When I found out that Steve Spurrier had broken my heart on January 4, 2002, I saw it on the ESPN Bottom Line. I walked into the hall bathroom at my mom’s house and started to cry.
Spurrier’s departure was sudden and unexpected. I just knew that he was going to grow old coaching at his alma mater, swaggering down the sidelines while his offenses ran up and down the field, scoring touchdown after touchdown and keeping us in the national championship chase season after season.
Spurrier’s 2001 team at Florida fell a two-point conversion short of playing for another SEC championship with a shot at the national title in the Rose Bowl on the line. On my birthday that year, Florida beat Nick Saban’s LSU Tigers, 44-15. The Gators beat Mississippi State, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida State and Maryland — all ranked teams — by 52, 14, 37, 24 and 33 points, respectively.
Many of the major pieces of that 2001 team were coming back in 2002. Rex Grossman at quarterback was to be a Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Certainly, Spurrier was ready to make a run at a second national championship.
I was wrong.
The only coach I had known at Florida — the team given to me by my grandfather and ingrained in me through too many hot afternoons in The Swamp — couldn’t work with its athletic director, Jeremy Foley, anymore. He was heading to Washington to take his shot at the NFL working for Dan Snyder.
As heartsick as we Florida fans were to lose Spurrier, I couldn’t hold his departure against him. He had to know how his Fun ‘n’ Gun offense could perform at football’s highest level. I suspect he needed to know just how great he could be.
As somebody who started his own business last year with similar motivations and intentions, I get why Spurrier had to take his shot.
Spurrier’s shot fell short, and he was back in the Southeastern Conference in 2005, the same year Urban Meyer arrived at Florida as its new head football coach.
Meyer wasn’t Spurrier. He possessed neither Spurrier’s wit nor his gregarious nature with the media. He spoke in coach speak and of family, of loving his players and caring about the men he was shaping — all nice things, but seemingly prerequisites for the profession.
But Meyer was like Spurrier in the right areas. He wanted to get his best players in space and put them in position to dazzle. He wanted to score and win by all means necessary. He wanted to torment our rivals. Soon, he was doing just that.
Meyer’s Gators won a national championship in 2006 with Chris Leak and another in 2008 with Tim Tebow. By the time 2008 rolled around, Florida was back to blowing out its rivals. Florida beat No. 3 LSU, 51-21, Spurrier’s No. 24-ranked South Carolina team, 56-6, and No. 23 Florida State, 45-15.
In Jacksonville that season, I was between jobs and down to my last $400, but I spent $100 to go to the Florida-Georgia game. I was there the year prior when the Bulldogs upset Florida and stormed the field after scoring their first touchdown. Spending a quarter of my net worth on a football game probably wasn’t a wise fiscal decision, but revenge rarely is.
Florida won the game over No. 8 Georgia, 49-10. Meyer called a pair of timeouts at the end of the game just to make sure Mark Richt, Georgia’s then-head coach, knew why. It was the proudest I’ve ever been to have him as our football coach. My buddy Matt White and I stayed for the whole game and sang the alma mater with the band afterward, jangling car keys at any Georgia fan in sight.
That feeling of surety, of overconfidence, doesn’t come along too often in football. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to games already knowing my team was going to beat the hell out of our opponent.
The feeling wouldn’t last at Florida, and neither did Meyer. In 2009, Florida rolled through its regular season undefeated, only to get blown out by Saban’s third Alabama team in the SEC championship game. Afterward, Meyer ended up in the hospital.
By then, Meyer’s Florida fortress had shown signs of cracking. Dozens of his players had been arrested over the course of his tenure, but many kept playing. Failed drug tests and locker room rifts were mounting.
I was celebrating the day after Christmas — my first Christmas in Athens — with my parents at The Village Idiot bar downtown when ESPN broke into its programming to report that Urban Meyer was stepping down as coach at Florida. We were the only people in the bar who weren’t ecstatic about the news as a “F*ck Florida” chant broke out.
But there were no tears this time around. Meyer changed his mind and came back to coach the 2010 Gators to an 8-5 record but announced before the Outback Bowl that he was resigning after the season. I celebrated New Years in Tampa and watched Florida beat Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions to close out Meyer’s tenure.
Meyer said at the time that he was done coaching, not that many of us believed that was true. After sitting out one season, Meyer took the head coaching gig at Ohio State while Florida fell off a cliff as new coach Will Muschamp tried to clean up the mess Meyer left behind.
Meyer walked away from coaching again after many of the problems that drove him out of Gainesville crept into the fabric of Columbus — the university suspended Meyer for part of the 2018 season after it found Meyer covered up domestic violence allegations against Zach Smith, one of his assistants at Florida who joined him in Ohio. The health concerns had returned, too, but not until after Meyer had won another national championship and perennially positioned the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff picture.
By now, we know what Urban Meyer is: one of the best college football coaches of his era, and also a mercenary who will make himself sick trying to get every advantage he can get.
We know that he can’t give up coaching. And, because of that, now we know him as the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Just like Spurrier, Meyer has to know if his football model can cut it in the NFL.
On paper, Jacksonville seems like a pretty good place to try this experiment. The Jaguars have more salary cap space than any team in market for a head coach. They also have the first pick in this year’s NFL Draft. The team’s owner likes to talk about winning, though his teams have been dismal at best, sans a lightning-in-a-bottle run to the AFC Championship Game in 2017.
In reality, Meyer faces a task far more daunting than any of his college football coaching stops — and remember, this guy coached at Bowling Green.
In 17 seasons as a head coach, Meyer lost 32 games. In just the last three seasons, the Jaguars have lost 36 games. Not only that, but the Jaguars seem to always be the first team brought up for relocation. If it wasn’t for COVID-19, the Jags would have played two of their regular season home games in London this season. A rather unreasonable, publicly funded entertainment district proposal for vacant land around the stadium was just defeated in City Hall.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to watch most of this Duval disaster up-close. I spent 2002 to 2006 at Jacksonville University and bought season tickets for the Jaguars at a fraction of the cost I was paying for my Florida seats on Saturdays. I returned to Florida’s First Coast in 2016 for a new job and had to watch my team lose way too many games in person before coming back to Georgia in 2020.
I can attest there are plenty of Florida fans who root for the Jaguars — they were the most vocal about the Jags bringing Tim Tebow home during his short NFL career. A lot of those Florida fans still hold a grudge against Meyer for the way he left Florida.
Not that I have any hard feelings. This imperfect maniac won us two national championships and two conference titles in six years. Even knowing how far the fall would be on the other side of the mountain, I would sign up for that ride again. I’d vote to put him in Florida’s Ring of Honor, even if he may have left Florida knowing he could get the Ohio State job. After all, that’s a better gig than the Florida job, and it seemed to be the one he wanted anyway.
Now he wants something else, and his interests have again aligned with mine. I, for one, welcome Urban to Jacksonville with open arms.
This all has the potential to go so badly. Meyer — a coach who lost an average of less than two games a year — often looked like he was going to pass out in anguish on the sideline during those tough games. I hope his head and heart can take what he’s going to experience this fall.
Make no mistake, though. If Meyer does find success in Jacksonville, if he can make the Jaguars a contender again, then there is a fan base larger than many realize who are ready to cheer for him again. Enough wins can wash away his sins from his past tours of duty.
After all, this is Urban Meyer we’re talking about. Winning fixes everything.
At least for a few years.