Some of the robust young men who played on a field called The Swamp didn't take new coach Urban Meyer at his word when he said "go to class, live right or don't play." So they weren't among the 85 University of Florida football players who walked off an Atlanta field Saturday night as Southeastern Conference champions, but their absence was part of the story nonetheless.
Two years ago, when university president Bernie Machen faced the unenviable task of finding a coach for a football program in a land known not so humbly as Gator Nation, he announced he wanted "someone who buys into the vision that athletics and academic excellence are things that go hand in hand." That was to be Meyer, who had become a national star when Machen gave him the same job at the University of Utah.
Meyer went immediately about the business of changing a team culture that had become poisoned by privilege and marred by off-the-field excesses. He formed a "Champions Club" for players who achieved in the classroom, off-season workouts and their personal lives. That first spring, Meyer shut down the luxurious locker room, banned school colors and team logos during workouts and removed a gator head replica that stood between the locker room and the field. Each was gradually restored, by way of the players earning the "privilege," and Meyer's point was made.
This Gator team now heads off to the hallowed national championship game against undefeated Ohio State, a much-deserved honor even if the selection process leaves much to be desired. Meyer can claim yet another remarkable feat in his young coaching career while teaching young men some values of pride, tradition, humility and discipline. The coach may be known for his offensive innovation, but his work in Gainesville has helped to prove that some old-fashioned values are still winners.