From the very first day that he came to Gainesville, Urban Meyer never once shied away from the past. Instead of distancing himself from Steve Spurrier and the glory years of the 1990s, especially that 1996 national championship team, he’s embraced everything that made those special times for Gator nation. What we saw Saturday was not an embrace, however. It was a bear hug.
Meyer knows all about the shadow of Steve Spurrier and the legend of that 1996 team but rather than ensure a healthy distance from the past, he’s tried to bridge the gaps and tie the past to the present. He’s welcomed back Gators from every era and made them feel that they’re an integral part of what he’s trying to accomplish, which is winning and establishing the kind of traditions that make the Florida football experience unique.
Sure, we have Mr. Two Bits, “We Are the Boys” and a few other traditions but consider the new traditions Meyer has added in the two years he’s been here — the Gator Walk, the Ring of Honor, and the team singing the alma mater and fight song with the student body immediately after the game. Meyer loves the pageantry and the traditions of college football and he wants Florida to be known as a place that’s up there with the best of them, not the place that Dan Jenkins once wrote “the arrogance of Notre Dame, the tradition of Wake Forest.”
If you want to know why that’s important, then you only needed to be in Glendale, Arizona Monday night and see how galvanized the 50,000 or so Ohio State fans were when their band did the script Ohio on the field or when they played “Hang on Sloopy” or a dozen other things that are uniquely associated with Ohio State football. Meyer grew up in Ohio as an Ohio State fan and was a graduate assistant on Earl Bruce’s staff at OSU. He knows how those traditions bond the fans and the players of all Ohio State eras together and he’s determined to do the same thing in Gainesville.
He went a long way toward forever sealing that deal Saturday afternoon as the Gators celebrated their national championship win over Ohio State along with 70,000 of their best friends in The Swamp. By bringing back the greatest Gator ever to present the Most Valuable Player trophy from Monday night’s national championship game victory over Ohio State to quarterback Chris Leak, Meyer brought together the only two quarterbacks to ever lead Florida to a national championship for a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation to another.
This was not simply Urban Meyer acknowledging what happened in the past. This was Urban Meyer wrapping his arms around the past like it was a dance partner and then doing a nifty two-step until the band ran out of songs to play.
Saturday at The Swamp Saturday, Meyer gave us a moment that should be embraced by every Gator fan young or old — Danny Wuerffel, the 1996 Heisman Trophy winner, MVP of the Sugar Bowl stomping of Florida State for the national championship, and forever tied to Spurrier, handed the MVP trophy of the 2006 national championship stomping of Ohio State to Chris Leak, who shall be forever linked to Urban Meyer. The two best players from the two best games in Florida football history, from two different generations of Florida football, forever bonded the Spurrier era of Florida football with the still-young Meyer era.
The fact that Wuerffel and Leak turned in MVP performances in national championship games on their last night in a Gator uniform creates a special bond between the two, but there’s more. There’s much, much more and you can’t appreciate Gator football history without savoring this story.
Wuerffel came to Florida after an intense recruiting battle with Florida State. On his final game as a high schooler, he capped an unbeaten season by leading Fort Walton Beach to the state championship. Danny was already a legend by the time he arrived on the Florida campus.
Leak came to Florida after an intense recruiting battle with just about every school in the nation. On his final game as a high schooler, Leak capped a fourth straight undefeated season for Charlotte’s Independence High Schoolo with its fourth straight state championship. Chris was already a legend by the time he arrived on the Florida campus.
Wuerffel was the perfect fit for the Spurrier offense but we tend to forget he got yelled at, screamed at, and benched more than one time before he put together two fabulous years (1995 and 1996) while taking Florida to the top of the college football world. It takes a quarterback with a thick skin and a lot of determination to go through what Danny Wuerffel had to go through those first two years with Spurrier when he shuffled in and out of the lineup with Terry Dean.
Spurrier was often abrasive, always demanding and that forced Wuerffel to adjust. Somehow they found a way to co-exist, win championships and build a friendship that remains close to this day.
Leak went through two offensive coordinators in two years before the coach that recruited him to Florida was canned after the 2004 season. That brought in Urban Meyer and a brand new offense and a way of approaching football that was contrary to everything he’d gone through in years one and two. It takes a quarterback with a thick skin and a lot of determination to go through what Chris Leak had to go through his last two years, including a senior year when he had sometimes had to share the stage with freshman quarterback Tim Tebow.
Meyer, Florida’s second year coach, wears his emotions on his sleeve and he demands so much of his quarterbacks. That forced Leak to adjust but they found a way to co-exist and there is no question that they will remain friends for a lifetime.
Wuerffel is the son of a preacher who spends his life in ministry to the children of the poor and downtrodden. He has impeccable character. Leak is the son of a former NFL wide receiver and he’s a devout Christian that never hesitates to give God the credit for the many blessings in his life.
All of these factors played their role in Saturday’s passing of the torch. Wuerffel passed it to Chris Leak and how fitting is it that the torch was passed from one that did it the right way, never complained no matter what, and earned his degree from the University of Florida to one that did it the right way, never complained no matter what and earned his college degree from the University of Florida?
How appropriate was it that the player that best symbolizes the best of the Spurrier era passed the torch to the player that symbolizes the best of the short but successful Meyer era?
And just how good is it that the coach that has taken Florida back to the mountaintop embraces the efforts of those that made the climb possible? Without Steve Spurrier, without Danny Wuerffel, and yes, without Ron Zook who recruited Chris Leak in the first place, Saturday’s national championship celebration wouldn’t have happened.
Meyer understands and appreciates what it took to get here and now that he’s here, he intends to make this the cornerstone of a plan to make the Florida Gators symbolic with all that is good about college football. In post-celebration remarks he talked about the day when it will be Chris Leak’s turn to hand the torch over to Tim Tebow and how he plans to build Florida into the one place that every kid playing football in America wants to be. He wants Florida to be the standard by which every college football program in America is measured.
Is there any Gator out there that doubts he’ll do it? Given what he’s done in just two short years, you have to believe that all things are possible. Given the way he’s embraced Florida’s past and bonded it with the present, you have to know that this is going to be a ride that every Gator of every generation is going to enjoy.