The light in his eyes

Six years and a day ago, a youthful Urban Meyer had been ordained as the high priest of Florida Gator football right here on the same spot. You could see the light reflecting in his eye back then as he took the torch. That light often burned brightly and brilliantly, as the fire in his spirit did for almost six years.

Perhaps that light had begun to flicker some in recently and, at times over the last year, even dimmed a little. And though he said his decision to quit this time wasn’t reached until recent days, we all saw a different Urban over the past 11 months, 18 days.

On Wednesday, when he stepped up to announce that he was passing that torch on, saying the real reason he was leaving was to “focus on the family,” you could see the light had returned to his eyes. I commented on it and asked how he felt.

As he responded to the question, he stood up a little taller and there was almost a countenance about his facial expression. No tears – no, not one, which was the dead giveaway. He said everything that needed to be said with his body language. The look. The smile. And then his words.

“I … can’t … even … begin … to … tell … you,” Meyer said, pausing between words for emphasis, “how much I appreciate how much this university has done for me and my family.”

And then he launched into dialogue about how he’d gotten over 175 text messages from his players and former players, bragging like a grandfather talking about his grandchildren. How much he appreciated his bosses. How great it was to walk around in Ben Hill Griffin and see “all that we accomplished” – careful, though, to properly credit what other guys had done before him in the 1990s. Praising effusively his championship teams and making it a point to say his 2008 should be rated as one “one of the three or four greatest teams ever.”

That, for a Kodak moment, was the Urban I used to know. The fist-pumper with the imaginary pom-poms who still got chills sometimes just walking through The Swamp even on non-game days.

The Urban who once texted back and forth with Tim Tebow like they were BFFs, both giddy about their stations in life.

The Urban I remembered from that night on Broadway near Times Square when he and Tebow walked, arm over each other’s shoulders, on the way to the Heisman Trophy press conference.

And the Urban I remembered from those mornings we sat in his lake home, talking for hours upon hours about his life, family and football with a burning passion as we worked on the manuscript for his biography.

The old Urban was back. But now the new Urban was gone. This time for good.

* * *

Pardon me for a moment while I reflect on those thoughts before we launch headlong into the next two weeks of hard core reporting and digging and rooting through the malaise of information, good and bad, about his successor.

Jeremy Foley, who said he’d seen that same light, actually got emotional and teared up in his remarks about all Urban and his staff had done Florida. But he said it was an “OK day” for him because it was an “OK day for Urban.”

Foley says he hasn’t offered the job, but would probably have somebody hired in “two to two and a half weeks.”

So Gator Nation might have a Christmas present.

However, out of respect for what Meyer accomplished, and the way he accomplished it, we should acknowledge his body of work before the body is cold.

Never mind the stats. Just appreciate that you’ve lived through the most remarkable run that has ever been, and will ever be, in Gator football. And enjoy this one last ride in the sunset.

Congratulations to the Outback Bowl for the storyline it just inherited. As somebody pointed out, what’s the odds that one of the coaches from the game would retire — and it wasn’t going to be Joe Paterno?

* * *

As he had on every other occasion when opening his press conference, once again Florida’s winningest coach began his last one with, “Thanks for coming ….” And then added: “Thanks for coming today.” And with a very short, terse statement of gratitude, Meyer asked for questions.

He said he really hadn’t planned to do this now, or that the “struggles in the season” didn’t really have any bearing on his decision — it all stemmed from the time that had been stolen from him with his family, watching his daughters play sports, time that he’d never get back.

“You can fix struggles,” he said, something he had vowed he would do after the embarrassing loss to Florida State – his first ever.

He didn’t tell us all the reasons, but there were a number of things that wore on him in the game of college football and the game’s changing landscape. The losing, of course, was the body blows, but he was still standing after the 7-5 season, seemingly ready to launch into the recruiting season.

He talked about how last December’s decision was a “knee jerk reaction” and that he had admittedly reconsidered last time after realizing that his staff and its families would be torn apart. And the timing hadn’t been right – “although there never is a perfect time.”

This, apparently, was as close as he would come to that time. He and Foley had talked about it some last Saturday. There was still lingering impact of to last year’s “wakeup call,” although health really wasn’t the reason, according to both he and Foley.

“Why?” he was asked by Tom Rinaldi of ESPN.

His answer was that, “at the end of the day, I’m very convinced that you’re going to be judged on how you are as a husband and a father — not by how any bowl games you won.”

* * *

He left with class and dignity, having rewarded the program with a platinum era.

That being said, I don’t think Urban really put his stamp on the 2010 team in terms of football — for reasons I’m not sure. His players — and especially seniors — are hoping they can help him put a big stamp on it with closing victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

For sure he left his stamp on the program and the players and the fans.

I asked Mike Pouncey and Ahmad Black about their favorite memory of their coach. Both harkened back to the BCS Championship win over Oklahoma.

Black recalled the game-clinching interception that he’d made that was being scrutinized by replay officials in a nervous moment for Urban and his players

“I thought he was going to kill me when I asked if I had caught it on the sideline,” said Black. “He was all in my face grilling me on if I’d caught the ball or not. Even if I didn’t, I’d have still told him yes.”

Ahmad had caught it, of course.

Pouncey recalled that Urban leaned in the huddle to deliver the message in the fourth quarter that he will never forget. “He looked us in the eye and told us if we would go down and score we’d be national champions,” he said.

They did and they were.

That same light and fire burned brightly and brilliantly in Urban Meyer’s eyes that night in Miami when they beat Oklahoma for a second national title in three seasons. Just as the memories now burn in the minds of all Gator fans who know that, almost certainly, such an era won’t pass this way again.