This first stop was the heart of Gator Country and the Polk County segment of the Gator Nation showed up in full force. Last year 350 showed up to hear the Former Ball Coach. The New Ball Coach got at least three times that number."> This first stop was the heart of Gator Country and the Polk County segment of the Gator Nation showed up in full force. Last year 350 showed up to hear the Former Ball Coach. The New Ball Coach got at least three times that number.">

Meyer Tour: They Love Him In Lakeland

LAKELAND --- The First Urban Meyer Love-In Tour got under way Tuesday night in Lakeland and to paraphrase Sally Field, "They love him! They really love him!" <p> This first stop was the heart of Gator Country and the Polk County segment of the Gator Nation showed up in full force. Last year 350 showed up to hear the Former Ball Coach. The New Ball Coach got at least three times that number.

The 1100-1200 who packed the hangar at the Tiger Town Complex came to this gathering with high expectations off the heels of a spring game that drew 58,500 fans to The Swamp last Saturday. They came expecting to hear Urban Meyer tell them about the Florida football team and he did that. They also came to hear about things like "The Pit" and "The Champions Club."

They heard about those things, too.

Talking football was obligatory. It is the engine that drives the entire athletic program at the University of Florida and it is the reason that there are such things as Gator Gatherings. Without football, none of this would be possible and without Urban Meyer, it would be just another booster club meeting.

With Urban it was a gathering of hungry Gators who hung on the coach's every line. They wanted to hear about how the off the field embarrassments of the past three seasons were going to be eliminated. They wanted to hear how the coach is going to bring in only the best of the best and that means both academically and athletically. They wanted to hear how his team is going to measure up in every way.

He gave them what they were looking for and then some. He arrived late because the plane couldn't get clearance to land at the Lakeland airport, and by the time he arrived, perhaps as many as 200 people had already been standing in the autograph line for more than an hour. He signed every poster, every book, every magazine, every helmet, every cap and every T-shirt before he took to the podium and told the crowd that "the great thing about coming to Florida is we don't have to take chances anymore. I've been in programs where we had to take chances. At the University of Florida we don't have to take chances --- it's the one percent of one percent."

The one percent of the one percent at the University of Florida begins with the continually rising academic standards that attract only the best of the best when it comes to students. Meyer sounds genuinely pleased that he can talk about Florida's academics. He loves to tell people the fact that only Harvard enrolls more National Merit Scholars than the University of Florida.

"It was explained to me by a member of our board of trustees that they [National Merit Scholars] are the Parade All-Americans of students from across the country," Meyer said. "They are the best of the best. At the University of Florida we are number one in the country as far as National Merit Scholars for public schools. In public and private combined, we are number two."

That attitude about the best of the best is what drives Meyer. It's what attracted him to Florida. He likes that Florida combines athletics and academics as well as it is done anywhere in the country. He likes that he can offer a prospective student-athlete the chance to compete for championships with a great football team while at the same time earning a college degree that will actually carry weight anywhere in the world.

He talked about his first recruiting trip to California to visit quarterback Josh Portis, the morning after Utah had beaten Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. While on the flight to Los Angeles, he pored over Florida's football media guide. He was struck by Florida's large number of National Merit Scholars.

"I said damn that sounds good. I'm going to use that in recruiting," he said.

And he's done just that. He was recruiting Tuesday night, too, even though he didn't have to. This crowd was his before his plane ever touched down at the Lakeland airport but he recruited them. He gave them a dose of football, academics, humor and philosophy and if there was a doubter in the crowd before he got there, the one doubter was won over by the time he left.

He talked about the phone call he got from ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit just prior to accepting the position at Florida. Herbstreit was aware that Meyer had his choice of the Florida or Notre Dame jobs and he wanted to know which one he was going take. Meyer recruited Herbstreit to Ohio State back in 1986 and the two have remained friends. While Meyer says he already knew where he was going to go, he did want Herbstreit's opinion which was the better job.

Meyer said, "He [Herbstreit] said let me tell you this, it's not even close. Gator Nation, The Swamp, the University of Florida and Gainesville is as good as it gets. It's the best job in college football."

