Updated: Jul 31, 2020
Believe it or not, Meyer has never seen that 2008 TV replay. I texted him last week as I viewed it on the SEC Network, somewhat awestruck by the Gators’ fourth quarter performance
The good news is that this pandemic has given us pause to reflect on our past. The bad news is that this pandemic has given us pause to reflect on our past. Unfortunately, many reminders of our past, good and bad, are imperiled and being devalued or destroyed in protest and civil unrest. Sure, change is paramount. But should we not always want to remember who we are and how we got here? And isn’t it true that those who forget our history are doomed to repeat it?
But no sermon here today because I wish to reflect on the past glories of Florida football at its apex.
Let me take you back to the period of time that I’ve dubbed “The Golden Age of Florida Football,” (not to be confused with The Golden Era of the late 1940s). It was an 19-year run that began in 1990 when Gator football was blistering hot. Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer lit up college football skies with three national championships and eight SEC titles.
The Golden Age has been a huge blessing but, in some ways, a bit of a curse. The track record of Spurrier and Meyer in that era will forevermore remain the aspirational footprint, even though it’s not likely to happen again -- certainly not in that compacted time period. The Golden Age will loom even larger in future years when the reality sets in for Gator fans – and this is the “curse” part -- that it wasn’t an inalienable right of their team to automatic inherit all these championships.
In particular, the orange blossom sweetness of that first SEC trophy in 1991 and a spectacular 52-20 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State in 1996 which led to the BCS title that cannot ever be duplicated. On the other hand, winning two national championships in three seasons from 2006-2008 to back it up and solidify Florida’s place on the map of CFB greatness wasn’t exactly chopped liver.
While beating Ohio State and Oklahoma for the national trophy may have been more prominent, I believe the remarkable 31-20 win in 2008 over Alabama for the SEC title may have been the best football I’ve ever seen Florida ever play – especially that fourth quarter. Perhaps I am influenced somewhat by what Urban told me recently: “It was the best game I’ve ever witnessed.”
Believe it or not, Meyer has never seen that 2008 TV replay. I texted him last week as I viewed it on the SEC Network, somewhat awestruck by the Gators’ fourth quarter performance, even though I was there in Atlanta and covered it live at the time. Honestly I had forgotten how spectacular Tebow and the Gators played in the last 14 minutes.
“I've never had the opportunity watch a television version of that,” Urban told me. “Someday I will. I didn't know it was on, but that was a classic. You texted me in the fourth quarter in that game and the performance I just remembered …
“Alabama was one of the top defenses in America and that most quarterbacks can't make those throws. Tim was electric in that game … you had, Riley Cooper, Louis Murphy … Cornelius Ingram and Percy Harvin out. Two NFL players that didn't play. So David Nelson had to step in. We had some guys step up and make some great plays.”
It was Tebow’s finest hour, one which resonated deep with Meyer. Tim had a perfect passing fourth quarter, 5x5. His throws to Louis Murphy, Riley Cooper, David Nelson and Aaron Hernandez were spot on. When the drive for the go-ahead touchdown appeared to get bogged down at the Alabama 1 by a terrible call -- a mysterious penalty for which the official would later be rebuked by the SEC -- Tebow drilled the look-in to Cooper for a touchdown.
As for the mysterious penalty for the Florida coaches allegedly running on the field, “That was one that was flabbergasting. It's third down and one at the 1 when an Alabama player – intentionally or not -- kicked the ball. The officials blew the whistle and our players started coming over toward to us. It was so loud in that arena (GeorgiaDome). I started coming to the sideline and I was motioning to them to stay there because it wasn't a time out. I saw him resetting the ball.
“The twenty-five second clock was getting ready to start. So I remember pushing them back out there and I'm about four, five yards on the field, way back at the 35-yard-line. And I see a flag come out. I thought they must've thrown it on Alabama for kicking a ball. So I keep looking at my game sheet.
“All of a sudden I see Tebow look over at me. And they start arguing with the official and I was like, ‘What's going on?’ And the guy comes over to me and says, ‘They're calling a five-yard delay of game penalty on the bench.' And on me. I lost my mind over it.
“So now it’s third down and six, at Alabama's six yard line. If you don't score there, you kick a field goal. Alabama can still go down and win the game. And obviously, they had an excellent offense as well. You know, one of those things that will drive a coach crazy. I've always given officials the benefit of doubt, but that was a terrible call at a terrible time. It could have had historical ramifications.”
Tebow delivered the scoring strike and punctuated the huge victory.
After that win, the landscape of college football was scrambled. By holding Alabama in check, denying Nick Saban of a crowning moment as King of College Football, the Gators delayed his ultimate coronation.
The following season when Meyer and Saban squared off, the Crimson Tide trounced the Gators and put on hold the debate of whether Meyer or Saban belonged on the throne at the moment. Meanwhile, Meyer went on to Ohio State and added his third national championship before bowing out of the game at the end of the 2018 season. Subsequently the two schools developed a “national rivalry.” Alabama was beaten by Meyer’s Ohio State team in the Sugar Bowl national semifinal, 42-25. They scheduled a home and home series for 2027 and 2028.
“If you could get by Alabama, you know, you had a chance of winning the next game,” Urban recalled. “But the next year same thing happened. Alabama beat us and went on to win the national championship as well. So in a way, that was a preliminary national championship game.”
I asked Urban what makes Nick Saban so tough to beat.
“I think his attention to detail, his focus in a culture where he creates with consistency,” said Meyer. “People ask me and it's really a no brainer. At Fox we have list of the greatest coaches and he’s number one. It's time tested. He's put his attention to detail.”
(Now Dan Mullen is potentially challenged with the same problem of facing Saban if his new 10-game conference-only schedule includes the Crimson Tide, which will probably be on Florida’s new 2020 schedule, along with Texas A&M -- although this has not yet been confirmed.)
Meyer says he had a routine where he would come in on Sundays and watch the special teams of the opponent to get ready to for the next game. The first thing Urban checked was the opponents’ special teams play because it was indicative of their effort, the team’s culture and attention to detail. Just by that he could tell what his odds of beating that opponent would be. He knew his team would win the game “If, say, the coach was an offensive genius or a defensive genius, but he doesn't spend time developing a culture. To me, special teams is all about culture. And that's really that's the face of your program, in my mind. If your special teams players play relentless, that's important too.”
It has been a rare treat to watch these two coaches battling it out for supremacy. Meanwhile they are the only two FBS coaches to ever win national championships at two different schools.
Saban continues to add to his ledger of greatness while Meyer steps into the TV booth as the star of Fox’s Big Noon CFB show. Urban has just begun to reflect back on some of his seminal moments and accomplishments. Who knows, some day he might even find time to watch the TV replay of “the greatest game I ever witnessed.”