Starting about 11:00 Saturday night Urban Meyer’s phone was bombarded with text messages and phone calls. There was a text message from Ryan Smith, the Utah transfer, that said “Coach, thanks, I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to play at Florida” along with some emotional exchanges, mostly from seniors who had never been on a championship team at Florida.
This was a night to enjoy Florida’s first SEC East Division championship since 2000 because Sunday preparation began in earnest for the return of Darth Visor to The Swamp. Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks will have everybody’s full attention this week, but Saturday night the only thing anyone could think about was the Gators had a championship and a slot in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
The Gators didn’t know they were East Division champs when they left Nashville. After a hard fought 25-19 win over Vanderbilt, they knew they had control of their own destiny with a win over South Carolina but when the plane touched down at the Gainesville airport, word spread quickly that LSU had beaten Tennessee, handing the Gators the East Division title.
Meyer said the Gators learned of the LSU win “about 200 yards off the runway when the phones began to work.”
It was Florida Athletic Director Jeremy Foley that first heard the news of LSU’s 27-24 win and that got the party started.
“There was a lot of hooping and hollering,” said junior linebacker Brandon Siler. “It was pretty much a mini-celebration before we could even take our seatbelts off. It was big for us because we feel like we’re back where Florida is supposed to be.”
Meyer said he looked around on the plane, specifically searching out the older players that went through the turmoil of a coaching change a couple of years ago, a move that jettisoned Ron Zook and brought Meyer in from Utah where he had just run the table. When Meyer saw the look on the faces of his upperclassmen, that’s when the satisfaction of a championship started to sink in.
“Obviously our administration and our coaching staff … who cares?” Meyer said at Monday’s media gathering. “You saw the seniors … the freshmen? They had no idea. They’re still trying to figure out their girlfriend and what time do they go here and shoot pool and what about their study table? A bunch of the old guys called me that night about 11:30 and it was real emotional.”
It was a little bit different for Smith. He was a freshman All-America corner for Meyer at Utah when the Utes elbowed their way into the BCS where they proved they belonged by whipping up on Big East champ Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. Meyer left Utah for Florida and Smith’s career hit a wall under a new defensive coordinator that wanted big corners. Smith is 5-10, maybe 165 with his pads and helmet on.
Smith was set to transfer to a Division I-AA school when the NCAA passed a new rule that allows a player that has earned his undergraduate degree and has eligibility remaining to transfer to a Division I school without having to sit a year. He called Meyer and his old position coach, Chuck Heater, Florida’s secondary coach. They welcomed him with open arms. The players welcomed him but at first they wondered if he could play in the SEC.
“It was real big for us,” said Siler. “We lost our starting corner in Avery [Atkins] and we needed somebody to step up. When he came in we didn’t know he was a little guy and the speed’s different in the SEC. It seems he turned it up a couple of levels. As far as proving [he could play] he did it every day in practice. He started proving it. He got after it as soon as he got here. He was waiting on it, bright eyes and ready to every day.”
In nine games Smith has become one of the most reliable cover corners in the Southeastern Conference. He’s got six interceptions to lead the league and he’s one of the best special teams players in the league, too. He blocked a punt Saturday to set up Florida’s first touchdown of the game.
“Ryan Smith’s one of our best football players,” said Meyer, who touted Smith as one of the team’s MVPs.
The Saturday celebration ended and the focus turned entirely to South Carolina, which beat the Gators in Columbia last year, a game that Siler says he relives in his mind every single day. When the Gators went to Columbia last year to face Spurrier and the Gamecocks they could have clinched the SEC East but they came up empty-handed.
“That hurt big time,” said Siler. “We saw all our dreams slip away from us in a game we knew we could have won.”
Now, it’s Spurrier returning to the stadium that he renamed “The Swamp” but this time the Gators don’t have the pressure of winning the SEC East. The title they already have but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a certain amount of pressure playing against a good team coached by the man that put Florida football on the map, first as a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback in the 1960s and then as the coach beginning in 1990 for the greatest 12-year run in school history.
Spurrier’s number 11 jersey is painted on the south end zone upper deck and his name and number hang on the north end zone deck as part of Florida’s new Ring of Honor. His legacy is the only national championship (1996) that Florida has ever won in football and the only six SEC titles. He’s been back to The Swamp twice this season, first to be honored as the coach of the national title team, and second, named to the first class to join the Ring of Honor.
Saturday, it’s a totally different role. Spurrier comes to The Swamp as the coach of the other team but even if he’ll be wearing garnet and black, he’s still a larger than life Gator in so many respects and that casts a very long shadow.
“I think it’s no different than [Bo] Schembechler walking in at Michigan and Woody Hayes walking in at Ohio State,” said Meyer. “I was at Notre Dame and if Knute Rockne walked in … Ara Parseghian was there and I saw what happened when he walked in the building and it’s all deservedly so. Is there a shadow? You damn right there’s a shadow and it’s a big one and it should be that way.”
But the game’s not about the shadow of the school’s greatest name. It really isn’t about beating Steve Spurrier. It’s about beating South Carolina. It’s about extending the winning streak at The Swamp to 12 games and sending the seniors out on a winning note. One of Meyer’s first goals when he arrived in Gainesville was to re-take The Swamp. Through 11 games, home has been sweet for Meyer and the Gators.
A win against South Carolina and the following week against Division I-AA weakling Western Carolina in the final home game of the season will allow Meyer to send his seniors out the right way and while there is the matter of Atlanta and the BCS looming, those are matters that take a back seat to these next two home games.
Meyer sent his seniors out last year the right way when they stomped Florida State at home in their final regular season game to clinch Florida’s first unbeaten home schedule since 2000. Because he understands what this senior class has been through, he wants them to go out the same way.
“It’s hard to earn people’s admiration but they [the seniors] certainly have earned mine and I would imagine a lot of people’s admiration,” said Meyer. “They’ve done something that hasn’t been done since 2000 [SEC East title] and I’m indebted to them. I really believe our staff is indebted to them.”