And then Meyer looked at the Lakeland crowd and said, "This IS the best job in college football."

Meyer told the crowd about the two days he recently spent with New England Patriots Coach Bill Bellichek, whom he called "the best coach in the world," and about the two days he later spent with New England's offensive coordinator, who came to Gainesville to learn how to incorporate some of the Meyer offense into what the Patriots will be doing next year.

In talking with Bellicheck Meyer said he became keenly aware of how few off the field issues the Patriots have and how the newspaper headlines aren't filled with stories about another Patriot player being arrested or in some sort of trouble.

"He [Bellichek] said 'all we do at New England is win Super Bowls.' How many issues do they deal with at New England? How many guys getting in trouble, guys getting arrested, guys having issues? No, they don't have that because they are the ultimate example of teamwork, of a bunch of guys getting together to hurt their opponents bad. Now that's what I want at the University of Florida."

To achieve that kind of success both on and off the field, Meyer said requires discipline and a commitment to being the best or that one percent of one percent that he continually talked about. That means that players who haven't contributed to the Florida program need to step up their performance in every way or they should be searching college football's yellow pages for a new place to call home.

"If you're a bad student and you can play, you can go anywhere," he said. "You can go to some of our opponents if you're not a good student and you can play football there. But, if you are a good student and a good person and you achieve, you are one percent of one percent, then you are a GATOR!"

Players who haven't done their work in the classroom or who haven't made the effort to be the best they can be on the football field are going to be called out. Although some have criticized him for this practice, Meyer sees nothing wrong with it.

"If you have been at the University of Florida for three years and you haven't contributed anything, you darn right you're going to get called out," he said. "At the University of Florida we don't have to accept people like you. It's totally unacceptable to be in a program for several years and you're not doing anything to help us get our job done."

Contributing means living right. It means giving maximum effort in the class room, the weight room and the practice field. Meyer considers anything less than total effort unacceptable. In his way of looking at things, there are no gray areas. You either do things the right way or you don't.

"Yes you have to go to class," he said. "Yes, you have to earn a degree at UF or you don't play. Yes, you have to show people respect. Yes, you have to compete for an SEC championship and yes, your goal should be to work hard enough to be a number one draft pick. That's what we're looking for at the University of Florida."

The Champions Club is for players who want to give their best in everything that they do. Meyer has been successful with this at both Bowling Green and Utah. He divides the year into four quarters and at the end of each quarter there is a Champions Club. Champions don't miss class. Champions don't get in trouble off the field. Champions are respectful to others. Champions are on time. Champions take care of what's important in life.

The players who grade out as Champions get a banquet at the end of each quarter. Meyer said the budget allows for much better food at Florida than it did at Bowling Green. The good food is for the Champions. While the Champions eat the good stuff, the non-champions eat also … but their food is, as Meyer calls it, "pretty bad stuff."

What Meyer wants is for players to understand that if you're willing to make the extra effort to do things right, there are rewards. He wants players to understand that when you don't give your best, you shouldn't be surprised at your lot in life. He wants to build a team of players who have a burning desire to do everything the right way.

He mentioned so many fourth quarter losses for the Gators in the past three years and asked what is almost always the difference in winning and losing at the end of a game when everything is on the line?

"There's a common denominator," he said. "The most invested team wins those games in the fourth quarters."

Investment means buying into living right, getting your academic house in order, and striving to be the best. Meyer wants to be the best and he wants a team full of players who want to be the best.

Tuesday night, he was selling being the best to a crowd of more than 1000 in Lakeland. It really didn't matter what he was selling because this crowd was ready to buy. The fact that he was selling them on how things are going to change and how they are going to be different hit home. The more he talked about doing things the right way, the more they bought into every word.They left convinced that not only has help arrived, but that things are going to be better both short and long term. After three seasons of a team almost as famous for its off the field antics as fourth quarter collapses, this is exactly what they needed and exactly why the Meyer Love-In Tour is going to be a huge success.

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