JACKSONVILLE — When Florida and Ohio State meet Monday in the Gator Bowl, Urban Meyer won't be at EverBank Field, yet in many ways he'll be at the heart of it all.
He's the former coach of one team and the future of the other. He rebuilt one program and stands poised to reconstruct the other.
In six seasons at Florida, Meyer led the Gators to two national championships. After a one-year hiatus, he has been hired to polish Ohio State's reputation and put it back on top.
Meyer, 47, is the elephant in the room everyone insists isn't really there. Including Meyer, who says much more is being made of his past meeting his future than necessary.
"I'm sure I'll watch some," Meyer told the Gainesville Sun about the Gator Bowl. "It's hard for me to sit and watch a whole game. I think people are making more of it than I would. At some point, that story is going to go away."
Florida coach Will Muschamp believes it already has — at least for his team. Muschamp insists the Gators have moved on and that he doesn't find too much coincidence in the fact that after last year's bowl season he was taking over a program Meyer had just left — and now he's coaching a bunch of players Meyer recruited against a program Meyer is taking over.
"It's a little different,'' he said, "but it is what it is.''
Many Florida fans remain miffed, and conspiracy theorists wonder if — and how much — Meyer has aided the Buckeyes in preparations for the Gators.
"I don't think he'll be that much of a factor for this game,'' OSU interim coach Luke Fickell said.
And while the Buckeyes seem happy to have their native son return, many of his former Florida players have mixed emotions.
Asked Thursday how he felt about playing Meyer's new team, defensive lineman Ronald Powell stared down an Ohio reporter and said, "I think that's self-explanatory, don't you?''
But sophomore receiver Andre Debose has a more practical approach.
"Coach Meyer was the reason I came to Florida,'' Debose said. "Point blank. He was the reason. But I've learned over the years since I've been in college that it's a business, and it's all about money. So I mean, I wouldn't turn down whatever he was offered. So I'm happy for him. He went to the money. It's a business. I'm happy for him.''
In 2005 Meyer didn't officially take over at Florida until early January after he led Utah in a bowl game, and as with the Gators then, Meyer has said he won't evaluate his new players at Ohio State based on this game.
But unlike when he took over the Gators, Meyer has no bowl responsibilities, so he is involved with the Buckeyes program.
And thanks to an NCAA waiver, he has been able to take advantage of hiring assistant coaches and recruiting while Fickell handles the bowl game.
Last week, the NCAA hit Ohio State with a one-year bowl ban and additional penalties (including five scholarships over the next three years) for violations that included eight players taking a total of $14,000 in cash and tattoos in exchange for jerseys, rings and other school memorabilia. Meyer said he was stunned by the extra bowl ban, but he vowed to move on and overcome it.
"The sanctions will literally have no effect on Meyer's recruiting,'' said Scott Kennedy, director of scouting for scout.com. "Three scholarships off of the 25 limit don't mean anything. Ohio State didn't sign 66 players over a three-year span anyway. With a limit of 85 scholarships and redshirting, teams can theoretically be full if they only signed 17 players per year, which according to NCAA math would be 'a loss of eight scholarships per year.'
"The one-year bowl ban only affects the Class of 2012, and Meyer has already secured commitments from two five-star players and firmed up a commitment on another,'' Kennedy added. "Sanctions hurt in recruiting, but these sanctions weren't strong enough to have an effect.''
As Meyer has predicted, this story will eventually fade — time has a way of ensuring that. And as Meyer prepares to officially move on after Monday, those he left behind hope to do the same.
"He's long gone,'' offensive lineman and St. Petersburg Catholic graduate Jon Halapio said. "We're just moving forward. We're moving forward as a football team. I don't feel betrayed. … We don't care if he's standing on the sidelines or in the skybox. We're going to play our football. I don't really care (what Meyer does).''
But everyone at Ohio State certainly does. And that's what matters now.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.