In three seasons at Florida, Urban Meyer's aggressive and innovative recruiting style has been criticized at times, yet he continues to search for new ways to lead the wave of college recruiting in the 21st century.
Meyer earned a No. 1 recruiting class in 2006 by honing relationships through near constant text messaging with recruits. But when the NCAA banned that practice, he became even more aggressive on the spring recruiting trail, picking up another top-three class. This year, with a new SEC-led ban on head coaches at high school campuses during the month of May (to avoid inadvertently "bumping" into high school players), Meyer is forced to sit on the sideline.
But that hasn't stopped him.
He is about to unveil what he believes may be his best recruiting tool yet, one the NCAA can't take away.
In July, Florida will open its state-of-the-art football facility at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The building will be home to the football staff offices and pay homage to the program's success over the past 101 years.
"The No. 1 reason is recruiting," Meyer said about the facility. "I felt like we were in the bottom half of the SEC with facilities, and like it or not, that's a big part of recruiting. That's one of the first questions asked."
Making Meyer's dream a reality is a testament to the power of the Gator Boosters, who contributed $33-million to the University Athletic Association last year (the university itself received $190-million in donations). It's also a prime example of why schools with strong financial backing will always have an edge in the recruiting game.
The UAA's anticipated budget next season, including booster donations is $85-million, and it has donated $46-million to a UF scholarship fund since 1990. But when UAA staff began plans for the facility, it anticipated funding it at least partially with bonds. Ultimately, it was built with no state funds.
The $28-million James W. "Bill" Heavener Football Complex has been completely funded by private donors. Heavener, a graduate of UF and co-chairman of Full Sail University, an entertainment media college in Winter Park, donated $7-million. Sixteen donors contributed at least $1-million each.
It's all part of staying competitive.
"Nobody here is saying look at how great we are; this is not boasting; it's the generosity of Gator Boosters," said Greg McGarity, UF's executive senior associate athletic director. "(Meyer) has had such success because he connects so well with recruits, and everybody wants to be a part of that," he said. "To be able to raise that amount of money in such a short period of time is phenomenal, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime (donation) for something that will be forever."
The facility, which mirrors those of the basketball and swimming programs (on a larger scale), will feature a line of black granite bricks at the entrance honoring each of UF's All-Americans. The "Gateway of Champions" will include a 16-foot bronzed Gator. A bronzed plaque/bust of every member of the college football Hall of Fame will be showcased, along with every SEC, national championship, Heisman and other trophies former Gators have earned.
McGarity said UF athletic director Jeremy Foley was among those who insisted the facility be impressive without going to extremes.
"You have to toe the line and recognize what's overboard and what's appropriate for a college campus," he said. "We have some very nice (educational) buildings on this campus, and this fits in with those. But the No. 1 goal is the 'wow' factor. We want people to walk in and say 'wow.' "
Especially the recruits. But just how important is one fancy building?
"It helps," said Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg. "You look across the landscape of teams they are going up against — Florida State, the rest of the SEC. They are all trying to one-up each other when it comes to facilities. At the end of the day, you're looking for an edge. Ultimately, it comes down to the total overall program — the coaching staff, a winning tradition. But if you've got a nice facility, it's not going to hurt. … Everybody is trying to get that edge."
Meyer's hope is that it serves two purposes: honoring the past and pulling in the best for the future.
"Ever since I walked on this campus I felt like we could always do more to show off the history of this program," Meyer said. "And one thing about our administration and one thing about the people at Florida is when they do it, they do it right. And what they've done here is going to be phenomenal."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]