MEYER TOUR: Coach Graves Endorses Urban Meyer

ST. PETERSBURG --- When the old coach made his way to the desk where Urban Meyer was just beginning to sign autographs Tuesday night at the Pinellas County Gator Club meeting, the new Florida football coach put down his Sharpie and stopped what he was doing. There was an embrace and a few moments in which the exchange was warm and friendly. For a coach who embraces the history of Florida football, it couldn't get much better than this.

And, for a coach whose ten years at the helm of Gator football are really the beginning of the modern era for Florida, the chance to talk to Urban Meyer was something very special.

"This is a wonderful young man who is going to take Florida football to the top again," said Coach Ray Graves with a smile. "I am so excited for Coach Meyer and for the university. All the boys who played for me tell me how excited they are, too. I believe that we are in for a treat the next few years."

Graves was the winningest coach in Florida football history (69 wins) until Steve Spurrier came along, but more than the victories and more than turning Florida into a modern football program, Graves is most proud of the fact that 93 percent of his players got an undergraduate degree, and of the players who graduated from UF, more than 70 percent of those went on to get advanced degrees.

"Education is what it is all about," said Graves, who says that he learned the value of education and helping young men achieve a college degree from General Bob Neyland, his coach at the University of Tennessee when he was a player and an assistant coach. "We give young men scholarships and we ask them to do what it takes to get a degree while being a participant in college sports. That's a very difficult thing to do, so it's important that the coaches think education first and really help these young people any way we can."

Graves was known to find ways to get scholarship and financial aid for any of his players still wanting to pursue education after finishing up his playing eligibility. If a player wanted to finish a bachelor's degree or pursue a graduate level degree, Graves would do whatever it took to get the money so the player could get the education he desired.

"I consider things like that to be my greatest accomplishment as the coach at Florida," he said. "More than wins and losses, helping the boys achieve a degree so they could go on to be successful in life was important. Look at what they've done. They're successful now with their own businesses and careers and they're here at Gator clubs like this where they give their money so that others will have a chance to get an education, too."

One of the things that Graves finds refreshing in Meyer is that he is a coach dedicated to players getting an education.

"I think we're coming back around to a time when coaches are serious about getting their boys educated," said Graves. "This game has evolved into too much of a business but I think we're getting back to paying more attention to the kids and that's what we need to be doing. One of the things that attracted me to Coach Meyer in the first place was the way he is very dedicated to helping his boys get an education. I like that about him and I think that's just one more reason for Florida fans to be excited about this football coach."

Coach Graves took Florida to three Gator Bowls, the Sugar Bowl and the Orange Bowl during his ten years as Florida's coach. Three times his teams won nine games which tied for the most wins in a single season at UF until Steve Spurrier came along. Graves recruited Spurrier to Florida and coached Stevie Wonder to the Heisman Trophy in 1966.

When Graves brought Spurrier to Gainesville, the Gators became the innovative team in the Southeastern Conference. Florida became the first team in the league to boast a wide open passing offense and it changed the way the game was played in the SEC. Graves sees that innovative spark in Urban Meyer and he thinks the SEC is in for a rude awakening.

"Innovation and change is what college football is all about," said Graves, who coached his last game for the Gators in the 1969 Gator Bowl. "This is going to be a change to everyone in the Eastern Division, the Southeastern Conference and even the nation. What he did at Utah was amazing and I think what he's going to do at Florida will also be amazing. I think that any young man who wants to play college football in the Southeast is going to take a hard look at Urban Meyer and consider playing for Florida."

Mrs. and Mr. Ray Graves and Urban Meyer

Graves said he had taken time to watch highlights of Utah games from the 2004 season plus he saw the Fiesta Bowl game (Utah vs. Pittsburgh) on television.

"Now I was a defensive coach and I wouldn't want to play against his offense," said Coach Graves. "Coach Meyer is a winner. He's won everywhere he's been. Now some of his philosophies might be a little different than what some coaches at Florida have had but I think the players, the fans and the coaches around the state realize that this is what we have needed. I am just excited and looking forward to Florida football for the next few years."

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This was the second largest crowd of any Gator Gathering so far. More than 1300 packed the St. Petersburg Coliseum which was a sea of orange and blue. While the crowd was second only to Orlando's 1500, there were more ex-Gator football players at this event than any so far.

Some of the ex-Gators attending were James Jones, Reidel Anthony, Alex Hewko, Jimmy Fisher, Sam Mack, Kirk Kirkpatrick, Bo Morgan and Wayne Ensminger. Current Gator Bubba Caldwell was in the audience along with incoming freshman recruit Louis Murphy.

Also in the audience were former Gator All-America and Olympic champion swimmer Nicole Haislet and former Gator All-SEC basketball player Gary Keller.

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Keller was easy to spot in the huge crowd. At 6-9 he still towers over everyone. He still makes his home in St. Petersburg where he led Dixie Hollins to two straight state championships and 41 straight wins before going on to Florida where he was part of the best team in Florida history (21-4 in 1967) until the 1990s when Coach Lon Kruger took the Gators to the Final Four.

