Winning: It starts on the inside

FORT LAUDERDALE — Urban Meyer gets it like few others in his profession get it. His job is to win football games and he’s on the short list of college coaches that do it better than anyone else. He wins, which is exactly what he is supposed to do. How he wins is maybe the way it’s going to be done by everyone in the profession someday. It’s called winning from the inside out.

To do what Meyer has done at Florida — 43-9 in four years; two Southeastern Conference championships; one national championship and playing for a second in three years Thursday night in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game — requires great athletes and there is no question that when it comes to recruiting the best of the best, Urban Meyer has very few peers. He has stacked the Florida roster with three straight lights out recruiting classes and with 17 commitments for 2009 and more to come before National Signing Day it is obvious that Meyer’s message strikes a chord with the best prospects in the country. This 2009 recruiting class should put Meyer and the Gators in a perpetual reload mode, which means one great player graduates, replaced by another great player that has waited his turn to play.

Run your finger up and down the list of Division I football programs and you’ll find any number of rosters stacked with great athletes but only a handful that win consistently enough to remain among the nation’s elite. You’ll find even fewer that graduate a clear majority of their players and do it in such a way that the ex-players become the greatest ambassadors for the school, the coach and the football program.

This is a true point of separation for Florida, evidenced by the seniors that will be playing the final game of their Florida careers against Oklahoma at Dolphin Stadium Thursday night. Meyer has 13 scholarship seniors on his roster and all 13 of them have college degrees. Left tackle Phil Trautwein earned his masters degree last month with a cumulative 3.99 grade point average for his entire college career. Right tackle Jason Watkins graduated with a bachelor’s degree and a cumulative 3.91 GPA. Placekicker Jonathan Phillips turned down Miami law school to come back to grad school and one more year kicking for the Gators.

Recently an article was written critical of Florida and other schools for admitting football players whose SAT scores were significantly less than the general student population. Most college football coaches, Meyer included, would love to stack their rosters with 1,350 SAT types (an average score for an incoming freshmen at the University of Florida) that are pillars in the community but let’s get real here. You aren’t going to win at Florida or any other Division I level school if your roster is completely filled with players that could have gotten into school by meeting the average entrance requirements. Vanderbilt has the highest academic standards for athletes in the SEC but the Commodores have been to just one bowl game in the last 25 years and if you judge the Vandy football team’s SAT compared to the general student population, Vandy rides in the same boat as every other Division I team.

If ALL students had to measure up to the average SAT on campus you could also axe quite a few minority students that were given an academic hand up through equal opportunity programs. It’s not like football players are the only ones that get a chance.

“I heard that, something about the SATs were lower, and I think one of the great things about college football is it’s given people opportunities that wouldn’t go to Florida — some people say they shouldn’t have that right,” said Meyer at Wednesday morning’s final press conference before the national championship game with Oklahoma. “I think SATs are just a small component of what makes a person successful, in my opinion very small.  I think a guy that’s a captain of a football team, a captain of some extracurricular activity, the ability to get around and meet ability, the ability to perform in front of 25 million people on national television, if you had to say what’s more important, SAT score or that, I know exactly what I want to be around, those kind of people that can perform in an arena and handle the media like this and have the ability to communicate and I think that’s what college football teaches those guys.”

For the longest time high SAT scores were considered to be a predictor of academic success at the college level but it’s probably safer to say that high SAT scores are a ticket to get into certain colleges.

A football scholarship is also a ticket and for most athletes, probably a ticket to get into a better school than their academic background might dictate. A football scholarship is not a guarantee of performance either on the football field or in the classroom. It is merely an opportunity for an athlete to work in tandem with coaches and support staff that understand all polished diamonds were once lumps of coal.

Meyer recruits kids deficiencies in academic and social backgrounds. That might not settle well with some Florida alums, but when you see how he is sending kids out into the real world with the skills to compete his methods should be applauded.

Meyer and his staff begin by identifying kids that have a measure of character about them to go with the athletic ability to play at the highest level. Not every kid is a Boy Scout. Meyer will look beyond a troubled background if he discovers a good heart and a desire to grab hold of a hand willing to lift him up and lift him out of his present circumstances. He demands that kids go to class, work toward earning a college degree and live their lives right — and all of that has to take place before they ever see a football field. Slackers in any of those three areas are encouraged to either get with the program or find a new place to dwell other than the University of Florida.

“He’s revolutionizing the way college football is being coached because no matter the background of the kid, he starts by winning their hearts and minds,” said one of Meyer’s closest and most trusted friends in an August conversation. “There is a direct correlation between winning the way he does and living life the right way, going to class and getting an education. If a kid knows you’re doing everything you can to make him a better person, he’ll do all those things and he’ll give his heart and soul for you on the football field. Football is actually the easy part.”

Meyer’s list of reclamation projects is too long to name. For every player that has found more trouble than he was willing to handle there are several others that followed Meyer’s hard path to redemption. The Gators don’t win the national championship in 2006 without Dallas Baker, Ray McDonald and Steven Harris, poster children for Meyer’s way of first winning the heart and soul. Baker was the classic under-achiever that startled everyone by turning his life around and becoming as productive in the classroom as he was on the field. McDonald was in such bad academic shape that his parents were considering pulling him out of school until Meyer arrived on campus and transformed him into a model of consistency on the field and in the classroom. Harris was a human train wreck that Meyer booted off the team and wouldn’t allow back until he had sufficiently proven that he could live his life the right way. All three have college degrees and a future beyond football.

Meyer knows his approach works. Not every kid he recruits is at risk but the ones that come to Gainesville with problems in their background can know two things right away: (1) They have coaches and a support staff in place to help them transform their lives completely and (2) if they’re not interested in going to class and living life the right way, they need to move on because they’re standing in the way of some other athlete that will do all the right things.

“If we have a little lower SATs, then I have no problem with that,” said Meyer. “If our graduation rate dips and we start acting not the right way, I have a real problem with that.  Your head coach at Florida — I can’t remember what it was — but I don’t think your head coach at Florida had a real high SAT. He’s okay.”

And so is the Florida football program as long as he is in charge.

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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.