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Unclear future for Florida Gators

Today, the appropriate response should be compassion.

You hear that Urban Meyer has resigned, and you worry about the well-being of a man who felt it necessary to walk away from one of the finest jobs in his profession at the age of 45 because he was worried about his health.

You hear that he was losing weight, that he was having chest pains, that ultimately he was fearful of not being around for his children, and you understand that no job is worth a person's quality of life.

So, yes, this should be the moment to reserve a place in your heart for Meyer and his family.

Except it is difficult to get around the idea of what this means for the University of Florida football program.

Gator fans thought they knew disappointment. Getting waxed by Alabama, and thus missing a chance to repeat as national champions, seemed like calamity a few weeks ago. Today, those fans know better.

Losing Meyer is worse. Far worse. The Alabama game ruined one season. Meyer's pending departure makes all future seasons seem a little less certain.

Oh, the odds are Florida will be okay. The program has come too far and has too much going for it to really worry about a downturn. But then again, Notre Dame has fallen. And Nebraska. And Florida State. And let's not forget Florida under Ron Zook's reign. For all the advantages in Gainesville, nothing is guaranteed if the wrong man ends up in charge of the program.

That's why, in some ways, this is even worse than Bobby Bowden leaving Florida State after their bowl game. At least the Seminoles had their legend for more than 30 years. They had time to appreciate Bowden and bask in the glory of his success. And when the championships began to wane, they had time to adjust to the idea of life without an icon in charge.

For Gator fans, this just seems cruel. They had just gotten used to the idea of Meyer turning down Notre Dame, and they had legitimate reason to believe Florida would have one of the best coaches in the country for years to come.

I do not doubt Meyer is in need of a break, physically and mentally. "Focused" is a word often associated with the man. "Devoted" is another. But when does devotion become unhealthy? And when does focus become all-consuming?

Meyer has been pushing relentlessly for more than two decades, first, to chase one promotion after another, then to move from one school to another. And finally to make the University of Florida the envy of almost all other programs.

Viewed from that perspective, it makes sense if either body or spirit is in need of a break.

And yet, though not minimizing concerns about Meyer's health, this decision comes at an interesting time.

Meyer is leaving Florida with the program as close to the top as possible without having a date in this season's BCS national championship game. He is also leaving at the same time as quarterback Tim Tebow, defensive coordinator Charlie Strong and a whole bunch of seniors.

If Meyer decides, health permitting, to return to coaching in the near future, he could be the most sought-after coach in recent times. And that goes for college football and the NFL.

Like former Gators coach Steve Spurrier before him, Meyer has to wonder if his skills translate to the pro game. And like Spurrier, it would be hard to top the situation he had at Florida when it comes to college jobs.

As for Florida, the big question is where does the program go from here?

The news is still so fresh and shocking that any potential successors are probably just connect-the-dots speculation.

Mike Shanahan is a Florida guy, and he was one of athletic director Jeremy Foley's first choices when Spurrier left eight years ago. But Shanahan is 57 now, and Foley's history says he prefers coaches who look like they'll stick around a while.

Ron Zook was 47 when he was hired, and that's on the old side for Foley. Meyer was 40. Lon Kruger was 37 when he became Florida's basketball coach, and Billy Donovan was 31.

Years ago, when Spurrier looked like he would stay at Florida forever, Foley said he had a list of potential successors in his desk drawer. You never knew, he said, when you might need to hire a coach quickly, and he wanted an updated list prepared.

So who would be on that list today?

Probably some of the names Notre Dame recently considered. Stanford's Jim Harbaugh or UConn's Randy Edsall. Maybe hot commodities such as Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern, Gary Patterson at Texas Christian, Kevin Sumlin at Houston or Mike Leach at Texas Tech. Maybe Dan Mullen, who left Meyer's staff for Mississippi State. Or Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.

The point, I suppose, is it could be anyone. The job is that attractive, and Florida has the resources to chase anyone it pleases.

The only certainty is that the guy coming in will be Florida's second choice. Because the first is about to walk out the door.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Unclear future for Florida Gators 12/26/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 27, 2009 12:36am]
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