Pressure cooker

Proof that Darwin was onto something with his theory of natural selection was offered up last Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville when the Georgia Bulldogs proved that shiny black helmets and spiffy black culottes aren’t a clever enough disguise to hide a lack of inherent traits that make it possible to survive and advance in the Southeastern Conference. On one of college football’s grandest stages, the Bulldogs fell apart while on the other sideline, the best coach and the best football team in the country adapted to their surroundings and grew stronger. The same pressure that cooked Georgia was Florida’s growth hormone. Georgia left Jacksonville hoping to finish with enough wins to go to a bowl game. The Florida Gators left Jacksonville undefeated ready to devour whatever is next on the food chain.

“The best thing and only thing great about being 8-0 is the opportunity to be 9-0,” said Urban Meyer, college football’s best coach and resident psychologist. Although Florida clinched the Eastern Division championship and punched its ticket to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game on December 5, there is no talk of Atlanta, no talk of championships, just talk about Vanderbilt, an SEC bottom feeder with the capability to be troublesome for any team that basks in the glow of its own success.

The best player on this best team in college football might just be the best player who ever strapped on a chinstrap at this level. Tim Tebow is the perfect lieutenant to carry out Meyer’s directives because when he elevates his play to the highest level, the other 84 Gators are pulled around the track in his draft.

He will not allow the Gators to lose their focus against Vanderbilt or any other team remaining on the Florida football schedule.

“We’re 8-0 and we’re excited about that,” Tebow said Monday. “We have an opportunity to be 9-0 and we’re getting better. That’s how we’re going to keep guys motivated and focused. If you can’t be motivated and focused when you’re 8-0 and you have a chance to be 9-0 and everything you want is a possibility, I would be shocked if everybody on our team isn’t motivated or focused on our next four games. If they weren’t, I would be very disappointed.”

With each win the Gators move closer to their long-term goal of winning another national championship. If they succeed this season, it will be two in a row and three in Urban Meyer’s five years as Florida’s head coach. Florida’s success under Meyer — 52-9 since he took over and a current win streak of 18 games — comes with a price of higher than normal expectations that are overwhelming for some. Some schools are content to win enough games to go to a bowl every year. At Florida, just getting to a bowl game will get you fired.

It is a pressure cooker existence, but Meyer loves it and he expects his assistants to embrace it as well.

“If you want to coach at Florida and this is all our assistant coaches — there is so much pressure on those guys to perform — you can go coach at other places,” Meyer said.  “God made it a free country. Whatever you want to do, you have freedom of choice … go somewhere and chill and relax.”

Meyer sends the same message to every player in the program and to every prospect interested in playing for the Florida Gators. It might cost the Gators a few prospects, but Meyer knows the ones who choose Florida are the blocks on which championships are built.

“If you’re a player, there are plenty of places to win, lose or draw and hey, a half empty stadium,” Meyer said. “At Florida you have to play at a very high level. That’s been around here a long time. In the 90s it was the same way. That stadium … you walk out there, that’s a pretty imposing place. To walk in here and play at Florida, you have to be a really good. You have to be a really good player; you have to be a really good coach.”

There are plenty of really good players and really good coaches out there who take one look at Florida and decide they can’t handle the intensity. Tebow, who already has a Heisman Trophy, two national championship rings and a slew of Southeastern Conference records under his belt, knew fully well what he was getting into when he signed with the Gators in 2006.

At Florida, the success of the football program since 1990 has fueled expectations to fanatical levels. Win by 10 and fans aren’t happy. Win by 50 and they think the Gators should have won by 60. Good is never good enough and great only lasts a short time before the bar gets raised again.

“That’s why you come to Florida,” Tebow said. “You know being at Florida there’s going to be a lot of pressure. That’s Florida. It’s going to have as much or more pressure than any school in the country. You could be hyped; you could be number one or up for this or that, but it really doesn’t add or subtract any pressure because you’re at Florida. The fans and everybody are going to expect you to win every game and they’re going to expect high things and that’s great because they should. This is the University of Florida. There is a lot of pride here and a lot of people take pride in what we do. That’s what makes this place so special.”

It is the winning that makes the pressure bearable. On those survival of the fittest Saturdays in the fall, the team with the ability to adapt best to its surroundings wins and advances. At Florida, that turns the locker room into a mini-celebration.

“It gets really good when you see Maurkice Pouncey stand on his chair, raise his helmet and sing the fight song,” Meyer said. “That’s when it gets really good. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it’s hard work. It’s really hard work and I think our players think the same way. You also flip in there that you’re competing in one of the high end academic schools in America in the classroom where everybody is a 1,400 … it’s every day but the rewards are phenomenal. You get to walk around with a bunch of championship rings and an opportunity to graduate from a great school and you play every game on national television. I mean every game. Once again, certain lifestyles are for certain people. We’re blessed to have a football team that’s kind of thriving on this right now.”

The celebration doesn’t last long. Meyer won’t allow it. Enjoy the night after the win but come Sunday, forget what you did the day before and come to the football complex ready to get down to the task of whatever and whoever is next on the schedule.

Stay focused. Stay motivated. Keep that edge about you.

“You have to work at a very high level and you have to be on edge,” Meyer said. “The minute you lose your edge — I think Billy Donovan said it best when he spoke to our team — you are not a good team, you are not a good athlete. The minute you lose your edge … so we’re always on edge. I love that and our players … the real ones love it. Our players are kind of thriving on that right now.”

The Gators have adapted to this pressure cooker existence for 18 consecutive games. Six more wins and they can say they have evolved into one of the great teams in college football history. At that point Urban Meyer will allow himself to celebrate but only then for maybe a day or two, otherwise he’ll start having withdrawal symptoms for another healthy dose of pressure.

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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.