Florida's Meyer: 'This is it'


It is not just the new contract that will pay him $4 million a year. It's not just the friends he has made during his time here. It's everything. Urban Meyer is a Gainesville guy.

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Published: Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 4:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 5, 2009 at 4:50 p.m.

When the song was first released, Urban Meyer was the head coach at Utah. He knew little about Gainesville, the place Drew Copeland sang about with such passion on "A Little Like Heaven."

Today, it is Meyer's theme song.

He even made his children memorize the lyrics like he did with his players and the Gator fight song and pushes Copeland to play it every time the Sister Hazel member visits the lakehouse that the Meyer family owns on Melrose Bay.

"Well, it was out on Payne's Prairie where I got my first kiss."

"He made me play it twice the last time I was out there," Copeland said.

Meyer gets the song now. He gets Gainesville. It wasn't always that way. There were struggles and internal questions about the job he took in December of 2004. There were times he wondered if he had made the right decision.

Not anymore. As Meyer begins preparation Thursday morning for his fifth season with a brand new contract that makes him the SEC's highest-paid coach, there is a comfort level that hasn't been there before. It's not just the team he will be coaching. It's not just Tim Tebow. It is not just the new contract that will pay him $4 million a year. It's not just the friends he has made during his time here.

It's everything.

Urban Meyer is a Gainesville guy.

"That song should be kind of a community rallying song," Meyer said. "Maybe it's not, but it should be. This is a helluva community. Go find one better. I've lived in seven different places. This is the best place we've ever lived."

For Meyer, it took awhile. And it wasn't until the weeks after he guided Florida to a second national title and the third in school history that he had those epiphanic moments.

"After the Oklahoma game, I realized that this is it," he said. "I could see it coming before, but there were a bunch of moments this spring. It's coaching 101 when you first put your foot into coaching. What is your dream job? You've got your facility, your strength staff, training staff, a really good group of players where there is no void coming up.

"It's Melrose. It's Bluewater Bay. It's Buchholz High School. It's watching Nate pitch Little League and it's no cow pasture. It's a big-time field at Diamond Sports Park. It's my church, Queen of Peace, where I know the priest now. It's Ballyhoo's, and they put me and my daughter at a corner table and we laugh. It's being out in a boat on Lake Santa Fe watching the sun set. It's a conglomeration of comfort. I can drive to my office in seven minutes. I can be at Bluewater Bay in 18 minutes if I hit the lights right.

"I think human beings are driven for peace of mind. As a coach, what's your peace of mind? I've got peace of mind. This is my dream job. Three years ago, I couldn't say that. When I came here, I talked about how great Gainesville was, but I didn't know. Now, oh my God. Now, I can say, wow. I love Gainesville now."

"We could water ski out on Melrose Bay / We could wear flip-flops on Christmas Day."

Despite the many statements made by Meyer about the possibility of his leaving for Notre Dame and the new six-year deal he agreed to, the story won't die until the Irish have a successful season under Charlie Weis or hire another coach. The speculation is Meyer is a Midwest guy and Notre Dame will throw tons of money at him, even more than the $4 million a year Florida will pay Meyer.

But Meyer revealed for the first time in an interview with The Sun that there have been big-money offers from both colleges and the NFL during his tenure at Florida.

"If it was only about money, I wouldn't be coaching at Florida," he said. "It's about more than that. I've got peace of mind. I have an athletic director, the first two years we loved him but we didn't know him. His presentation (in Utah), you give him a 10 and everybody else a two. I thought I trusted him, but I didn't know I trusted him. Now I know I trust him. We've had enough heart-to-hearts and conflicts we've had to work through. We're good.

"Billy Donovan, I didn't know Billy. He's turned out to be a great friend. Guys like James Bates. I get a text the other night. It's from Bates. It says, 'bocce tournament.' So Shell (his wife Shelley) and I went over there and there's 20 people playing bocce. That's just cool. I didn't have that four years ago. I didn't have any buddies to call. Nobody's fault. It's my fault. It takes time to call someone."

In his first year as Florida's coach, Meyer's cell phone was reserved for texting and calling recruits or players on the team. Now, it's just as likely to be a call to set up dinner with a friend.

