Something just doesn’t add up in the Urban Meyer saga

December 28, 2009

This is the part where unfortunately I confess that I am a professional cynic.

But watching the Urban Meyer saga unfold over the last 24 hours leaves me a bit bewildered and uncomfortable. Because I just get the feeling that the whole story hasn’t been told.

On the surface what we have is this: Gators coach Meyer decides on Saturday to step down from his job after the Sugar Bowl in order to solve ongoing health problems fueled by the 24-7 stressful lifestyle that comes with being one of the best coaches in college football. Then on Sunday morning, there is a dramatic turnaround after watching his players practice and Meyer agrees to become the coach who is also the coach in waiting by taking an indefinite leave of absence although he says in his “gut” that he will coach again in the fall of 2010.

Here’s what I am willing to accept at face value:

Meyer has bona fide health issues that he needs to address. He essentially ducked a question during the Sunday press conference on whether his doctors advised him to quit his job.

Meyer does indeed have a good bond with his players and many of them were probably very upset at his dramatic initial announcement.

But here’s the questions that I remain perplexed by:

Meyer apparently won’t be allowed to visit the University of Florida complex in the near term or have anything directly to do with the team yet will continue to get paid $4 million a year because he remains the head coach according to UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley. Ok, so Meyer gets paid even though we don’t know when, or if, he will resume working. Is this to make sure he doesn’t go anyplace else? Is this to thwart the possible poaching of UF recruits in advance of National Signing Day in February?

There is no idea yet who will hire the defensive coordinator to replace Charlie Strong. So let me get this straight. Meyer can’t go to the UF facility yet somehow a top new coach will be hired to run the defense. How will that work? Does UF expect interim coach Steve Addazio to hire this person, even though they eventually will work for Meyer? If you were a top-flight coordinator wouldn’t you want a bit of an understanding of who the heck your boss actually is?

What do you tell potential UF recruits in the next month? Are you going to tell them flatly that Meyer will be their coach? Will Meyer call any of them personally? Or will it be put to Addazio and the still unknown defensive coordinator to try to lure players into a totally unsettled situation?

Why did Meyer drop his bombshell on Saturday to begin with? He was given the offer of a leave of absence before that time he acknowledged. Again my professional cynicism makes me wonder whether the news about Meyer’s health problems must have been leaking out and that announcement on Saturday was a preemptive strike. Otherwise why not wait until after the Sugar Bowl. Then there’s the unsettled business about the university essentially misleading everyone by saying that Meyer’s trip to the hospital on the night of the SEC Championship Game was due to “dehydration.” Meyer himself corrected the record in December by acknowledging it was in fact due to “chest pains.”

I am willing to admit I could be dead wrong and this story is just what it appears to be at this time.

But right now it just doesn’t add up.

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Stunning news about Meyer means a seismic shift in college football

December 27, 2009

Florida head coach Urban Meyer will face a barrage of questions on Sunday about his stunning decision to step down from his job after the Sugar Bowl.

There will be questions about his health, what he will do in the future, whether he is gone from coaching for good, and how he will assist in finding his own replacement.

But the biggest question of course is….what happens next?

The news about Meyer – combined with Bobby Bowden’s departure – is a seismic shift in college football in both the state of Florida and the nation.

Meyer brought the Gators to unprecedented heights and made them the most dominant program in the state. The list of accolades is long, including 2 national titles, an amazing winning percentage and a 15-1 record against the Gators biggest rivals.

Keeping that intact won’t be as easy as some might think regardless of who is picked as a successor. Gainesville-bound recruits will pretty soon hearing whispers in their ears that they should think about going someplace else.

Meyer already had a bit of rebuilding job ahead of him in 2010 thanks to the departure of Gators legend Tim Tebow. And the Gators earlier this month lost defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to Louisville. So while there will be a lot of blather about how this is one of the most attractive jobs in the nation the truth is that the next coach for the Gators will have tremendous challenges when he walks through that door.

