. He and I were so close and he was the heartbeat of our team. And I remember looking right at him and saying, ‘I gotcha.’ And so I just kind of just went about the business coaching, making sure it didn't happen again and finding out what the issues were -- coaching instead of panicking.”
A memorable night. Two years later in Miami there would be another national championship, but first that year came the remarkable 31-20 SEC Championship win over Alabama with the picturebook fourth quarter drive – without star Percy Harvin. Then the 24-14 win over Oklahoma in MIami. The following year Nick Saban got his revenge, the Crimson Tide knocked off Meyer’s team and the night of the loss to Alabama Urban Meyer fell out of bed with chest pains. The run was over. Meyer resigned, changed his mind but came back for 2010. In retrospect he should have stayed resigned because the magic was gone. Ten years later Dan Mullen is still trying to crank up the engine again and find that magic.