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Swamping the Opposition? That’ll Be His Cross to Bear

Times Staff Writer

He might have been any coach eating a taco during lunch after practice on a summer day so drippy swamp-hot you could understand why Gatorade was invented here.

Then Urban Meyer leaned forward and peered up from his office couch. His eyes fixed on the questioner as he conveyed the intensity that has made him, at 41, the hottest young coach in college football.

“I cannot wait until [Saturday],” he said, almost in a frightening way, of Florida’s opener against Wyoming. “I can ... not ... wait.”

This is not any coach.

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Bowling Green understood it in 2001, when the school took a chance at a 30-something receiver coach from Notre Dame.

Utah knew in 2003, when it hired Meyer and, two seasons later, went 12-0 and won the Fiesta Bowl.

Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley sensed it last fall, when he went private jet to private jet against Notre Dame in a race for Meyer’s services.

And, even though Meyer is Catholic, is named after several popes and loved (loves) Notre Dame, Foley beat the Irish to Utah and to Meyer.

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Foley, afterward, said he felt as if he’d gone 10 rounds with Lennox Lewis.

“Obviously, that’s some formidable competition right there,” he said of Notre Dame. “I thought it was dead important we got it right for Florida.... There are not a lot of good ones. There are not a lot of great ones. And a lot of the great ones like it where they are.”

Steve Spurrier had “it” when he coached Florida to a national title and six outright Southeastern Conference titles in a 12-year run that ended in 2001.

Foley remembers that the bigger the game, the more Spurrier acted as if he were waiting for a bus.

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“I get the same feeling for Urban,” Foley said. “He lives for that scenario. He relishes it, like Steve.”

Foley gestured toward Meyer’s adjacent office.

“You’ve got to think a guy like Urban Meyer has prepared his whole life to be in that chair.”

Although Meyer would never say it, Florida was probably a better fit than Notre Dame.

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At Florida, Meyer has walked into college football’s boiler room. His bracket of the SEC, the East Division, boasts three teams with national-title aspirations -- Tennessee, Georgia and Florida -- and a South Carolina team now coached by Spurrier.

“It’s really like no other,” Meyer says of the SEC. “It borders on insanity.”

Like anyone with certain skills, Meyer wanted to take his innovative spread-option offense and test it where the risk and rewards both were high.

Meyer’s reputation is significant enough that last spring, Bill Belichick, coach of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, visited Gainesville before the NFL draft.

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Meyer was like a schoolkid as he awaited the arrival, compiling a list of questions he wanted to ask Belichick.

Meyer claims the secret to his success is sponging off nimble minds.

“I’m a stealer,” he said, “a cheater. I call people.”

Turns out Belichick wanted to talk to him -- for five hours -- about the offense that made Alex Smith the No. 1 pick in this year’s NFL draft.

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At Florida, in terms of Meyer’s high-stakes poker game, the ante now gets upped.

Meyer inherits a quarterback, Chris Leak, who last season led the SEC in yards passing per game at 266.4, and threw 29 touchdown passes.

This isn’t Utah anymore, or Bowling Green -- this is bowling for dollars.

Meyer was brought to Florida to win SEC titles and the national championship.

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Those expectations ultimately took their toll on Spurrier, who admits now he was burned out when he left Florida for the NFL.

Spurrier won 10 games in his last season at Florida and coached in a BCS game, the Orange Bowl. He felt that wasn’t enough.

Hearing that Meyer had spoken at 21 Gator Club functions his first spring, Spurrier laughed, saying Meyer had better get used to it.

“I talked to him once and I said, ‘Wait till you do about 10 years of those things,’ ” Spurrier said.

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One reason Spurrier removed himself as a candidate to return as Gator coach was that he sensed 10 wins a year wouldn’t be good enough.

Meyer’s response: “I have too much respect for college football where I hope we have that problem, where winning 10 games isn’t good enough. I’m telling you it is enough.

“It bothers me that he said that. I don’t know him that well. I admire him. That’s a shame if that’s really the way it was. We’re talking about the SEC.

“I don’t think that’s the people here. I think that’s him. That’s what makes him a great coach.”

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Meyer’s early impact rates as significant in terms of everything he can do before playing a game.

Florida took several steps back after Spurrier left, on and off the field.

