Meyer Knew Exactly What He Was Getting Into

Maybe the Zooker was onto something after all when he was telling us that it’s not about the X’s and O’s but all about the Jesses and Joes. Ron Zook kept saying that schemes are overrated and most any one will work if you’ve got the right personnel to run it. As simple as that may sound, there was a lot of truth to it. You don’t believe it? Ask Urban Meyer. He’ll tell you.

Meyer is 60-12 as a college head coach, 17-6 in two years at Bowling Green, 22-2 in two years at Utah and now 21-4 in two years at Florida. He’s had an unbeaten second year (12-0) at Utah in 2004 and he’s 12-1 in his second year at Florida with the Gators set to play Ohio State for the national championship in Glendale, Arizona on January 8.

Both Bowling Green and Utah had losing records the year before Meyer arrived. Florida had endured three straight five-loss seasons under Zook. If you judge what Meyer’s done by the success of the previous coaches, then it’s a safe assumption that he’s an outstanding coach with a plan for success. You don’t transform losers into winners overnight unless you can coach. You don’t take a Florida team that was famous for its fourth quarter collapses and its many discipline problems and transform them into a team that has plenty of fourth quarter fight and rarely has an off the field problem if you don’t have a handle on this coaching thing.

Yet the coaching thing, Meyer says, is way overrated. The spread option offense that worked so well at Bowling Green and Utah has had only pockets of sustained success at Florida. The defensive scheme at Bowling Green and Utah was pretty much the same as the one he’s used two straight years at Florida yet at Florida it’s vastly more successful. Why? Because it really is about the personnel and not so much about the scheme.

He won at Bowling Green and Utah with the same scheme but also with other coaches’ players, and he’s won bigger than Zooker ever did with players he inherited. Monday at his press conference, he was quick to credit other people’s players for his success.

“This isn’t a coaches game, it’s a players game,” said Meyer. “We did a great job at Utah because a guy named Ron McBride handed us Alex Smith, and he turned out to be a pretty good player.”

Actually, Smith was better than pretty good. He was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy after his 2004 season and he became the first player chosen in the NFL Draft in April 2005.

“We get here [Florida] — someone mentioned our defensive line — they were all here,” he said. “I think Greg Mattison’s done a wonderful job developing them, but they were here. Those coaches did a great job recruiting guys and getting them in here.”

Meyer may have inherited a shortage of cornerbacks, some depth problems in the offensive line and too few linebackers when he came to Florida but that’s no reason to complain.

“Some people say there are holes but that’s everywhere,” he said. “That’s every team in the country, you’ve got holes. Someone mentioned, why would you take this job? Well, I may not act very smart sometimes, but I’m not going somewhere that doesn’t have any players.”

You want to know why the Florida job was so attractive to Meyer and why he chose Gainesville over South Bend? You can point all you want to Florida’s great weather and the abundance of high school talent and speed and those are all factors in why he came here. Every coach in America knows about those advantages. You coach in this state and that’s all part of the deal.

Probably the main reason he’s in Gainesville is that he saw the roster Zook was leaving behind and knew he knew the necessary overhaul would be more between the ears than in restocking the level of talent. The talent was definitely waiting in Gainesville and it shows in the fact that 20 of Florida’s 22 starters were Zook recruits. He won the Southeastern Conference with 21 seniors on his roster that were all hand me downs from the Zook regime.

It helps to take over a program when you have a quarterback like Chris Leak, wide receivers like Dallas Baker, Jemalle Cornelius and Bubba Caldwell, defensive linemen like Jarvis Moss and Ray McDonald, linebackers like Brandon Siler and Earl Everett and a safety like no other in Reggie Nelson. They are just some of the difference-makers that Meyer inherited and that has a lot to do with his success. Having better players definitely is an advantage.

Coming to Florida meant inheriting a lot of very good players, but let’s face it, Meyer is winning big with players that lost at least five games every year under Ron Zook. The state of the program that Meyer inherited meant shaping the talent quickly. Sure, Meyer had a five-year contract in hand, but Urban Meyer is nobody’s fool. What good did the four years Ron Zook had remaining on his contract when he was dismissed as Florida’s coach? At Alabama, they’ll be paying Mike Shula more than $60,000 a month not to coach until well into 2012.

“You’ve got five years to build a program?” Meyer asked rhetorically. “No you don’t. You have this many (he held up two fingers). Like I said, I’m not real smart but I’m smart enough to know that.”

This is where Meyer has made it all work with a formula that isn’t all that difficult to understand. You start with a motivated coach who understands the urgency to win that can impart that intensity to very good players. Then you throw in a dose of team discipline that extends far beyond the playing field.

In Meyer’s world, there is no grey area. There is right. There is wrong. Do the right thing and good things happen. Do the wrong thing and you’ll find forgiveness but continue to do the wrong things and you’re on the next bus out of town. He’s sent 19 packing so far.

He believes there is a correlation between living life the right way and doing well in the classroom with on the field success. Proof that this is more reality than theory is in a team GPA that is the highest it’s ever been and the fact that there are more players than ever before with GPA’s above 3.0.

That approach is obviously paying off on the recruiting trail where Florida has become a hot ticket item. Two previous recruiting classes have proven that Meyer and his staff can sell the University of Florida. Now he has the added momentum of winning 12 games and playing for the national championship to attract the best talent to Florida. His 2007 recruiting class is already 75 percent filled with some of the nation’s best talent and there are more top players than there are available slots remaining.

Meyer would agree that Zooker had it right about the Jesses and Joes. Meyer inherited plenty of outstanding players when he arrived at Florida and his recruiting has only stockpiled the roster with enough talent to keep the Gators playing at a high level for years to come. He’s got the personnel to win but he’s also got the plan to make the personnel as productive as possible. Give Zook the credit he deserves for putting so much talent together at Florida. Give Meyer the credit for adding to the talent as well as bringing in the plan that makes it all work. You gotta have Jesses and Joes for sure, but you can’t make it work if you don’t have the right plan.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.