A Tale of Two Coaches

Up in the innards of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium which houses the brain trusts of University of Florida sports, two coaches were busily headed in different directions last week — one coming, one going.

While new coach Will Muschamp was holding a rare media confab with a handful of selected sports writers to share a few thoughts about the new gig, Urban Meyer was a few doors down, gabbing with a stray sports columnist from Gator Country who dropped by to chat and see the new office.

“Nice, huh?” Meyer said of his off-the-beaten path quarters, away from the everyday hustle and bustle. So offbeat that one even has to ask directions to find it. No corner office, no windows, no executive wash room, but just what the “former” head coach needs for now while he preps for his job as an analyst for ESPN TV.

With a few mementos from his recent past stowed on the shelves behind him — including a National Championship football with a White House logo, signed by Barack Obama — Urban has chosen to populate the new digs with mostly family photos.

Here, finally, he seemed at peace. His state of mind was excellent and he seemed pleased with his decision to step away from the game after last season. He also made it a point to tell me how much he appreciated his boss, Jeremy Foley. “I love that guy,” he said, meaning that the Florida AD has been more than generous in helping him make the lifestyle transition.

Clearly, Meyer has moved beyond the woes that struck his team and staff last season after going 4-0 and then watching things fall apart as the Gators dropped five of their last eight.

He admitted that he was running out of steam toward the final days and feels like Foley has chosen the right man to succeed him. How Meyer arrived at the decision to step down was that he woke up one day and realized how much the game had changed and knew it was time for somebody to take the reins to the Gator football program.

“When I told Shelley, she just looked at me, smiled and said, ‘OK,’” Meyer said. “She knew it was time and that I had made up my mind.”

In a matter of days he had talked to Foley and Jeremy began to engineer Meyer’s exit and Will Muschamp’s arrival.

Most interesting is the way that Foley and the two coaches have carefully orchestrated those movements since then, tiptoeing around the set so as not to intrude on each other’s movie.

The change is being handled delicately, with dignity and class, each man careful to respect the other’s turf. Muschamp laid out while the rest of the third act of Urban Meyer story was winding down. Meyer, on the other hand, graciously stepped out of Muschamp’s way once National Signing Day was over and the window dressing had come down.

Transition in coaching, as in basketball, is always about both style and substance — how you arrive and how you leave.

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Cable guys, plumbers and mechanics seem to always want to blame any malfunctions on “the last guy.” That’s not the case here, because Muschamp openly praises Meyer, saying, “There wasn’t a lot broken. Urban did a phenomenal job.”

There is always tweaking from the last regime, however — closing the gap with the fan base somewhere, adding a twist here or there, splashing on another coat of orange and blue paint, etc.

Just as Urban did when he arrived at Florida, making the rounds at fraternity houses and student groups to repair the fractured relationships with the student body from the Ron Zook Era, Muschamp will be taking his act on the road a little more.

Whereas Urban wound up making appearances at only about a half dozen Gator Clubs his last year, deferring some of them to interim Steve Addazio in 2010, the former Gator coach did twice that many when he first arrived in 2005.

Muschamp admits he’ll be doing a few more appearances than Urban did in his last couple of off-seasons.

“I’m going to do as many as I can,” Muschamp said last week to a select group of writers. “I think it’s important to get out and meet the people who fill that stadium on Saturday. I’m very appreciative of their support and I think it’s critical to spend that time with them.”

My guess is that that it will be a Show and Tell campaign to reassure Gator fans that the man in charge is alive, well, in good health and ready to rock. On that last count you can bet the house.

What they’ll notice about “Coach Boom” — a term, by the way, which he is not terribly fond of – are his intensity and resolve. They only have to peer into his eyes, hyper focused and lasered at the subject of his words. If you remember those tight TV shots of former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, you’ll get the idea of the look of Muschamp’s pupils. Like a linebacker, he usually attacks all subjects head-on.

Muschamp says he hasn’t been doing much sleeping lately and is living in a hotel alone with relative anonymity. For the purposes of his linear agenda, that works.

“We have a little tunnel vision right now,” said Muschamp, who is batching it while his family wraps up the school year in Austin and prepares for the move.

* * *

We’ve not seen him work yet. But like Urban, Muschamp apparently prefers the in-your-face “direct approach” with players, hands on, literally. Will admits not to being a CEO-type of coach, which is a short way saying he likes to get down in the dirt with his guys.

That was the style of coaching Meyer enjoyed, too, and the part he will miss, but says that he began to move away from coaching to the administrative role and dealing with the off-field problems of players and other related issues. Prior to that, Meyer was the ultimate “hands on” coach coming up in the profession.

When he was a young assistant at Colorado State, aggressively coaching players, grabbing facemasks and intimidated players to the point where some of them quit; references were made to Meyer as a “young Bear Bryant.”

