The Cul-de-Sac of Champions
Three men sat looking at each other in an empty University of Phoenix locker room, pondering the impact of what had just happened. Florida’s national championship football coach glanced up at his father, Bud, and his mentor Earle Bruce, digging deep for some profound declaration. Urban Meyer’s lifetime dream was now a reality, and the magnitude of the accomplishment began to seep into his consciousness.
All week long, Meyer had tried to trick himself into thinking his opponent was just another team in red and gray. Just once during practice, when he had heard the sound of the Ohio State band playing "Hang On Sloopy," it hit home so hard that he doubled-clutched his emotions at the realization that he was coaching against the The team.
Honestly, Urban’s biggest dream could never have been this big: a complete annihilation of The Ohio State, 41–14. The Ohio State of his boyhood affection, The Ohio State where he cut his coaching teeth, The Ohio State that had also once fired his mentor Earle Bruce, and, by the way, The No. 1 team in America.
The joy—even more so the relief—was making him feel almost giddy and light of body. "I’ve never felt that way in my life," Meyer said later. "It was like somebody had drilled holes in the bottoms of my feet and drained out all the pressure."
Football coaches rarely have time to stop and reflect on their success as it is unfolding. There is always the next season, next game, or next down to spoil the mood. But to night, Meyer would briefly suspend that obligation. The events of January 8, 2007, had set the college football galaxy on its ear. However, even if he was contemplating one tiny taste of gloating, his two companions would probably not have tolerated it.
Turning to the two men who always seemed to have the answers in his life, Meyer was hoping for some sort of affirmation when he proclaimed:
"And now I get to do this for fun. It’s over! We won the national championship!" Now that the monkey was finally off Urban’s back, it was time to celebrate, have some fun and enjoy coaching football the next season—wasn’t it?
To his credit, the no-nonsense, down-and-dirty, hard-boiled Earle Bruce didn’t laugh out loud. And since they weren’t the kind of guys given to breaking out in table-dancing or backflipping, the coldly logical Bruce and iconoclastic Bud Meyer merely smiled and nodded.
Bud says he was already thinking that his son should have been out recruiting for the next season. Nobody knows for sure what Earle was thinking, but Urban figures he was just being humored by his old boss. "Coach Bruce was probably looking at me and really thinking, ‘yeah, rrriight!’ " Urban would say.
Then—poof !—that elusive moment was gone. No champagne toasts. No victory laps. No ticker-tape parades. No flights to Bermuda to lie on the beach and toast the ultimate victory with little umbrella drinks. The next morning in Gainesville it was back to school, back to recruiting, and back to babysitting one hundred or so football players. Urban had to pinch himself to make sure this had really happened the night before.
Almost like a Blockbuster rental movie, Urban Meyer’s Marvelous Adventure was over and felt as if it were due back Wednesday at five.
The dream had come true, however, and was, indeed, truly remarkable.
This former over-the-top, semi-out-of-control, control freak had hit the college football lottery. All those years as an assistant coach siphoning off the knowledge from his bosses, squirreling it away in diary form, and then field-testing his pilfered ideas—all that had come together like Harry Potter magic.
If there was a football god, he was probably repaying Urban Meyer as a responsible caretaker of the game and for being straight up with his players and fellow coaches for twenty-one years. There was no extended warranty on the honeymoon because he was back to work coaching that next morning. Even if there was a new college football sheriff, he was going to have to run for reelection.
Bud and Earle knew that the afterglow would soon be dimmed. Not even they could have predicted the ensuing struggle for the Florida Gator coaches, players, and fans in the 2007 season.
The history of Florida’s incredible run in football and basketball programs, however, was still being written.
Coming when it did—just four years after Steve Spurrier had suddenly departed and the football program had taken a dip under Ron Zook—this national championship and football resurgence would revitalize the Gator Nation. It also validated the choice of Director of Athletics Jeremy Foley and President Bernie Machen, who had received some criticism for taking the guy from Utah over the return of the favorite son, Steve Spurrier. Now they looked like geniuses.
