TAMPA — Six years after he arrived in Gainesville, heralded as one of the hottest young coaches in America and handed the responsibility of rebuilding a struggling Florida football program, Urban Meyer will coach his final game as the Gators' coach torday.
When Meyer walks off the field at Raymond James Stadium, he will leave a six-year legacy at Florida that includes two national championships, two SEC championships and the best regular season SEC record (36-12) during the past six years.
"I hate to see college coaching lose a man like Urban Meyer," legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. "He's got a lot of class, a lot of poise. He's won two national championships in the last five years and he's done it the right way."
His tenure as a head coach has spanned just 10 years, but what Meyer, 46, accomplished in that decade rivals coaches who lasted much longer. Since the SEC's inception in 1933, no coach in the league has reached 50 wins faster than Meyer (59). He is the first coach to win two BCS titles, a three-time national Coach of the Year, and entering today's game his .817 winning percentage (103-23) ranks No. 1 among active coaches with at least five years' experience.
And that, former coaches, writers and analysts believe, is what will define Meyer's lasting legacy in college football, even if he doesn't coach again.
"He's a Hall of Fame coach," former Oregon coach and current ESPN analyst Mike Bellotti said. "What he's accomplished, two national championships, the undefeated season at Utah, just some amazing things. … When he had it going he was playing and coaching as good a football as there was in college. … It was a great run."
Meyer, 46, arrived in the shadow of former coach Steve Spurrier — the Gator Heisman Trophy winner who led the school to its first national championship. Many believe that now the two will share icon status in Gator history.
"Because of what Steve Spurrier did for an extended period of time (12 years, six SEC championships), he will always be Florida's greatest coach," said Tony Barnhart, host of the Tony Barnhart Show on CBS College Sports Network who has covered college football for 34 years. "Meyer's legacy will be the two national championships and the family atmosphere that he and Shelley (his wife) built around this program."
Most likely, that legacy will develop over time.
"I think that like anything else, after you leave and the longer you're gone, the greater your legend grows," said former coach Lou Holtz, an ESPN analyst whom Meyer worked under at Notre Dame. "When they look back at Florida's history, they'll have to say those six years were as good as they get: two national championships, a third-place finish, never lost to Tennessee, lost one time to Georgia, one time to Florida State. When you look at your arch rivals — Tennessee, Georgia and Florida State — only those two games in six years. I think right now everybody says, 'Well they didn't win the national championship last year, although they went 13-1. They didn't win it this year. He's leaving with a (7-5) record. But the longer you're gone, the legacy grows. And when you really look at the record, from a very non-political point of view, you're going to say boy those were six great years."
Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley believes Meyer has earned the right to join Spurrier among the Gator greats.
"He came in here and I think the day he got hired he talked about building on the foundation that Coach Spurrier built and that's what he did," Foley said. "He won two national championships in three years. It's hard to win one. I think he put the Gator program on a ride — he won 22 games in a row, three times you're going 13-1 and twice you're holding up crystal balls. I think he did it with a lot of class. Obviously I know he did it the right way. That's the legacy."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.