Keller went on from Florida to play for the Minnesota Muskies in the old American Basketball Association (ABA) before returning to St. Petersburg where he's been successful in business for almost 40 years.

"When you can play basketball at the University of Florida, then play professional basketball and then come home to live in the great state of Florida is something," Keller said. "I consider myself a very lucky guy."

Keller was Coach Norm Sloan's first truly big time recruit. He was a skinny 6-9 who excelled on defense and rebounding. That 1967 team was Florida's first to ever win 20 games and the team came ever so close to UF's first SEC championship in basketball. In those days, only the conference champion went to the NCAA Tournament so when the Gators lost the SEC title on the final weekend to Tennessee, there was nowhere for this team to go.

"We led the nation in rebounding that year," Keller said. "We were the tallest team in the nation and except for those two games against Tennessee when this kid named Hendrix hit all those shots from the corner to beat us, we were a very good team. I don't know how well we would have done if we had been in the NCAA Tournament, but I think we would have had a chance to do very well because we really had a good team."

Keller likes what he sees of Florida's football and basketball programs these days. He's an avid Gator fan and supporter of all Florida's sports teams. He really likes the hire of Coach Urban Meyer to go with basketball Coach Billy Donovan in Florida's two most visible sports.

"I think you have to have strong character and a strong belief in what you're doing to succeed these days in basketball and in football," Keller said. "I think the biggest thing is that you have to get the kids to believe in what you want to do. Kids these days can be very selfish and think that they know everything so you have to be able to break them down a bit and get them to be accountable while at the same time making it fun for them. That's what I see both of them (Meyer and Donovan) doing and that's why I think it's a good time to be a Gator. We really do have a couple of great coaches."

He looks at Meyer and Donovan, both just 40 years old, and thinks the Gator programs are in good hands for years to come.

"This is a very exciting time," he said. "It just goes to show that they're picking the right coaches to lead Florida when you see coaches like Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan leading. With Meyer, here's a coach that I don't see having any weaknesses. I think he's going to take us to great places. I think the same thing when I think about Billy. I think it's really going to be an exciting time in these next few years at the University of Florida."

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When James Jones first heard Urban Meyer talk, he thought he was hearing the late Charley Pell speak all over again. When he saw Utah's offense in the Fiesta Bowl against Pitt, he thought he was seeing an innovator the likes of which he hadn't seen since Steven Orr Spurrier was patrolling the Florida sidelines.

"[In Meyer] I see a Charley Pell that knows the game," said Jones, who became a number one draft pick as a running back out of Florida in 1983 and a 10-year veteran of the National Football League. "I see a guy who is a great motivator yet he knows how to put guys in position to become successful on the football field, especially offensively. I look on the defensive side of the ball and he just lets guys do what the y do best. He just stays out of the way and let's them be aggressive so they can get the ball back for him. Steve Spurrier won a national championship by staying out of the way of the offense and letting [Bobby] Stoops turn the defense loose.

"In terms of motivation there's no question that he's a Charley Pell and in terms of knowing how to do it on offense and be an innovator he's a Steve Spurrier."

The greatest accomplishment of the brief Meyer era is unification, according to Jones.

"When Coach Zook was here it was like having Republicans and Democrats sharing the same house," said Jones. "The Gator nation was split down the middle but now everyone is coming together again. Everyone's put all that stuff behind them and they're back together again. I think everyone is excited about the upcoming season and the upcoming era of football under Coach Meyer."

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MEYER NOTES: Speaking to the Gator fans, Meyer said, "Don't worry about Chris Leak running the shovel pass. My six-year-old can run the shovel pass." He went on to tell the fans to be far more concerned with the kind of news that comes out of Gainesville regarding player behavior during the offseason. He said that if the news is about dedication, hard work and clean living by his players, "buckle the seat belt" because it could be an outstanding season but if the news involves player scrapes with the law, drug use and other issues that have plagued many of the SEC programs during the past spring, "this team will be very average."

This was the fifteenth Gator Gathering and Meyer said before the meeting that he's close to reaching his saturation point.

"It's reached the point where I wanna just go get around the players," he said. "I call our weight coaches about 20 times a day. I've reached the saturation point. My job is to be around the players and I have to get back there."

Meyer said his goal is to make Florida "the New England Patriots of college football," noting that the Patriots of Coach Bill Bellichek don't have issues off the field and they are all about the team.

"All they do is win Super Bowls," said Meyer of the Patriots, calling them the standard for all professional sports teams because they are all about the team and not about trouble or off the field issues.

Meyer once again emphasized that he wants the Gators focused on getting their education, being good citizens on and off the field, playing for championships on the field and working with the goal of being a top draft choice in the NFL someday.

Noting that some call his offense "cute" and "gimmicky" Meyer said that the folks who think that will have some minor comeuppance.

"We are a rare back and smack you in the mouth offense," Meyer said.

Meyer will be speaking to the Sarasota Gator Club Wednesday night and then in Fort Pierce on Friday.

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