On the day that he was introduced to the Florida media some two years ago, Urban Meyer was late. Five minutes became ten and before you know it fifteen minutes had passed and still no Urban Meyer. He finally did show up. He didn’t apologize for being late that day. He didn’t feel he needed to. His job is to shape the lives of his football players and he was giving them a first day crash course.
What we’ve learned since then is that Urban Meyer is perpetually late. Every now and then he shows up to some function early and when he does, it doesn’t qualify as the upset of the century but it’s close. Usually, he’s late because he’s been talking to his team or else one of his players.
When football practice ends, it isn’t unusual for Meyer to talk to his team for ten or fifteen minutes, sometimes more. Once the team meeting is finished, he typically takes another ten minutes or so before he shows up outside the practice field gate to answer questions from a growingly impatient media corps. They have deadlines to meet and stories to write and Meyer doesn’t seem bothered that they have a job to do.
The post-practice press briefing lasts a few minutes or a few questions, whichever comes first. Occasionally there is laughing or joking but not often. Answering questions is a requirement of the job. Once he’s done his duty he doesn’t dawdle and kid around with the press corps. He walks at a fast pace to get to the locker room where he can spend more time with his players.
“The two things he loves the most are spending time with his family and spending time with his players,” Shelley Meyer said a few weeks ago.
During the spring when he has to give the same speech anywhere from fifteen to twenty times at Gator Gatherings all over the state, Meyer often looks uncomfortable and ill at ease. It’s not that he completely dislikes these functions. He knows they are a necessary part of the fund raising process at the University of Florida and without the folks at these gatherings parting with large chunks of their own personal funds Meyer doesn’t have first class facilities and everything else he needs to succeed as Florida’s football coach. The problem is that every minute, every hour that he’s at one of these functions, he’s away from his players.
Meyer is 60-12 as a head coach, 21-4 in two not quite complete seasons at the University of Florida. In previous stops at Bowling Green and Utah, Meyer did the unthinkable which was win bigger and better than they could have imagined. At Bowling Green he proved that you can win big even if you don’t have any cash and your facilities are rotten. At Utah he showed that even at a basketball school you can dream big dreams and soar high into the atmosphere with college football’s eagles. At Florida where the expectations were already through the roof, he has taken the Gators to the national championship game in his second year.
At both Bowling Green and Utah, year two was significantly better than year one and that pattern of success carried over at Florida where the Gators improved from 9-3 to 12-1.
When he first came to Florida, hailed as the new age offensive guru with his spread option offense, conventional wisdom was his success would be short-lived once this newfangled offense met up with SEC defenses. If we go by the conventional wisdom, then Florida should have regressed offensively in year two because the defenses had figured things out and that should have resulted in fewer wins.
The offense hasn’t exactly lit up like the Las Vegas strip at sunset but it hasn’t taken a downward spiral, either. About the only thing it has proven is that Urban Meyer’s success formula is not dependent on the spread option roaring like a 66 Stingray with a fuel-injected 427 under the hood. He wins when the offense is good and he wins when it struggles.
So what is the secret? Why is it that Meyer-coached teams are always better in year two? If it isn’t the vast improvement of the offense then what exactly is the formula?
Well, there is no magic bullet here; no special recipe guarded like it’s a state secret. You find the answer in two words: time and relationships. Urban Meyer spends time with his players. He builds extraordinary relationships with them. He builds great relationships and he insists that his assistant coaches do the same thing. He expects every assistant coach to be completely invested in the players under their command. The assistants better know their players well enough to know who their girlfriends are, who they hang out with and what their study habits are. He expects his assistants to do exactly what he does which is invest the time and effort into building great relationships.
In year one at every Meyer stop, it has taken awhile to get the players to understand that what Meyer and his assistants are doing is investing in their future. By year two, they understand what’s going on and they trust the coaches and the coaches trust them.
That’s the secret right there.
Last Saturday night, we saw the secret formula work to perfection in the third quarter. The Gators were in a jam, needing to make something happen in a hurry to derail an Arkansas team with the momentum of a runaway locomotive. Florida was down four points, had the ball on its own 14 and it was fourth and ten. Meyer brought his punt team over, talked things over with them and knew instantly that he could trust them to execute a fake punt. They worked the play to perfection. The senior punter (Eric Wilbur) flipped the ball to the senior wide receiver (Jemalle Cornelius) and he followed the devastating block of the senior fullback (Billy Latsko) into the open field where he gained 18 yards for a first down.
Ballsy is how some writers and announcers have described the fake punt. Outrageous. Desperate. Insane. Those are other descriptions and none of them are anywhere close to appropriate. The play call was a calculated move that Meyer knew would work because (a) he had spent the entire game setting the play up and (b) more importantly, he knew he could trust his players to execute. He could trust them because he’s invested the time and built relationships with them.
We hear all the stories about how difficult the game of football has become and about how it takes complicated schemes to succeed. Meyer laughs every time he hears it. He keeps telling anybody that listens that it’s not the schemes that win games, it’s the players. He believes that good players that trust each other and trust their coaches have a chance to do extraordinary things.
Saturday as the Gators were just starting to celebrate their Southeastern Conference championship on the field, Meyer walked up to senior wide receiver Dallas Baker and threw an arm around his neck. This was no ordinary embrace. Meyer squeezed and squeezed hard. Baker squeezed back even harder. Meyer said something that nobody could hear with all the music blasting and fans roaring. Baker just smiled and started walking with his coach to the podium being set up in the middle of the Georgia Dome where the Gators would be presented the SEC championship trophy.
This was the same Dallas Baker that was ready to flunk out of school two years ago; the same classic underachiever that used to laugh when he watched his own mistakes on film. The same Dallas Baker whose life was in a fast-moving downward spiral then is a confident wide receiver that’s one of the best in Florida history now. In another week he will be a college graduate who has scored at least a 3.0 GPA every semester since Meyer arrived.
Ask Dallas Baker why he’s successful and he’ll point the finger at Meyer and start talking about the relationship he has built with the coach. Dallas Baker knows he is on a success track in both football and life. Now multiply that by 85 players and you start to understand the secret of Urban Meyer’s success. There’s nothing magical to it, just a simple investment in time and relationships, that’s all. It is why the Florida Gators are playing in the national championship game.