Gators Practicing With Heavy Hearts

As hard and as tough as Florida’s football practices have gone the last two days as the second-ranked Gators prepare to play Ohio State in the Tostitos National Championship Game, it is also a time for heavy hearts as the team has rallied around All-America safety Reggie Nelson, whose mother died last week after a long battle with breast cancer.

It is times like these that Urban Meyer can measure just how far the Gators have come in his two years as the Florida coach. He expects his teams to play hard and practice hard and the Gators have shown throughout the season that they’re more than willing to accept that challenge. He also expects his team to take on a family atmosphere, one that when one teammate is down or grieving, the entire team is there to lend love and support.

Nelson was home in Palm Bay Friday, joined by his close friend and teammate Joe Cohen, but Saturday, teammates and coaches will be traveling to show their love, support and respect at the funeral.

“The university has been good enough that we’re going to be able to give them transportation down there and a bunch of coaches are going down,” said Meyer after Friday’s practice.

Meyer’s coaching philosophy revolves around team-building and it shows in everything from the way the Gators conduct their pre-spring practices to two-a-days to the way they prepare for games. Sometimes it takes awhile for his way of doing things to take root, but once it does, he believes it reflects in the win and loss columns.

The Gators went 9-3 in Meyer’s first year, a year where there were a lot of “issues” but they are 12-1 this year and playing for a national title.

“This is a good football team,” said Meyer, “and when you say good football teams it’s like saying a good family. Are there issues? Oh man, are there issues! This is one of the better ones I’ve been around as far as guys caring about each other.

“It’s what you could imagine. It’s not what you could imagine of a below average team. It’s a very good team that’s like a very good family. If there’s an issue they help each other out. It’s like you could imagine when a good family has to deal with something like that.”

Like any family, there is adversity and that presents opportunities for growth. Meyer says he can’t really find one single moment when this year’s team started to show the kind of bonding that he expected, but throughout the season he’s seen how they rallied together.

“It hasn’t been perfect,” he said. “No team, no family wants to deal with some of the things we’ve had to deal with but how they but how they respond to it is when you start to see the resiliency whether it be an injury, whether it be Ronnie Wilson breaking his leg, whether it be a suspension, whether it be something bad happens. If they point the finger and they blame each other then it’s not a very good family. If it’s a locker room after a hard fought loss and maybe some guys didn’t play very well but it wasn’t because of effort and some guys are going to point fingers and scream at each other, that’s part of the deal, but they came back and won the rest of them.

“There have been many different times where it kind of showed up. When did I first see it I can’t remember when but I had a good feeling going into it because I saw a lot of good things relating to that.”

The family atmosphere has been one of the reasons players like Steven Harris and DeShawn Wynn have made it through the tough times. Harris was dismissed from the team last spring and he had to earn his way back. He’s got a college degree now and he’ll be starting at nose tackle against Ohio State.

Wynn has battled through a lot of issues along with one injury after another. His situation is different from that of Harris, but it’s another example of how a family atmosphere helps pull a team through.

“I like DeShawn Wynn … I like him a lot,” said Meyer. “I couldn’t say that a year ago. I like who he is. I like that he’s going to graduate. He’s still got one little class he has to take care of but it means a lot to him. I just talked to him about that and he’s always going to be welcome back here at Florida.”

In year one of the Meyer regime, Wynn was moody and pouty, someone that Meyer termed “selfish” but that’s all changed.

“I think more than me liking him and enjoy having him around, watch his teammates,” Meyer said. “His teammates wanted nothing to do with him for awhile. That kind of tells you. Now he’s doing a nice job for us.”

Another aspect of the Florida family atmosphere is the involvement of the coaches’ wives. Meyer believes that’s very important, especially for young players who have to deal with homesickness and other issues related to being away from their families. Meyer expects his assistants and their families to be open and available to the players on the football team.

“I think that’s a huge part of it especially with the younger players that move away from home for the first time,” he said. “As you can see our wives are very involved. Basically, our Thursday practice you’ll see the whole coaching staff with their wives and families here. Some coaches that’s not a big part of it but that’s a huge part of what we do.”

GREAT RELATIONSHIP WITH MACHEN, FOLEY: Meyer said that the job he’s able to do at Florida is so much easier because of the relationship he has with University of Florida and Director of Athletics Jeremy Foley.

From the new coaches offices and weight room/locker room renovations to having the funding to make the job attractive for assistant coaches, Meyer says whatever he needs, Machen and Foley make sure it’s provided.

“So far if the question is usually I need something will it help us win and is it for the student athlete the answer is a yes,” said Meyer. “Not many places can do that. We have a great working relationship. I never have had it any other way. I can’t imagine it being any other way. That’s the way it is here.”

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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.