Imagine a celebration late Thursday evening. Imagine it is University of Florida players who are dancing. And imagine the television cameras panning toward the bleachers where a fan holds this sign:
Urban Meyer: Greatest Gator Football Coach Ever!
Do you smile and silently nod your head?
Or do you drop, crush, hurl and eviscerate the remote control?
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I would think your reaction would say one of two things:
Either you’ve become an Urban Meyer devotee, or you’re still a Steve Spurrier fanatic. (I suppose it might also say something about your need for anger management courses, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Hard to believe we have arrived at this debate so quickly, but it can hardly be avoided if the Gators beat Oklahoma in the BCS finale Thursday night.
A Florida victory would give Meyer two national championships in four years, which is one more than Spurrier won in his 12 seasons as the guy in charge of making Gator fans insufferable.
Does that mean Meyer will have already replaced Spurrier as the coach to which all other Florida football coaches will one day be measured against?
“Urban has done a heck of a job, and he’s only been here for four years. Let’s see where he is in 12,” said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, who hired Meyer and was Spurrier’s boss for most of the 1990s. “The Steve Spurrier era at Florida was special. That’s what Gator fans had dreamt about forever. But that era has come and gone. Now it’s a new era.
“People always want to compare eras. I think they need to enjoy the success we’re having right now, and see what Urban continues to do. He’s a first-class coach and a first-class person who’s done some special things, just like Steve Spurrier is a first-class coach and first-class person who did some special things.
“I know people like to compare, but it’s all irrelevant to me.”
Foley’s answer is logical. It is wise and it is appropriate. It is also no fun.
Comparing athletes, coaches, games and eras is part of the joy of sports. It is one of the things that connects fans across generations and geography. Hank Aaron never met Babe Ruth, and yet their lives and careers have been examined, weighed and debated for decades. The same goes for Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz.
There are no perfect formulas. And there are certainly no absolute answers. More often than not, your choice comes down to a gut feeling. Something inexplicable that tells you one man’s accomplishments seem greater than another’s.
In this case, that something is telling me that Spurrier is still the best that Florida has ever had.
We could debate the numbers, but I don’t think they tell us enough. Partly because they are so similar, and partly because there is a wide gap between the lengths of their tenures.
In Meyer’s four seasons at Florida, the Gators have gone 43-9 and won two SEC titles. In Spurrier’s first four seasons, Florida went 39-10 and won two SEC titles (along with having another taken away by previously committed NCAA infractions).
Essentially, they got off to similar beginnings, with the big difference being Meyer’s two appearances in national championship games. And I don’t mean to minimize that difference. Reaching the final game of the college football season twice in the first four years in a new job already has Meyer in the conversation of Florida icons.
What Meyer did and what Ron Zook avoided was embrace the pressure. He made SEC titles an expectation, which made national championships a reality.
“Urban has said he admired the traditions, the success, the championships won under coach Spurrier,” Foley said. “He’s embraced that from Day 1. He didn’t try to run from that. I don’t think Urban would be here if we hadn’t had that type of foundation that was built by Steve. He saw what could be accomplished at our place and he wanted to be a part of that.”
And, to me, that is the difference between Meyer and Spurrier.
Spurrier created something that had never existed. Florida had played 56 seasons without winning a conference championship before Spurrier arrived in 1990. He didn’t just win football games, he exorcised demons. He showed players, fans and the rest of the nation what was possible at the University of Florida.
What Meyer has done is add to what Spurrier had already built. In the next 48 hours, Meyer may surpass the single national championship won by Spurrier. In the coming years, he may eclipse the six SEC titles and the 122 victories compiled by Spurrier. And, in the future, he may be considered the greatest coach Florida has ever seen.
But that day has not yet arrived.