Schools such as Notre Dame suddenly had Urban Meyer envy. In just two years at Florida—only his sixth overall as head coach—the guy with the "gimmicky" offense that critics said wouldn’t fl y in the Southeastern Conference had possession of the crystal football. But was he a onetime wonder, or had Urban Meyer restored the Gators’ glory of the nineties?
For sure, Meyer had become the brightest star in the coaching constellation as a sort of Bob Vila fixer-upper of college football. After his third year at Florida, his success rate in the restoration and/or turnaround of three programs over seven seasons as a head coach was off the charts: an .814 winning percentage.
In his third consecutive season as a head coach at the same school for the first time ever, Meyer knew he would have to prove he could win with his own material.
I would have a chance to find out for myself, becoming virtually embedded with the Gator team. I amassed a large amount of information and began studying the human dynamics of his program to try to crack the code.
This was a great vantage point and a choice assignment for a columnist/author whose roots tapped into that north-central Florida dirt… who grew up listening to Florida football on the radio before there were live telecasts… and who spent a large chunk of his forty-year journalism career observing and writing about these Gators.
This is not to say that Meyer’s magic formula was uncovered or that company secrets were revealed. However, after several tutorials on Meyer’s "Plan to Win," I began to understand this was the matrix for everything and Urban’s blueprint for success. Understanding of the Plan gave considerable enlightenment about the amount of time, money, and energy that Meyer and his staff put in to the care and feeding of players. At the same time, much is expected from those athletes as willing participants in Meyer’s "competitive excellence."
All his former players admit playing for Meyer "is hard!" Those who survive the rigors of mat drills and early-morning running punishment for missed class or misbehaving badly, however, have a sense of accomplishment, although, admittedly, maybe not at the time they were retching over a trash can or laboring to get up the stadium stairs.
He promises each player: "I will not quit on you." Much of Meyer’s approach stems from his conviction that he owes a player every chance to play, to graduate, and to achieve a normal, happy life by sorting out what ever demons haunt him.
Our close-up examination of Urban’s Way during the 2007 season also revealed an unusual approach to dealing with players that defies conventional coaching wisdom. And Meyer is never the least bit hesitant to challenge some of college football’s archaic methodology.
• Some coaches talk about "family," but at Florida the families and children of all coaches and players are encouraged to attend Thursday’s "Family-Night Dinners" to hang out at their position coach’s home; parents of players also have direct access to Meyer and his staff at all times.
• Wives and children of those assistant coaches are invited on the field after the game and are escorted to the locker room by their husbands/fathers.
• Meyer requires his coaches and their wives to "babysit" players and provide a family atmosphere for them as they are mentored through football, academics, and social responsibilities.
• Through disciplinary action, players are given every opportunity to redeem themselves for mistakes made on and off the field. They are automatically suspended for major team or school violations—or eventually even terminated for breaking the law—but Meyer will continue to help them in their pursuit of their degree. These incidents are rarely, if ever, announced to the media.
• Special teams players are treated "special" since Meyer, himself, is their hands-on coach.
• Instead of constantly hammering on his players to get results on the field and in the classroom, he "bribes" them with the privileges of a "Champions Club," almost like a frequent-flier program.
• Meyer runs an off ense that he mostly made up, borrowing parts from here or there, but producing a new edition or version every couple of years and adapting it to personnel.
• In what might look reckless and almost crazy at the time—but is actually calculated and well thought out—Meyer has been known to call trick plays (he calls them "special plays") in big games when the odds look heavily stacked against him. And they usually work. He doesn’t think of it as chance, but rather "calculated risks." Meyer doesn’t believe in "fate" or "luck," but thinks good execution in practice is the key.
Meyer’s coaching technique is compartmentalized by the two sides of his brain.
With his left brain, the one associated with logic, analysis, and orderly thinking, he organizes and verbalizes his approaches to the game. This accounts for his one-two-three sequential thinking and keeps the cadence for practice and preparation. Most coaches seem to lean heavily on their left brains and Meyer is no exception. This left brain, perhaps, inspired "the Plan to Win" and his coaching manual, and it also contains the schematic for all the moving parts.
