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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

Urban legend: Meyer is driven to succeed and his teams follow his lead

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Urban Meyer is carried off the field after his Utah team blasted Brigham Young 52-21 last November. Utah finished 12-0. Urban Meyer is carried off the field after his Utah team blasted Brigham Young 52-21 last November. Utah finished 12-0.
DOUGLAS C. PIZAC / AP Enlarge

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - In his initial week on the job at Bowling Green State University, in the first head coaching position of his career, Urban Meyer sat in a small suite at Perry Stadium and fiddled with his tie as he looked around the modestly adorned room.

Seated across from him were two reporters and the school's longtime radio guy.

Some big-time news conference, the 36-year-old Meyer thought. No TV cameras, no crush of microphones, no sports writers jostling for a position near the front.

Meyer shrugged, managed a smile, and said, "Someday, this room will be full."

A few years later, that room is about a thousand miles away, it's huge, and it's standing room only.

Urban Meyer got that part right - and a few other things along the way. In his brief tenure as a college head coach, everything around him seems to have grown exponentially.

Since that first week with the Falcons, Meyer's salary is 10 times greater. While at Bowling Green, he drove a modest sedan on recruiting trips. Now as the coach at the University of Florida, he has the school's airplane at his disposal.

The inner circle of hard-core boosters at Bowling Green - the people Meyer could really count on - numbered maybe a dozen. At Utah, where Meyer coached the past two seasons, the deep-pocketed loyal supporters of the program numbered maybe 50. At Florida, it is probably 500 or more, but Meyer stopped counting a long time ago.

He has gone from the flat farmland of the Midwest to the pristine Salt Lake Valley at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, and now to the citrus belt in the deep South.

Meyer is a staunch Catholic named after a pope who is loved by the Mormons in Salt Lake City for his emphasis on proper behavior and education, and he now has the southern Baptists in Florida enamored with his strict diet of discipline, accountability, and doing things the right way.

With all of that dramatic change, the demeanor is nearly identical. Meyer, 40, is focused, intense, driven, and painfully blunt - just like his first day at Bowling Green.

"As a young head coach, I probably flew off the handle and overreacted a little bit more than I do now. Some of that's experience, age, and just something you learn," Meyer said. "But as far as running a program and coaching the players, I can tell you that going from Bowling Green to Utah to Florida, my approach is exactly the same. You want to do things the right way, and never wonder if you could have worked any harder."

When Bowling Green hired Meyer late in 1999 to reverse its fortunes after six straight losing seasons under Gary Blackney, Meyer was a virtually unknown assistant coach at Notre Dame. He had worked under outstanding head coaches such as Earle Bruce and Lou Holtz and Sonny Lubbick, but he apparently never got the manual on coach-speak.

After he ran off 20-some players in the first couple of months at Bowling Green because they did not want to make the necessary commitments in the classroom, the weight room and on the practice field, Meyer did not follow the party line and say he felt bad those young men chose not to be part of the program and wish them well.

He said "good riddance."

"He wanted us to be like a family, where you would go to war for the guy next to you, and if you couldn't give your heart and soul to the team, you were out," former Falcon linebacker Mitch Hewitt said. "He called guys out, and for those of us who stayed, we found out we could do some things we never dreamed about doing. He took a 2-9 team and made us into an 8-3 team, with all of the same guys. The difference was his motivation."

When Meyer arrived in Salt Lake City, he took over a 5-6 team with an apathetic attitude toward academics, and a lackadaisical approach toward football. After three months of constantly knocking heads with the players, Meyer nearly wavered.

"I almost felt like I was going to give in a little bit, but I had dinner with Frank Layden, the former coach of the Utah Jazz one night, and I told him I was tired of dealing with all of the classroom and discipline issues," Meyer said. "He told me to remember that players are temporary, but coaching is permanent. If you believe in what you're doing, don't change a thing."

Meyer held his ground - no missed classes, no skipped study tables, no conduct problems in social settings. The players finally bought into what he was doing, and the Utes went 10-2 in his first year, then 12-0 this past season.

"The main thing coach Meyer did was establish discipline," Utah senior defensive back Morgan Scalley said. "The previous coach was a players' coach and a great guy, but we didn't have any discipline. In his first two months here, coach Meyer made sure that the bad seeds left. It was a cleansing process. If you didn't go to school and work hard, you wouldn't play for coach Meyer."

Utah got just what it ordered.

"The main thing about Urban was that he was a disciplinarian and his teams won," Utah athletic director Chris Hill said. "I liked how he started a leadership team and put some responsibility for discipline on the players. He took care of every detail. He put high demands on himself and his players to do things the right way."

Meyer's Midwest values and work ethic worked west of the Rockies.

"Frank Layden was right, so I told the team we do believe in discipline, we do believe in going to class, and we do believe in doing all of the right things," Meyer said. "Now I live by that advice."

As a funeral home director, Tim Dunn has to put people's lives in perspective every day - for both the living and the dead. While others groused and grumbled about Urban Meyer leaving Bowling Green for a bigger salary and brighter lights in Utah, Dunn, a longtime local supporter of Falcon athletics, felt it was the only logical and sensible thing to do.

"That guy is a national championship just waiting to happen," Dunn said at the time.

Two years and a 22-2 record later, Meyer is in Gainesville, where he could soon make Dunn look like someone who sees the future as well as he sees the past.

