Urban Meyer wore a smile on his face and a championship ring on his finger as he talked to the media Wednesday afternoon about the top-ranked recruiting class that he had just reeled in. He had the look and the sound of a coach that’s sitting on top of the college football world. When you’ve won a national title in your second year on the job and you can recruit like he can, confidence oozes.
It was quite a contrast to the Urban Meyer that talked about his first recruiting class just two years ago. At that first national signing day press conference, Meyer looked like a man that hadn’t slept in a month. In those days, he was selling a dream to recruits, some of whom probably knew as much or more about the University of Florida than he did. He brought in 18 players in that first class and only about half of them are still on campus. It was hit or miss in those days and obviously there were as many misses as hits.
That first class was probably as good as you could expect of a brand new coach and staff still trying to get used to wearing shorts in the winter and figuring out the campus landmarks. They won a few memorable recruiting battles with that first class but they also learned a few valuable lessons. On signing day, after being taken to school for a couple of recruits he thought he had convinced to go with UF, Meyer had that “this will never happen again as long as I live” sound in his voice. He doesn’t take losing very well and on that day his loaded weapon was half-filled with blanks.
To say he’s grown from that initial experience is like saying The Great Wall of China is nothing more than an overgrown picket fence. Meyer has established Florida as the dominant power in the state of Florida. The Gators are 22-4 with a resume that includes a Southeastern Conference and national championship. While Florida State was fighting it out for an Emerald Bowl championship and Miami was trying to avoid frostbite at a bowl game in scenic downtown Boise, the Gators were preparing to knock off mighty Ohio State for the national title.
When it comes to recruiting, Meyer has followed up that first class that he calls “average” with two classes that are about as good as it gets. Last year’s class barely missed the top ranking. This year’s class is number one and nearly off the charts.
Meyer has done it by making the state his own personal recruiting playground. He’s made it so that all battles must be fought on his terms and on his turf. If you’re a top recruit with good grades, then the road to somewhere else leads through Gainesville where Meyer and his staff seem to have the first and the final say. The battle scars of that first recruiting class have been replaced by confident victories that resulted back-to-back classes that might be as talented as any in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
Instead of getting schooled on signing day by Florida State and Miami like he did in 2005, he’s beating those two established recruiting powers to the punch. Meyer may not get everybody in Florida that he wants, but if they go someplace other than UF, it’s not without a battle. He’s made Gainesville so enticing to the best players that no matter state they’re from, they’re hoping to show up on the University of Florida radar.
The poster child that speaks volumes of how Florida’s recruiting fortunes have flip-flopped since that first signing day press conference is Jerimy Finch, the nation’s ninth-ranked safety by Scout.com. Finch signed with the Gators Wednesday, a surprise and talented addition to the nation’s top-ranked class to say the least. The Gators would have landed the nation’s top class without him. With Finch, the top class is even stronger.
Finch is from Indianapolis, where he starred for powerful Warren Central, Indiana’s most consistent prep football power. He wasn’t even on Florida’s radar until a couple of weeks ago because the Gators just don’t recruit the state of Indiana. Florida’s only Indiana recruit in history is Rex Grossman and the Gators didn’t recruit Grossman. Grossman recruited the Gators and Coach Steve Spurrier back in 1999.
Meyer really didn’t intend to recruit Finch and he admits it wouldn’t have happened if not for the fact he’s turned into somewhat of an internet recruiting junkie. Meyer was checking out recruits on the internet when he saw Finch’s name. He saw the high ranking and recognized the school.
“I’m sitting there after watching Reggie Nelson (Florida All-American) play and I’m sitting there paging through the top 100 which I do … I’m a dot.com guy now … and I’m going through the top 100 and I see this number three is a pretty good safety,” said Meyer. “So I want to see where he’s going and I knew Warren Central from my days at Notre Dame because it’s two hours south. I called the coach, whom I knew and he said ‘Coach, you’ll never believe this, but we just finished talking about Florida.’ He played in the Orlando all-star game, and the kid loves Florida. He wondered why you guys weren’t recruiting him.’
“Well, we don’t go up there … we don’t recruit Indiana. I said send me a tape and then I asked if I could talk to him. In five minutes he called me back and I’m on the phone with him and I find out who’s recruiting him. Without seeing an inch of tape on him I said ‘do you want to come visit?’ We brought him down on a visit. He’s a great kid, a good-looking safety and his tape just solidified it.”
Meyer got an endorsement of Finch from former University of Miami running backs coach Don Soldinger, who was also a legendary South Florida high school coach when he was the head man at Miami Southridge.
“Donnie Solidinger, who used to coach down at Miami — he’s a good friend of mine — coached the Orlando all-star game and he had him for about four or five days,” said Meyer. “He got on the phone and said ‘he’s not a good player, he’s a great player. He’s a good person, has got work ethic and character.’ So we offered him, and he decided to come. It’s unbelievable because I didn’t go to Indiana once the whole time.”
Two years ago, it would have been an accident if Jerimy Finch had shown any interest whatsoever in Urban Meyer and the Florida Gators. Two years later, things are so good at Florida that even when Urban Meyer bumps into a recruit like Finch by accident good things happen.
It’s a sign of the times and considering what Meyer has done with these last two recruiting classes, it’s also a sign that the other schools in the state had better catch up quick or else the distance between is going to be measured by light years. He has a track record of success on the field that can’t be matched and he can counter offers of playing time by other schools with a proven track record of playing his rookies. In Florida’s run to the national championship, 14 true freshmen contributed.
“Last year we saw a lot of production from those freshmen,” he said. “We have taken a new attitude towards recruiting. Every freshman, in my opinion, will play next year. Now obviously, that won’t happen but we’re taking that approach. It used to be ‘well we’d like to save this guy’ but I’ve learned my lesson and that’s over. We’re going to play. Everybody’s playing. We’ll let you go play and we’ll worry about your fourth year down the road. If it’s in the best interest of the player, then maybe we will redshirt them, but we want to play them.”
And as Wednesday proved, there is no shortage of quality players that want a chance to play football at the University of Florida. Two years ago, he had to fight tooth and nail for every signature on that signing day fax. Two years later, he’s sitting on top of the college football world, picking and choosing who he wants to be Florida Gators.
He’s confident. He’s very, very confident. He’s also very, very good at what he does.