What sets the Florida coach apart from others, however, appears to be an equally strong dependence on his right brain, where the synapses of creativity drive his intuition and provide a big-picture solution. It’s what inspires the fourth down fake punts, "the Spread," and "the Champions Club." It is also the side that motivates him to mentor and nurture players beyond what is necessary in his job description and coaching manual. The right side makes Urban Meyer unique.
Some of his most unorthodox approaches have not only raised eyebrows in his profession, but sometimes ruffled feathers and caused ripples in the media.
When Meyer won the Mountain West Conference title by deploying his newfangled offense, some of his critics labeled it as "gim-micky." When he brought the Spread to the SEC, naysayers laughed behind his back and predicted it would never work against all the speedy linebackers and linemen. They poked fun at his Champions Club, calling some of his psychological antics "high schoolish." It was a different kind of athlete at Florida, they said, who just wouldn’t go for that cheesy stuff.
He was called "Urban Liar" by former Jacksonville columnist Mike Freeman for refusing to reveal injuries of a player; dubbed "Urban Crier" for shedding tears after a loss at Baton Rouge; and vilified as an unwelcome interloper by his enemies for preventing Steve Spurrier’s return as coach of the Gators.
Some couldn’t wait to find the first major glitch in Meyer’s program. After Meyer stated that Florida would only recruit "the top one percent of the one percent," he was chided by critics who chirped on message boards when one of those high-profile players got into trouble off the field.
Many of those perceptions were changed that night in Phoenix when Urban’s Way was validated and critics were silenced by his bringing the University of Florida its second national collegiate football championship.
For those who would say that Meyer did it mostly with the players in Zook’s cupboard, the truth was that forty-three members of the national championship squad were Urban-era recruits.
Meyer truly didn’t care what most people said about him and was impervious to just about all criticism of him or his program. He rarely complained about the intense coverage of the media and said he only cared about his players and staff members.
"I think everybody’s got a job to do," Meyer said. "People sell books. People try to say things to get the viewers intrigued. I’m OK with that. People print that Florida is ‘a gimmick team’ and doesn’t belong. Like everyone else, I’m a competitor. But it doesn’t change the way I approach the game.
"When people say, ‘You can’t do that’—first of all, I don’t know who said it, because I don’t listen. But that’s kind of the way we run our program. Same thing when our special team runs a fake punt, or we do a variety of things. If I think it’s going to help us win a game or help a young person out, I’m going to do it."
Zook, it is said, felt the media were all against his Gators. Others say Spurrier felt the media were either for or against his team. Meyer doesn’t really care either way.
Meyer’s handling of players has come under scrutiny. Urban majored in psychology at the University of Cincinnati, and his diploma has been put to good use. He believes in conditioning the behavioral system with rewards and extraction. It’s a little trick Meyer learned by the reading of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov via John Wooden. So there is a little bit of Pavlovian/Wooden theory in Florida Gator football.
There is a good bit of basketball in Meyer’s game, too—Billy Donovan style.
Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan were on a roll, with two national titles in the bank as the year 2007 began—a college sports pre ce dent labeled the Gator Slam by fans.
Following the Gator football team’s victory over Ohio State in January, the Bling Brothers on the Cul-de-Sac of Champions had their bookend national championship trophies in football and basketball. In four months, Donovan would have yet another.
This meant the best college football and basketball in the land was played out of Gainesville over a 366-day period from the spring of 2006 to the spring of 2007. It took a century, but by the time one hundred years of intercollegiate athletics rolled around, the University of Florida sports program got it right, and the nickname Titletown was not inappropriate, even if it was almost a cliché.
Now though, as Earle Bruce and Bud Meyer might have face-tiously said to Urban before the start of the 2007 season, what has he done for us lately?
The challenge at hand for Meyer was going to be establishing consistency at Florida. Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin would return for 2007, but most of his Florida defense would not.
Life for the Florida football coach, contrary to his postmortem immediately after the BCS title game, was not going to be all that much fun. Meyer was about to discover he’d made one of the worst predictions of his life about the upcoming 2007 season. He knew his team was too talented to call for a "rebuilding" season, but also too green to make a championship run. With that youth came some off-season behavior problems that preoccupied the coaching staff. Urban was aware of the myriad problems players face today, including drugs.