In fact, Meyer was called in by head coach Sonny Lubick and warned one day about one of the team’s top recruits leaving because of the way he was treated. It was a wakeup call for Urban, who once described himself as a “36-year-old coach out of control.” The lesson stood him in stead as he matured into one of the game’s best.

Muschamp and Meyer are not Type A — they’re more like Type AAA.

Sooner or later, every head coach has to learn to lean on his staff. Which is so important to Muschamp, as it was to Meyer.

It appears that on paper, Muschamp had hired a topflight group of coaches. Certainly Meyer can be proud of those who served with him in Gainesville.

“One of the great staffs,” Meyer said from his office, reflecting on the 2006 and 2008 team and coaches. He even admits to the fact that losing Dan Mullen hurt him some because of his play-calling acumen, but bursts with pride about what they all accomplished together. They were close, but they could also agree to disagree.

The offensive coordinator’s job being the most scrutinized of any on the staff, Muschamp’s choice of Charlie Weis was a bit unconventional and even a bit controversial. Weis, of course, has been somewhat accustomed to running his own show. And how will that fit?

Depending on who you ask, hiring Weis was either a stroke of brilliance or a calamity waiting to happen. I agree with those who think Weis could be a diamond in the rough if he and the head coach are compatible. Regarding the Weis move, Muschamp referenced Bear’s quote about “hiring people who are smarter than him” and noted that Weis would call better plays than him. He also said he like the confidence Weis expressed in himself and his profession.

Said Muschamp: “In football circles the people I trust and that I talk to about making decisions like this felt like Charlie was the best play-caller in the NFL and in college. When you look at the development of the quarterbacks that have been under him and then philosophically with us having the same beliefs, it’s an easy decision.”

Just as Steve Spurrier had Bob Stoops and gave him total freedom to call defense, apparently Weis will have a green light to do the same on offense. If it doesn’t work, we’ll be able to tell pretty soon.

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Meyer was a grinder. Muschamp is a bulldog –- no pun intended about the Georgia walk-on — but apparently has a touch of Old School in the way he trusts his assistants.

“Really good coach,” Meyer said of his successor. “I don’t know the assistants. And I don’t really know about Charlie, but apparently he comes with a really good reputation.”

There is a certain amount of inevitability and acceptance on Muschamp’s part.

“It’s all new right now,” he said last week to the small group of writers. “Everyone is excited. Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.”

I can’t help but wonder, as many of us did with Urban, whether something as all-consuming as the job as head coach of the Florida Gators will become the monster for Will as it was for Urban.

Sometimes it’s not the coaching. It’s also all the busy work that goes with it and the frustrations of a governing a bureaucracy. Drawing formations in the dirt is the polar opposite of kissing the butt of recruits and bureaucrats who consider themselves as keepers of the flame.

Not that I think Muschamp will ever be a butt-kisser. He’s already on record as saying he’s amazed at how some recruits keep asking him about the Gator depth chart “400 times” instead of confidently signing on and competing. He tells them that if they don’t want to play FOR Florida, then, fine, go on down the road and play AGAINST the Gators.

That kind of confidence you can appreciate.

However, the heat will come and the wear and tear of shepherding all the moving parts in a big-time program will eventually take its toll. That’s when it gets down go to delegation. When you’ve never been a head man, this is a new game not easily played. And it comes with a price.

For Urban it was finding himself semi-conscious on the floor after rolling out of the bed in the night, his wife Shelley hovering over him while dialing 911. And, well, you know the rest of the story.

We still don’t know all that was behind Urban’s decision to leave the game at such a young age but it became evident after my chat with him that he’s not done coaching. As excited as he is about working in TV, he knows that in a couple of years he’s going to miss the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint. He’s also hoping that the administrators of college football will clean up what he calls some of “the garbage” in the game. He acknowledged to me that he had spoken out about that in a recently interview with an Indianapolis radio station when he said:

“It is out of control with that stuff right now, and we have got to get that back on track. Twenty-five years ago, and I am sure you know, if you had to deal with some of the stuff you are dealing with — the off-the-field, the agent issues, the violation issues and all the garbage that is out there right now — I certainly would not have gotten into coaching.

Don’t look for Meyer to ever coach in the SEC again, and not just because he’ll always consider himself part Gator. We’ve begun to hear bits and pieces about the ire he feels regarding the lack of regulation in the college game and I got the idea from talking to him that he’ll be on a mission to help clean up the game, based on what he has seen and heard in the league around him.

* * *

Coach Boom — excuse me, Coach Muschamp — has a fresh new enthusiasm that energizes the program. Just like Urban did six years ago when he arrived on campus, only a year or so older than was his successor, to begin the greatest run in Gator football history.

I always liked the way former All-American wide receiver Carlos Alvarez described it. “We all puts bricks in the stadium,” he said, noting that each generation stands on the shoulders of the last in the Gator Nation.

And so that torch is passed now and the Gator football program appears to be in good hands.