At Florida, Meyer is sitting on a gold mine filled with talent. But in the football-rich Southeastern Conference, he knows he won't be playing Eastern Michigan or San Diego State.

"Is it the toughest football conference in the country, absolutely it is," Meyer said. "We'll play one of the toughest schedules in the country, but here we can also recruit some of the best student-athletes in the country. We face a great challenge and one that is different than what we had at Bowling Green or at Utah. We had some great success at those places, but we know we'll have to work that much harder in order to have great success here at Florida."

Meyer let it be known early on that things would be different. No more jogging through drills for the Gators, and no more begging off practice with minor aches and pains.

"Change always involves some degree of risk and discomfort," Meyer said. "When I met the team, everybody was nervous and fidgeting in their seats, wondering what was going to happen. There will be some resistance, but I told them if we can minimize that, there's a chance we can be good early. But I told them we expect our guys to go to class and live their lives the right way, or they will not play for the University of Florida."

In the first week of spring practice, Meyer chastised a prized player for not going hard, and he did it publicly, in the media. The coach suggested the highly touted defensive lineman should take his act elsewhere if he could not comply.

"I think now everybody knows that to play for coach Meyer, you're going to have to be tough and be prepared to grind it out every day," Florida linebacker Brandon Siler said. "Some guys weren't prepared for this kind of intensity from Day One in spring ball, but there's a reason for it and we need to follow his lead."

"I don't want people around me wasting time talking about guys with all of this potential," Meyer said. "They need to decide if they are making a real commitment to Florida football, or they can just go somewhere else where a casual approach is acceptable. We won't allow that kind of attitude here."

With his Notre Dame background and Catholic-school upbringing, many thought Meyer would land at Notre Dame because that job opened up about the same time the Florida position did. But the Gators had been wooing the native of Ashtabula, Ohio for a long time.

Meyer said that during his days as an assistant at Notre Dame he was on a recruiting trip to Florida when he decided to stop in Gainesville and see the Gators' setup first hand. He walked the campus, went inside the stadium, and even went down on the field to soak it all in.

"I knew then that this was a great place, but I couldn't say anything about it to anyone other than my wife," Meyer said. "You never expect it to happen, but the opportunity came along and here we are. I think this is one of the top five programs in the country, and I'm thrilled to be here."

After Ron Zook was fired before the end of last season, Meyer was one of the coaches Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had in his sights, although he did not contact Meyer until after the Utes had finished the regular season 11-0. It was a robust courtship.

Foley chartered a plane to fly to Utah to talk with Meyer, registered in a Salt Lake hotel under a fictitious name, and spent many anxious hours after meeting with Meyer and making his pitch. Several days later a deal was struck that would bring Meyer to Gainesville for seven years at $14 million.

"Coach Meyer is a leader, a winner, and most of all, a very unique individual," Foley said. "He has a certain presence. When he walks into a room, you can tell right away there is something about him. We think he's a great choice to lead our football program."

"Football is a lot like business," BGSU trustee Mike Wilcox said, "and Florida was looking for a new CEO with certain critical qualities. Urban is a very special guy, with the right blend of old-school approach and contemporary street smarts. But the overriding factor is his absolute intensity and commitment to the job. It's no different in business than it is in the athletic world - you need that to reach the top."

Meyer knows that his news conferences will be packed from here on out. Every move he makes will be analyzed, scrutinized and second-guessed. He relinquished the relative obscurity of Bowling Green and Salt Lake City when he became the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Steve Spurrier in Gainesville.

"There's no question that I learned things at Bowling Green and Utah that will help me immensely here," Meyer said. "When I think about Bob Davie, and the first head coaching job he had was at Notre Dame - you're in a complete and absolute fish bowl at Notre Dame or Florida or Ohio State, and you can't make mistakes."

Meyer said the five-plus years since he signed on at Bowling Green are a blur in some respects.

"It seems like it has been 15 years since that day I was introduced at BG. You work so hard and move so fast that you forget about the time," Meyer said. "Then I look at my kids and they're growing up. That's the No. 1 thing you notice, then the other thing is that I'm getting a little gray here and there, my back hurts a little bit more, and you can feel it. I used to think I'd jog once in a while and stay young, but the wear and tear in this profession is ridiculous."

While he expects to work as hard as ever to make his innovative spread offense work in the SEC, Meyer said he is enjoying the luxury of not having to worry about attendance and marketing and luring fickle fans, which took up a major chunk of his time at Bowling Green and Utah. Florida sells out every game - period.

"You can't manufacture time, but you can start to say no, and I've started to do that," Meyer said. "At Bowling Green I never said no. The basketball coach, Dan Dakich, said he turned on cable once and I was giving a passionate speech and getting after it pretty good, and then they scanned the crowd and there were four people there. I would do that. You had to do that. But I don't have to do that now. If it's between going to my daughter's volleyball game or speaking to 2,000 people for a thousand bucks, I'm going to the volleyball game."

Meyer still recruits on campus, however. He has spent his Monday nights this spring visiting every fraternity and sorority house at the University of Florida to form a bond with the student body, which he considers critical to the success of any college football program.

"I'll speak to every fraternity, every sorority on campus," Meyer said. "I hate it until I do it, but I enjoy the results. Once I go around and I see the look in their eyes and see the students come out and get so excited at the games. And then they sing the fight song after a win, and I see the players tear up .. . that's the final result of all of this - and you can't beat it."

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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