If he's a bit behind on campus protocol and placing names with faces, it's because the last four weeks have been one flight after another as Urban Meyer has crisscrossed the country to put together his first recruiting class of 17, a class he says he likes but admits he won't know how good it is until two or three years down the road. He's happy with the guys he got, typically upset with a couple that got away, and ready now to settle in to the hard work ahead.
While he was putting the final touches on his first recruiting class Wednesday morning, talking Pensacola Washington linebacker Jon Demps down off a recruiting ledge (he had decided momentarily to go to Florida State) that was about 55 stories high, his new strength and conditioning coaches, Mickey Marroti and Matt Balis, were conducting the first 6 a.m. mat drill, conditioning sessions that will indoctrinate the players that he inherits from Coach Ron Zook into the Urban Meyer way of doing things.
"If you want to know what the basis of University of Florida football is, it's taking place right now," said Meyer at the press conference at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium where he discussed his first recruiting class. "We don't wait until August to try to put together a good football team. It starts in January and actually today, signing day, was also our first 6 a.m. mat drill. I'm sure you'll hear about those as well. That's where we develop the things that are the basis of our program here at Florida."
The players who survive this first indoctrination to Gator football the Urban Meyer way will provide the foundation on which the program will go forward. It will actually be a lot easier on the 17 new players who will be coming in this summer than the 60 or so that will be going through the mat drills and then the spring practice. The new players will come to Gainesville already having established a relationship with Meyer and assistants from the recruiting process.
For some of the players in the program, this is their second transition. They were recruited by Steve Spurrier and they had to make a similar transition to this in February of 2002. The others were recruited by Ron Zook, whose approach was different than that of Spurrier's, and certainly Meyer's approach to offseason drills will be a step in a new direction from both of his predecessors. It is during this time that Meyer will develop the relationships with his players that will lead to the kind of trust and respect he knows is necessary to take the football program to consistently high places.
This will not be an overnight process. It will take an investment of time and effort by him and by his coaching staff just as it will take an investment by the players, otherwise it won't work. There will likely be a few misunderstandings and as is the case with most kids their age, there will likely be a few players determined to find out how far the envelope can be pushed before the line is drawn in the dirt that says no more.
He's talked about it in his first press conference back in December, that the players who buy into the program the soonest, the ones who take the path of least resistance, are the ones who will benefit the most and the fastest. There is only one way to do things and that is his way. There are no short cuts or side streets. He is fully focused on the task ahead and he has a neatly drawn out path that has to be followed. Followers will find success. Those who don't follow won't be around when the success is achieved.
Those that choose to resist will find a boss who believes in tough love that has limits. Judging from the reports that come from Bowling Green, Ohio, and Salt Lake City, there may be second and even third chances, but there is also that point when the boss says "my way or the highway, it's your choice."
The players who take that path of least resistance will build the strong relationships with the coach. Meyer understands that championship programs are only built when that level of trust has formed such a bond that there is nothing he can ask his players that they won't do.
"Relationships are built on trust, and right now there is zero," he said. "Trust is something that's developed over time, and how you handle adverse situations. How you handle situations that come up --- some people might call them adversity or just difficult times --- that's when you develop trust.
"There is zero trust right now. If the players said they trusted me, they would not be telling the truth. If I said I trusted the players, I would not be telling the truth because trust takes a lot of time."
During the recruiting process, Meyer learned that he has a couple of very strong leaders, players who turned into his best recruiters in the four weekends that Florida hosted for potential players. Linebacker Brandon Siler, the Southeastern Conference's Freshman Defensive Player of the Year, and freshman tight end Tate Casey, who proved he is a reliable target in the passing game, stepped it up for the new staff. Siler and Casey led, and many others followed.
"I think there are two things that happened that I really learned about this program," Meyer said. "Number one is that we have quality football players here at the University of Florida. Two guys that come to name are Tate Casey and Brandon Siler, two of the best recruiters I've ever been around.
"There's a word called 'faith,' and that's a different word than 'trust.' Trust is something that's earned. Faith is something that you maybe believe in and you don't know. So, I think there's some faith in our program. It was well documented, some of the things that occurred, and you'll hear about it more often. Brandon Siler today, as a matter of fact, did a great job helping us with a big-time recruit (Jon Demps)."
But Siler and Casey weren't the only ones who took leaps of faith. Meyer was on the road Monday through Friday, back in town for the recruiting weekends, and then back on the road again to put together the recruiting class that will rank in the top 15. Not bad for a month-long process against schools that had all year to build their classes. He wasn't around to give the rah-rah, do it for good old U of F speeches or impassioned pleas asking for his players' support. But when he got back to Gainesville for those recruiting weekends, it was there without asking for it.
Recruiting coordinator Chuck Heater alluded to that leap of faith after Meyer's press conference. Heater's been through every recruiting battle imaginable. Some of the best head coaches of the past twenty years say Heater's one of the best recruiters ever. Wednesday, he talked about the partnership that has to exist for successful recruiting, how coaches sell recruits on taking the official visit but how the players take over once the recruit hits the campus. He said that once the recruit is on campus, it really is the players already in the program and not the coaches who earn that recruit's signature on the dotted line on national signing day.
Meyer nor Heater could have possibly known for sure what would happen when they were bringing the players in. Certainly, they hoped for the best, but that's that element of "faith" that Meyer was talking about. They brought the recruits in, turned them over to the players, and then watched amazed as the element of faith took over.
Meyer smiled when he talked about it Wednesday.
"I've learned a lot about our players and I think the number one reason we have a very good recruiting class is because of our players," he said. "I don't want to undervalue the power of University of Florida football. I think sometimes this is where you're from, this is your background, this is what you know, and a lot of times you maybe don't understand the power of Florida football. The players we signed today were because of our players' faith in our program and the power of Florida football."
When the ink had finally dried on the letters of intent and the fax machines stopped humming on Wednesday, the Florida Gators had their first recruiting class under Urban Meyer. The people who rate these things will give Meyer an A-plus for effort and probably an A-minus for content. Some, but not all of the recruiting needs were met in terms of talented kids who will be competing for positions on the playing field, some sooner than others. Another linebacker or two would have been nice and another big offensive tackle would have helped, but the class was solid. Considering that it was put together in about one month, it could almost be called spectacular.
The greatest recruiting need that Meyer met with this class won't be measured in the number of stars that were handed out to recruits. Three years down the road, even, we won't see it in terms of on the field production by the Recruiting Class of 2005. The greatest need that Meyer filled was the one that helped him begin that process of earning the trust of his players. He showed players brought in by a legend and by a recruiting magician that he has the ability to sell Florida football to some of the best players in the country. That was a hugely positive step. By extending that hand of faith to his players to help land the class, he took a second and equally important step. He reached out a hand and they grabbed it.
It is said that faith can move mountains. While no mountain was actually moved in bringing in this recruiting class, there was definite movement. It was the movement of hearts and minds coming together for a common cause. If minds and hearts can meet so well on such short notice, imagine what might be accomplished on and off the playing field over the next few years.