The biggest challenge will be the immediate pressure on the next UF coach to match the recent successes of the Gators. That could be a tall order given that Meyer is leaving while the Gators are at their peak. I don’t think next season would have been a down year for the team, but it’s hard to imagine the Gators would have been as good as they have been the last three years.

This change, in many ways, may be a Christmas gift for Lane Kiffin at Tennessee, Mark Richt at Georgia….and even Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. (Just as an aside – it’s interesting how Spurrier is not viewed right now as a top contender for the opening. Um, hey Gator Nation, he’s the one that made the job so attractive to Meyer in the first place….)

But this decision could result in more than just a realignment of the SEC.

For three decades the programs in the state of Florida – University of Miami, Florida State and UF – have dominated college football in a way that no other state can rival. To have 3 schools from the same state battle it out for national championships is truly unprecedented. The fact that the three schools have combined for 11 national titles in the last 26 years is astounding.

The end of the Bowden era, and now the end of the Meyer era, could wind up as the demarcation point of a new period in college football where the Big 3 Florida schools no longer dominate the national scene like they once did. Other schools have already begun poaching players from Florida high schools and this could just accelerate it. This could also be the opening that programs at the University of South Florida and University of Central Florida need.

Or maybe even worse to FSU and UF fans – this could mark the starting point of a new time of dominance for the U.

While Miami’s season was a disappointment, the team is still playing in a bowl and Jacory Harris is an extremely talented quarterback who will probably get a lot better. And there is hope that the defense – which was Miami’s biggest weakness – will become a dominant unit next season.

It’s too early to tell of course just how all this will play out, but it’s a gamechanger all the way around.


FSU’s expensive gamble

December 20, 2009

Well, here’s the good and the bad about Jimbo Fisher’s 5-year, $9 million deal with FSU.

The good: Paying more for performance. Fisher will get paid bonuses – as much as $250,000 – if he were to lead the Seminoles to a national championship.

The bad: FSU – which is in the midst of a leadership transition – decided to lock up Fisher to an expensive, long-term contract right before President T.K. Wetherell steps down. So now we have an incoming university president wedded to a football coach who has yet to prove if he is capable of being a head coach.

And even though it was time for Bobby Bowden to step down this move could eventually backfire on FSU officials.

FSU didn’t launch a nationwide search for Bowden’s successor. Instead they named Fisher head coach in waiting after his first year on the job hoping that Nick Saban’s success would rub off on his former offensive coordinator.

The pressure to win and win now will be enormous. Fisher will get no grace period from fans since he has been at FSU since 2007 and the players who will suit up next fall are guys that he helped recruit.

Those same fans – who wanted him so badly to take over – will hold Fisher to a pretty high standard. Bowden won two national championships during his legendary span as coach before the program sank into mediocrity. But the fans won’t remember the bad times under Bowden. If Fisher can’t get FSU to a title game the howls for his head will grow quickly and loudly. Just ask former Gators coach Ron Zook how easy it is to follow a popular coach with a pretty good track record.

Two or three years from now the FSU faithful could be wondering whether if they made an expensive gamble by locking in Fisher to a long-term lucrative contract. This is no small matter. FSU’s athletic department is self-sustaining and must turn to donations from the Seminole Boosters in order to balance its books. The day could come when donors are asked to kick in more money to convince a coach to head to the exit.


Sorry Tim, it’s just not happening

December 12, 2009

Tim Tebow became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. This week he became the first person to be a finalist for the award three years in a row.

But he’s going to leave New York City disappointed. The award isn’t headed this way.

The reasons are simple and uncomplicated.

A: Mark Ingram’s dominating performance against Tebow in the most important game of the season. Tebow look tentative and confused against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game, while Ingram was stellar. With Colt McCoy’s lackluster performance against Nebraska, Ingram suddenly emerged as the leading contender. Tebow lost in 2008 even though he had an amazing game against Alabama that propelled the Gators into the national title game.

B: Tebow’s battle isn’t just against the other players, it is against history. He was going to need to have an outstanding year in order for voters to actually give him a second Heisman trophy and match Archie Griffin.