The Gators lost 15 games the last three seasons, and discipline waned under Ron Zook, the lowlight occurring last year when Zook got caught up in a fraternity ruckus involving his players.

The SEC can be a rambunctious place, but Meyer has already put clamps down.

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FloridaToday.com recently reported that since last season ended, 23 players from South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia had been arrested or cited.

Under Zook, seven Florida players the last two years had legal problems.

So far, cross his fingers, Meyer has run a clean shop.

He has brought to Gainesville the tough-love approach he made work at Utah and Bowling Green.

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Meyer’s off-season demands are designed to weed out the unwilling.

“At Bowling Green, 22 kids quit within two months, but they had to because they shouldn’t have been there,” Meyer said. “Is there a system? It’s a very clear system. I’ve been in some programs where it is kind of gray. It’s very clear to our players what we expect of them.”

Meyer has some interesting motivational techniques.

In 2004, senior safety Jarvis Herring was arrested and suspended for one game for fighting in a Gainesville nightclub.

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Under Meyer, Herring is now in charge of weekend bar sweeps to make sure Gators aren’t getting into trouble.

The goal is to return “happy hour” to the 60 minutes on game day.

“It’s a lot different and a lot harder under Coach Meyer,” Herring said before he jumped on a post-practice bus. “He’s a straightforward guy. If he wants you to do something, you better do it. He’s going to put you in your place.

“But the guys don’t mind doing it, because if you do right by him, he’ll do right by you.”

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Meyer hasn’t wasted many minutes since he was hired in December, visiting 99 high schools in one four-week stretch.

“That’s five a day,” he said. “And the one thing about being the coach at Florida is that you don’t just go in and meet the coach. You meet the principal, the vice principal, the top advisor. There are Gators everywhere. It’s show and tell.”

Meyer is too immersed in the minutiae to reflect on his success, although he does call “stunning” his rise, in three years, from Bowling Green to “the Swamp.”

It’s too early to tell what effect Meyer’s arrival will have in Gainesville.

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Or, what his decision not to coach Notre Dame will mean in South Bend.

The Irish, after all, fired Tyrone Willingham with two years left on his contract, planning to make a run at Meyer.

In the grand scheme, the Catholic kid from Ashtabula, Ohio, who studied under Lou Holtz and Bob Davie, was supposed to take up residence in the shadow of the Golden Dome.

Does Meyer feel bad that his decision might have damaged Notre Dame?

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“I don’t know about that,” he said. “When I feel bad about Notre Dame, I feel bad for people. Notre Dame is an institution.... The best way to say it is, I feel bad for Ty Willingham, I feel bad for coaches whose families were uprooted. I don’t believe in letting guys go that early, not just Notre Dame but East Carolina, Indiana, Washington -- all these places.

“Do I feel bad for institutions? I love Notre Dame. I always will. Always will.

“Did I do something to lead them on? No, I didn’t.”

No time for looking back now, though.

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It’s time to lead the Gators on.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

This week

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Top 25 teams playing this week (rankings by Associated Press):

THURSDAY

* Temple at No. 20 Arizona State

SATURDAY

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* No. 1 USC at Hawaii

* Louisiana Lafayette at No. 2 Texas

* Ala. Birmingham at No. 3 Tennessee

* Miami (Ohio) at No. 6 Ohio State

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* Wyoming at No. 10 Florida

* Ball State at No. 11 Iowa

* Sacramento State at No. 19 California

* Georgia Tech at No. 16 Auburn

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* No. 17 Texas A&M; at Clemson

* No. 18 Boise State at No. 13 Georgia

* No. 22 Boston College at BYU

* Notre Dame at No. 23 Pittsburgh

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* Western Michigan at No. 25 Virginia

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Winning formula

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Florida Coach Urban Meyer ranks fifth in winning percentage among active Division I-A football coaches in the last four years:

*--* Larry Coker Miami 44-6 (.880) Bob Stoops Oklahoma 47-7 (.870) Dan Hawkins Boise State 44-7 (.863) Mack Brown Texas 43-8 (.843) Urban Meyer Florida 39-8 (.830)

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*--* Pete Carroll USC 42-9 (.824) Mark Richt Georgia 42-10 (.808) Jim Tressel Ohio State 40-11 (.784) Kirk Ferentz Iowa 38-12 (.760) Phillip Fulmer Tennessee 39-13 (.750)

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