"The transformation of Urban has been amazing," Shelley said. "I knew things would work out because I always think they'll work out. But I was worried because he was so miserable. I felt bad because I couldn't help him.

"I'm proud of him for opening himself up. He's so guarded. But I told him, 'We like it here. We're going to be here a long time. Let's get out and meet some people.' "

"And when we had enough cash for gasoline / Then we would all skip school and go to Crescent Beach."

It wasn't always a little like heaven for Meyer. Although the family adapted quickly to the third move in five years, the head coach at the University of Florida struggled through that first season.

Not all of his players were drinking the Kool-aid, but they were drinking plenty of other beverages during the season. There was a drug problem that prompted Meyer to push for a more stringent drug-testing policy at Florida.

"At one point, I didn't know if I could do it," he said. "There was a point where I hit that wall, where I was wondering, 'Can I really do this here?'

"I left a place that was undefeated. I left my comfort. I left something that we worked awful hard to build up a certain work ethic, certain pattern, certain routine that was completely thrown in another direction. I felt fatigued, 99 high schools and 22 Gator Clubs.

"And issue after issue after issue. More than once, there was a time when I did some soul-searching. Can we do this thing? I never felt that way at Bowling Green. I never felt that way at Utah. It was like a toothache. It didn't go away."

The losses at Alabama and LSU in 2005 left Meyer reeling. The loss at South Carolina that eliminated Florida from the SEC East race was the last straw. As has been reported many times, Meyer kept the team on the charter plane when it returned to Gainesville and read the players the riot act.

He dismissed two players from the team right there on the tarmac.

"You had a really good coach in here before me and some of the guys on the team wanted me and some didn't," he said. "We had some guys in here the other day Jeremy Mincey, Jarvis Herring, Vernell Brown. We almost cried together. They didn't have to drink the Kool-aid. The seniors, you know, they're all lame ducks (that season). They could have imploded it. We had some seniors who did try to implode it. They did their best to implode it."

Meyer believes the beginning of Florida's march to a pair of national titles began on that tarmac, that the performance the rest of the season showed it.

But there was a problem that would take more than speeches to correct.

Meyer was recruited to Florida by UF athletic director Jeremy Foley in Utah. He never visited Florida's facilities other than a brief look at the stadium when he was an assistant coach at Notre Dame.

"I was so enamored with the stadium," he said. "But I had never been to LSU or any of the places I had to recruit against. It wasn't until a guy from Ohio was down here with a recruit and he mentioned how bad it was. Things have all got to be in place and they were not."

So Meyer drafted Florida sports information director Steve McClain, strength coach Mickey Marotti and director of football operations John Clark to come up with a PowerPoint presentation that would show how much UF's facilities were lacking compared to the other top programs. The three-month study helped convince Foley and other UF officials that a new front door, museum, coaches offices and weight room were needed.

Last August, the $28-million Heavener football complex opened its doors.

"In 2009, I'll take ours over anybody's in America because of the substance and the class," Meyer said. "Look at what our administration did. Now I have people coming down here saying, 'Wow." Most importantly, I have recruits saying, 'Wow.'

"I talk about peace of mind, part of that is walking out the door and into two staff meetings. It's not me and Charlie Strong scrunched up together or shouting down the hallway."

"We pulled arrowheads out of Hogtown Creek."

So it's all in place. Meyer has figured out what so many in this community understand. And he has a program flirting with a dynasty tag.

Florida almost assuredly will begin the season ranked No. 1. The Gators have all the defensive starters returning as well as Tebow. The schedule is manageable. The fans are beside themselves. They, too, have come to embrace a coach they wondered about when he was first hired.

The stadium has never looked better. The facilities have never been better.

There's only one glitch in Meyer's perfect situation. His oldest child, Nikki, left Saturday for Georgia Tech where she is on a volleyball scholarship.

"It'll take me about a week to get over that," he said.

But before she left, there was one more trip out to the lakehouse and into the water to watch one more sunset. One more dinner at Bluewater Bay, heavy on the lobster.

"Where I come from / It's a little like heaven / And I can't stay gone too long / Where I come from."

Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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