Inside the culture of the defending champions there would be some disappointment and discordance caused by player disobedience, leading to arrests, suspensions, and demotions. These kinds of problems are not enough to make Urban Meyer cut and run, because as much as he wants to win football games and championships, he is even more committed to rescuing young athletes from the predicaments of their poor judgment. And so is his staff. That is why the job description of each position coach mandates that he keep a close eye on players. That’s also why players are often guests of Shelley and Urban Meyer for cookouts and other family occasions.
Meyer and Donovan are both actively involved in the lives of their athletes. That Meyer can seek counsel on such off-the-field problems simply by walking out the front door of his home and making a hard left toward Billy Donovan’s house is a big advantage to living in his Gainesville neighborhood.
Meyer’s and Donovan’s homes are maybe half a football field apart in a neighborhood too exclusive to be called a subdivision because there are only five houses on large, expansive lots, all two-story, some with circle drives and most with white columns.
To reach the Cul-de-Sac of Champions, one must travel through contiguous traffic roundabouts in southwest Gainesville on a narrow, two-lane road framed by moss-draped oaks. Inside the ten-foot-tall iron gate, the Meyer home sits off to the left, painted olive green with stone elevations. A basketball backboard is in the driveway, with a volleyball net and batting cage in the back, a screened-in kidney-shaped pool, plus an air hockey table and pool table in the rec room. The house has a distinct Florida-style garden decor with a country flavor— though the area outside the gate is well-populated and a grocery market and strip mall are down the street.
The expansive, gray and white home with the stone and wood facade at the end of the Cul-de-Sac of Champions belongs to Billy and Christine Donovan, who helped recruit the Meyer family to Florida and to their neighborhood—and their school.
This world is ruled mostly by Shelley Meyer and Christine Donovan, who are friends, but don’t often socialize because of their busy schedules. The Donovans were there first and Christine guided, advised, and assisted the Meyer family even before they moved from Salt Lake City in 2005.
After a long negotiation with the owner of the lot, a not-so-happy Notre Dame alumnus who was still ticked about Urban’s spurning the Irish, the owner finally relented and sold to the Meyers.
Gainesville is a city of definitive seasons, occasionally frosted by sub-freezing temperatures in the winter and often toasted by 95-degree summer days with 100 percent humidity—but mostly right in the middle and pleasant.
The seasons are not just defined by the equinoxes, however, but the kind of ball that is being played on campus: round or oblong.
A sign that hangs on Meyer’s lake home wall proclaims: there are four seasons—winter, spring, summer, and football. In Billy Donovan’s house, that sign would have a fifth season added— basketball—and Urban Meyer wouldn’t even mind.
They don’t fraternize as much as they would probably like. "With our schedules, it’s insanity," said Meyer, noting that only a few times a year do they ever get together for dinner. While they may not invite each other over for weekly fondue parties or beer and pretzels, they do occasionally share an adult beverage and indulge in coaching brainteasers.
To say Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer collaborated on winning championships would not, however, be a stretch.
On a late-night ride through the neighborhood, Donovan will notice that Meyer’s car still isn’t parked at his house. Their sons often play with each other, but the dads not so much. On Fridays during the off-season, Urban walks son Nate down to the bus stop, where they play a game with Bryan Donovan, rewarding the first to spot the bus with $1. "Bryan has a lot of my money," Urban said.
Billy and Urban are good friends—maybe not best pals, but better than just mere acquaintances and neighbors—and by-products of strong Catholic upbringing, which Donovan feels has shaped both family environments and their values. Urban Meyer totally gets Billy Donovan and vice versa.
"I talk to Billy all the time because he’s a great motivator," said Meyer. He has borrowed several themes from Donovan, including how to prevent the "poison" from contaminating a team’s attitude. Meyer remembers his basketball counterpart "pulling up the ropes after a championship win" to ward off the evil spirits of self-adulation.
Excerpted from Urban’s Way by Buddy Martin
Copyright © 2008 by Buddy Martin.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.