When Urban Meyer "retired" for 24 hours last winter, we wondered whether Florida football could survive without its two-time national championship coach. One 7-5 season later, we already know the answer.
It may sound cold, what with the ink barely dry on Florida's Wednesday press release announcing
Meyer stepped down Wednesday, citing many of the same factors he did the first time. "At this time in my life, I fully grasp the sacrifices my 24/7 profession has demanded of me, and I know it is time to put my focus on my family and life away from the field," Meyer said in the school's release. In just less than a decade as head coach, Meyer proved a masterful recruiter, motivator and offensive innovator, but apparently the one thing he couldn't conquer was his conflict between work and family.
On the heels of an ugly rebuilding season in which his once-prolific offense never stopped sputtering, Meyer was likely facing the prospect of radically overhauling his once stable program. Having already lost his two original coordinators, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong, over the past two seasons, more staff changes were in the offing. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio, the man Meyer put in charge of the program during his brief leave of absence last spring, was heading toward the chopping block, and for the first time, the one-time spread option guru would have been looking for outside help to resuscitate what was suddenly an outdated scheme.
In an ideal world, Meyer would have gotten the chance to reinvent the Gators, to prove that one down season was not an indictment of his program and that Florida wasn't about to cede the SEC East to South Carolina or the conference to Alabama and Auburn. He'd more than earned that opportunity. But as he'd be the first to admit, Florida football is bigger than Urban Meyer. Someone new will come in and achieve that very thing.
"I think head coaches get far too much credit," Meyer said shortly after his un-resignation last winter. "Programs are programs ... This program isn't because of Coach Meyer. He's got actually very little to do with it. It's because of the staff, support staff, most importantly the great players we brought in here."
He sold himself short there. Meyer had plenty to do with Florida's 2006 and '08 national titles, its three SEC Championship Game appearances and trio of 13-win seasons. He came in at a time when the program had sunk to mediocrity under Ron Zook and immediately restored enthusiasm. He recruited and helped develop the most important player in school history, Tim Tebow, not to mention Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes and a whole bunch of other standouts.
But before him, there was Steve Spurrier. And after him, there will be someone else who will mine the most fertile recruiting state in America and reap the benefits of one of the richest athletic departments in the country. And that person will sell the program's history of success, to which Meyer greatly contributed.
That person might even have a connection to Meyer. Athletic director Jeremy Foley presumably has a list of candidates in mind -- he's had a year to think about it -- but one of his first calls will surely be to Mullen, now the head coach at Mississippi State. In just his second season, Mullen led the Bulldogs to their first eight-win regular season in 11 years. Before that, he was Meyer's understudy and Tebow's mentor in Gainesville. Mullen and Strong, who just completed his first season at Louisville, know Florida football better than any other viable candidates.
But Foley may look at this opportunity to start fresh, to bring in someone with a completely different perspective than his predecessor -- and Florida certainly has the money and allure to attract pretty much anyone.
Start with the nation's No. 1 dream candidate, Oregon's Chip Kelly. The idea of a potential national championship coach moving to another school may be preposterous, but Florida is an enticing enough locale to pull it off. (Though Phil Knight would certainly make it worth it to Kelly to stay.) The problem, of course, is that the national championship game isn't until Jan. 10, and Foley likely wants a new coach in place well before then.
Boise State's Chris Petersen is another no-brainer. According to a
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops' name will come up. Again. Foley first tried to land the former Gators defensive coordinator when Spurrier retired in 2001, and Stoops has been rumored every time the job's come up. Maybe he's interested this time around, but after 12 years at Oklahoma (during which he's had numerous opportunities to leave), the odds seem low.
And then there's the NFL route. Jon Gruden has expressed interest in becoming a college coach, enough so that he was willing to listen to Miami. A whole bunch of others will soon be seeking new employment.
As for Meyer, there will be widespread skepticism about whether he's really leaving for good this time. I do believe he's done at Florida. Never before have I seen a coach so visibly take on the mounting toll of his job. In 2005, he was fresh-faced and giddy. In '07, he was cocksure and emboldened, but also seemed more burdened. By the end of '09, he was overwhelmed and emaciated. This year, as the losses mounted, he just looked ... defeated. He tried to make a change. It didn't work.
But I also doubt we've seen the last of Meyer on a sideline. He'll take a year off, maybe two. He'll do some television. He'll give speeches. He'll devote himself to his family and to community work. But like any coach, especially one as competitive as Meyer, he'll never scratch the itch. A job will come open that he can't possibly turn down. Refreshed, rejuvenated and reborn, he'll take on the challenge.
By the end, Meyer became a polarizing figure, respected by many but revered by few. He had enemies both within the profession and among general fans. Some criticized him for his players' litany of off-field problems. Others just thought he was a phony.
The only thing one can't dispute: From 2001-09, he was a darn good football coach, arguably the best in the sport. A 95-18 record. Three conference titles at two different schools. Two national championships and a Heisman Trophy winner.
But the next Urban Meyer is already waiting around the corner. Florida just has to find him.