C: The geographical bias that exists among Heisman voters. As I explained last year when Tebow didn’t win – the entire Heisman proces is rigged. Each region gets 145 media votes but some regions such as the South are diluted because they are actually split into different regions. North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are lumped into the mid-Atlantic region. Added to the media votes are the votes from former Heisman Trophy winners. (Wonder who Tebow is going to vote for?) Additionally, there is no rhyme or reason as to how the media representatives are chosen. There is no balance it appears in regards to population or even the number of Division 1 schools.

I’m sure that Tebow will be gracious in his defeat on Saturday night. But I’m sure that he also knows that the stars are aligned against him.


5 reasons the Gators will lose

December 5, 2009

UPDATE – Suffice to say, the game wasn’t dull. But all the reasons that I cited why Bama would win proved to come true. And I couldn’t have been more wrong about Greg McElroy, the Bama quarterback. He looked poised and smooth and was incredibly effective.

It’s already been billed as the defacto national championship game, but today’s SEC Championship Game probably will be exceedingly dull.

Why? Because I find it highly unlikely that either team will find a way to generate a whole lot of offense. This means the game will be decided by the defense and a whole lot of other intangibles along the way. But there are some reasons that I think that Bama will knock off the Gators this season.

1. Alabama knows how to win tight close games. While some may see the close scores in recent Bama games as a sign of weakness, I think just the opposite. Moving down the field in the closing moments of the Auburn game means that the Bama squad is disciplined and confident that it can win a game despite what has happened in the previous 57 minutes.

2. Tennessee and South Carolina have already given the Crimson Tide a road map on how to shut down the Gators offense. The lack of a playmaker like Percy Harvin has been a big factor this season in why the Gators have struggled at times. Tim Tebow under pressure is not a pretty sight and no one should view his effort against Florida State as a sign of things to come. FSU’s defense this year has been awful. Bama is second in the nation against the run. If the Gators can’t run the ball it’s hard to imagine they can win this game.

3. Don’t underestimate the impact that the suspension of defensive end Carlos Dunlap could have on the Gators ability to contain the Bama running attack. Mark Ingram was in the Heisman Trophy hunt for a reason.

4. Bama’s kicking game has been better than Florida this season. One of the excuses is that three of Caleb Sturgis’ misses came on long tries, but the last time when the Gators were in a close game against South Carolina he failed on three field goals.

5. Nick Saban has probably has had his whole gameplan this season centered around this game. He will want Bama to run the ball and keep the ball away from the Gators. And he will look for ways to frustrate Tebow so that he makes some mistakes like he did earlier this season. It would not surprise me if Saban purposely held some things in check the final games of the season just to bring out some looks that the Gators haven’t seen yet.

Ok, to be fair there are some reasons that the Gators could win:

1. Tebow, Tebow, Tebow. If Tebow runs with the authority he has shown in the past – and can pick up first downs – then Bama will be in trouble. Once Tebow runs, he then opens up the passing attack to Riley Cooper and Aaron Hernandez.

2. Speed, speed, speed. While Bama has been very good at shutting down the run inside, if the Gators can get the two blazing fast running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to the outside then it could cause problems for the Tide.

3. Brandon James. So far most teams have settled for giving the Gators the ball at the 35 yard line instead of punting it deep to James. But who knows? Bama could tempt fate by giving the ball to James.

4. Greg McElroy is probably not the type of quarterback who can do a lot against the Gators. He hasn’t made a lot of mistakes so far this season, but if Bama has to rely on McElroy in order to win then the Gators could have the edge.


Stepping down is the right decision, but Fisher still needs to prove himself

December 1, 2009

In many ways the entire Bobby Bowden saga has played out like a classic tragedy.

 There’s the image of the conqueror laid low by age and betrayals trying in vain to hold on to his pride and to accomplish one last victory before he exits the stage forever. The conqueror has been betrayed by those younger than he, by those unable to appreciate the conquests and the glory that he has brought to everyone. Yet at the same time he mistakes loyalty for wisdom and his mind is clouded with hubris and he stumbles in the end.

There are those, of course, who say that Bowden deserves better, like say Dick Vitale, who insist that the 80-year-old Bowden deserves one last victory lap.

