The evolution of Florida’s football team, from a good 9-3 team in 2005 to a potentially great 12-1 team playing Ohio State for the national championship in Glendale, Arizona on January 8, is probably best seen in how the Gators have handled their four losses in the two years that Urban Meyer has been the coach. Each loss has provided a measurable benchmark for growth.
When Meyer loses he is his own worst critic. His wife, Shelley, says he hardly sleeps after a loss because he’s rehashing the game over and over again in his mind.
“I can tell you every play, every second, everything that happened,” Meyer said Wednesday evening at a press conference along with the Tostitos National Championship Game sponsors at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. From each loss in the last two years, the Gators have taken quantum leaps forward, going from Outback Bowl champions in 2005 to Southeastern Conference champions in 2006. If there is a common denominator in the four losses it is the fact that each loss has almost had a personality of its own due to the way it affected the team.
There was the 31-3 loss to Alabama in 2005, the very first loss Florida suffered with Meyer as the coach.
“The Alabama loss was shock and disgust and a lot of other things among a lot of people in that locker room,” Meyer recalled.
A 21-17 loss to LSU was so painful that Meyer actually broke down in tears in his post-game press conference prompting one columnist to label him “Urban Crier.” Little did that columnist know but those tears actually helped turn the 2006 recruiting class from good to great because high school kids were all too ready to play for a coach that feels the hurt of a loss that bad.
The LSU loss moved the Gators one step closer to becoming the team that Meyer envisioned because players began to take notice of who was giving maximum effort and who was not.
“There was LSU and that was very emotional game for a lot of players because some played their best and obviously some did not,” said Meyer.
Late in November, with the Gators needing only a win over Steve Spurrier and South Carolina in Columbia to win the Southeastern Conference East Division championship, the Gators melted down on the field and then in the team plane once it arrived back home in Gainesville. For two hours the plane sat on the tarmac at the Gainesville airport. Inside of the plane, three seniors asserted themselves as team leaders and changed the Florida Gators for good.
“The last one [South Carolina loss] was probably the last straw,” he said. “We all saw some things that did not have any business being part of a Division IA football team.”
Vernell Brown, Jarvis Herring and Jeremy Mincey noticed what was going on. They saw the players that were laughing after a loss. They saw the players that didn’t give maximum effort on special teams. They saw the players that didn’t play as hard as they could every play. They decided it was time to take ownership of their own team.
“I think it started after a game in Columbia a year ago when Vernell Brown, Jarvis Herring and Jeremy Mincey took the team and said enough’s enough and let’s get this thing right,” Meyer said.
Now contrast that to this year’s 27-17 loss at Auburn, a game in which the Gators were one very controversial call by a referee and the replay official in the booth from winning. The post-game atmosphere was filled with anger and Meyer says there was a lot of finger pointing going on.
“When you lose you get hit in the mouth the human element takes over,” Meyer said. “You lose a game and there was a lot of that going on in the locker room. I was ready to start pointing fingers, too.”
Ready yes, but patience prevailed. He let the anger in the locker room go on a few minutes and then he stepped in and took charge of the situation.
“Players kind of felt that certain players didn’t play very well and we had to get that right,” he said. “As a coach you don’t mind seeing that. There was a lot of anger, a lot of invested people in that room.”
There was no team meltdown because Meyer had 21 seniors that he could count on to lead the team through the tough times. He had seniors like Jemalle Cornelius, whom Meyer has dubbed “The Face of Florida Football” and Dallas Baker, Chris Leak, Earl Everett, Steve Rissler and Ray McDonald. They weren’t about to let a great season go down the pipes just because of one loss that could have been avoided.
When he took the Florida job, Meyer knew he had to rebuild the team from the foundation up. The Gators had lost five games per season three straight years. Team discipline was lacking. So many of the elements that made Florida great during the 12-year stretch from 1990-2001 were missing when he took over. Florida won 122 games during that period, six SEC titles and one national championship (1996).
A student of Florida’s football past, Meyer found the answer he needed to get his team through the Auburn loss in 2006 in that 1996 national championship team. Following a 24-21 loss to Florida State in the final regular season game in 1996, the Gators needed to find a way to bounce back. There was still an SEC Championship Game to be played, still a bowl game. The national championship aspirations had taken a severe hit but not all was lost.
“College football is how you face momentum and how you get momentum back,” said Meyer, recalling how Jeff Mitchell, Lawrence Wright, James Bates, Donnie Young and Danny Wuerffel brought the team back together after that loss. “They closed the door, closed ranks and separated the team from the negativity.”
The rest is history. The Gators won the SEC title game, then in a Sugar Bowl rematch with FSU, beat the Seminoles, 52-20, to claim the national title.
Meyer found audio of Wuerffel speaking to the team the week after the 1996 loss to FSU and he knew that was what his 2006 team needed to hear on the Monday after their loss to Auburn.
“I didn’t have to do a lot of talking,” said Meyer. “Danny did the talking and we actually listened to it a couple of times.”
A year before, even with Brown, Herring and Mincey the team might have thrown in the cards. Not this year, though. Not this team. Meyer had 21 seniors to count on and they stepped up to lead when he needed it the most.
From the anger and despair of that Auburn game the Gators righted the listing ship. Five wins later, we can’t say that all the wins were works of art, but the variety in which they were achieved is a testament that a team can almost will itself to greatness if the leaders can inspire the followers to unify.
Meyer knows what is going on. He sees the evolution that continues to change his team into everything he ever dreamed it would be. He told Gator Nation at his very first press conference that he was coming to build the kind of team that would compete for and win national championships. He never anticipated that it would happen so quickly but now that he’s got his team on the verge of real greatness he wants this moment to last forever.
“I don’t want to get away from it,” he said. “I enjoy this and our players are the same way. How do you get away from it all? There’s not an intent to get away from it. I wish we could go on forever because that’s how much I enjoy being around this team and these coaches.”