Here’s the truth: FSU’s success has been entirely due to Bowden. Nothing that happens now can take away the 2 national titles, the extraordinary run of Top 5 finishes, or the amazing string of bowl appearances.

But here’s the rest of the story: Bowden has been given fame and fortune in exchange for his extraordinary work. And his decisions in the last few years have damaged greatly the winning tradition that Bowden himself established. Bowden acted as if nothing he did, whether it was give his son a crucial important job, or hiring other coaches out of loyalty, could diminish his life’s work.

There’s part of me that continues to wonder if Bowden’s rage, rage against the dying light is due to his fear that he will go out the same way his idol Bear Bryant did. Bryant died just weeks after coaching his last game at Alabama.

Stepping down, however, is the right decision, no matter how clumsy the university may have handled it. If Bowden truly loves FSU as he said he does then he must realize that another year of this mess won’t help anyone. There’s no more of a guarantee that a national title is in the offing than there was this year. And what’s the point anyway? If FSU were a contender, then everyone would say it’s because Jimbo Fisher was given more say, given more leeway over the team. It’s a no-win situation for Bowden.

Bowden has already proven he’s a winner time and time again. In a few years no one will remember this last year. Instead what they will remember are the titles, the Heisman Trophy winners and the bowl wins.

And of course that’s what Coach Fisher needs to realize. He has been handed the keys to the kingdom over the objections of Bowden. Fisher will have no more excuses. Despite never having been a head coach, Fisher has been given the job of a lifetime. And while everyone has raved about his offensive success, let’s not forget that Bowen was once considered a genius on that side of the ball as well.

In my mind Fisher was given something before he truly proved it belonged to him. And while much of the problems this year were not of his doing, he made enough mistakes along the way – such as poor clock management against Miami – to raise doubts about his abilities.

Bowden’s departure will finally give FSU fans a chance to see whether or not Fisher is up to task, or whether his hiring is another decision that they will soon regret.


FSU vs. UF: 2 programs headed in different directions

November 24, 2009

It is totally understandable that FSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher is emphasizing the handful of good plays that Florida State managed to achieve in last Saturday’s last second win over 2-9 Maryland.

Because I think everyone instinctively knows what is coming next. And that’s a total drubbing at the hands of chief rival Florida.

If you want to see two programs moving in completely different directions it will be this Saturday in the Swamp. And there’s no amount of sugarcoating that will change that fact.

If Christian Ponder was still the quarterback then FSU could have had a chance to shock the world. I happen to think that the Gators have actually not faced a competent passing team the entire season. They have geared both their offense – and defense – to the largely boring style of the SEC. Yes, every now and then there is a moment of excitement, but for the most part SEC teams use the spread, use the option, use the dive to move the ball on the ground.

A team that can quickly and methodically move the ball down the field in the air would be the perfect antidote for the Gators.

That’s not going to happen on Saturday. For all of his talent E.J. Manuel struggled last weekend against Maryland. It won’t get any easier against one of the nation’s top defenses. And FSU won’t have any answers for Heisman hopeful Tim Tebow and the rest of the crew. This game will probably get ugly and out of hand quickly.

Now I  know that some will say that FSU has a bright future looking ahead to next year. Lots of talent will be returning and Fisher’s offense was actually among the most productive in the ACC. There’s also the argument that everyone should give head coach Bobby Bowden the graceful exit that he deserves.

Well think about that after Saturday. Florida – winner of two national championships in the last three years – will rip apart FSU. Tebow will be gone next year, but the Gators will be loaded again with talent and again be a national contender.

Meanwhile, FSU still has given no clues about who the next defensive coordinator is going to be, whether Fisher indeed will have the final say over the preferred candidate, and so on and so on. There is likely to be continued drama and chaos in the FSU program in the coming year unless there is a decision to make a clean start.

FSU fans may have to accept the fact that their team right now is the fourth best in the state. And that could trigger an ongoing decline as the Seminoles find themselves losing superior talent to both Florida and Miami and even USF in the years to come. What FSU fans may have to accept is that a 6-5 season is about to become the status quo.