MEYER TOUR: Another Sellout Crowd In Sarasota

SARASOTA --- If this is Wednesday, then this must be Sarasota. Meyer Love In Tour. Day 16. Star Date May 25, 2005. Captain's Log: Another sellout crowd (16 in a row) greets the New Ball Coach at the Sarasota County Gator Club, a crowd that includes ex-Gators Todd Johnson, Jimmy Dubose and Robby Stevenson.

"This is my favorite part of Florida," Urban Meyer told the crowd of a little over 750 who came to meet and greet Florida's football coach. Meyer became familiar with the Sarasota and the surrounding area when he recruited for Notre Dame. The crowd even included one of the players he once recruited to Notre Dame, Jared Clark, who played his high school football at Cardinal Mooney.

The crowd was a little less lively than the night before in St. Petersburg, which brought in more than 1300, but like all the crowds along this spring tour of Gator Gatherings, it was appreciative, particularly when Meyer talked about restoring order and discipline to the program. The greatest applause for Meyer came when he spoke about getting players to go to class, get their degrees and live their lives right off the field.

Once again he emphasized how when a player touches the gator head outside the locker/weight room facility, that it should mean something to each player. Meyer said that players should understand the responsibility of being a Florida football player and know that it is a privilege to be a part of the Gator program.

"Don't touch that gator head if you're going to go out on University Avenue and prove how tough you are," said Meyer. "Don't touch that gator head if you're not going to live your life right."

Meyer said that he wants his players to understand that being a Gator should never be discounted or underestimated. He said that touching the gator head should signify a commitment to fellow players, the coaches, the football program and the university.

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Dubose was an All-SEC fullback in the days when the Gators ran the wishbone under Doug Dickey. He played in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs and was a teammate in the pros with Steve Spurrier, who spent his final year in pro football with the Bucs during their initial year. The friendship with Dubose has lasted throughout the years and grew during the time that Spurrier was Florida's football coach from 1990-2001.

"Steve was a friend of mine and still is," said Dubose, "but he grew up a Gator and he felt that if you're a Gator you should feel welcome to come back anytime."

But even though everyone knew that they were welcome to return to Gainesville to visit Spurrier and the Gators there was never any kind of written invitation and never anything that so blatantly showed that the door is open for returning. Dubose says it was a very special moment when he received the letter from Meyer inviting him and all the former players to come back.

"It was a really warm feeling to receive a letter like that from a new coach that didn't know me but who had obviously done some background checking to learn something about my career at the University of Florida," said Dubose. "It made me feel good that here's a guy who is reaching out to all the former players at Florida that he knew nothing about.

"Since I played at Florida I've seen a few coaches but to this day he's the very first to ever do that. This guy has really gone out of his way to make me and everyone else feel welcome. For a guy who didn't grow up as a Gator to reach out to us like this says a lot about the man."

Dubose was part of a record-breaking ground attack for the Gators. He gained more than 2000 yards in his career at UF including 1200-plus in the 1975 season when the Gators came oh so close to winning the SEC championship.

Florida came into the Georgia game needing only to win to clinch UF's first SEC title but on that day it was cold and raining at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville.

"Our game was predicated on speed and the weather and the condition of the field negated what was our strength," he said. "We just couldn't operate the wishbone on a field that was in that condition."

The muddy field had the Gators slipping and sliding all day long which played into the hands of the slower, but larger Bulldogs. Georgia played a conservative game until the fourth quarter when a tight end around pass went 80 yards for a touchdown that clinched a 10-7 win for the Bulldogs.

That loss ended the chances Dubose had to pick up a championship and a championship ring. His son, Dwayne, was a walkon center for the Gators who got an SEC championship and a championship ring as part of the 2000 Florida team that beat Auburn in Atlanta in the SEC title game.

"Dwayne played two years with Steve and two with Coach (Ron) Zook," said Dubose. "I kid him about the fact that I played at Florida for four years, started for three years and never won a championship or got a ring. He sits the bench for all four years and walks away with an SEC championship ring."

Having seen Meyer's offense on television in Utah's Fiesta Bowl win over Pitt, Dubose thinks that this fall will bring back the fun to Saturdays in The Swamp.

"Option football is not dead," he said, "and when you combine the option with the pass you have yourself one good offense. I was very impressed with the offense I saw in the bowl game. After Steve, when you're looking for a coach, you definitely want someone who can put some points on the board. Watching Coach Meyer's offense at Utah, they certainly proved they could put a lot of points on the board against some good teams. I'm excited to see what he puts on the field and what he puts on the scoreboard this fall."

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Johnson will be returning this week to Chicago to continue his preparations for the 2005 NFL season with the Bears. He will be taking some time out to be a part of three weddings, one an old friend and two for ex-teammates. He'll be part of Brock Berlin's wedding and then later in the summer, part of Rex Grossman's.

He's excited about the upcoming season, believing that the Bears are going to be one of the NFL's most improved teams.

"Everyone's excited about the team," he said. "[Lovey Smith] is a young coach with a lot of energy and a good football mind. We've got some young players … I think we have one of the youngest teams in the NFL, but I think if we can manage to stay healthy, we should have a very good team."

As a starting safety in the NFL, Johnson had a solid second season in the league, but he says that it was a learning experience that showed him just how much work he has to do to improve to the level he expects to play.

"I played pretty steady and solid but I didn't make enough big plays and that was pretty much my goal going into the season," he said. "I wanted to make some interceptions and create some turnovers but I got a lot of experience and it makes me excited about this year. I definitely want to take my game up a notch."

Johnson started at safety for the Gators three years under Spurrier and one under Zook. He's remained a loyal Gator since leaving Gainesville and he says he keeps up with Florida football along with his former Gator teammates, Alex Brown, Ian Scott and Grossman, all of whom are teammates on the Bears.

"It's great having Alex Borwn and Rex up there along with Ian Scott," he said. "It's great when there are big games that we know we have each other up there to cheer each other on."

When he came to the Bears as a rookie, he had Brown there to look out for him. The NFL is famous for its rookie hazing, but Brown served as a protector for Johnson, Grossman and Scott.

"He was doing it [hazing] to the other rookies," Johnson said. "He actually took care of us … took us out to eat, told us who to stay away from, what best to steer clear of … Alex was really great for all of us. He's really a great teammate."

Johnson says that Grossman has come back strong from a knee injury that ended his 2004 season after just a few games. At a recent mini-camp, he says that Grossman was throwing the ball better than he'd ever seen.

"We just had a minicamp this past weekend and Rex looked great," he said. "You really couldn't tell that he just had surgery on his knee. He's been out there training hard and getting ready for next season. He's probably the lightest he's ever been and probably in the best shape of his life. He looked great this weekend."

Because of the way he took charge of the offense prior to his injury, Johnson says Grossman earned the respect of all his teammates, veterans and rookies alike.

"He was doing a great job when he got hurt," Johnson said. "Then when he went out it was such a difference in the offense. The way he kept studying and working hard to come back earned him the respect of all the veterans on the offense especially. He has the attitude and the confidence it takes to run the offense and do a great job of it."

Johnson finds himself getting excited about the Florida football team in 2005. He's been made to feel a welcome part of Gator football by Meyer and he says that is a gesture that far exceeded his own expectations.

"I've really been impressed with the way he's welcomed everyone back," said Johnson. "He's trying to get everyone involved, sending out those letters and making us feel welcome. I think it was important that he would do something like that, but all the things he's done have far exceeded my expectations.

"I don't know if I've ever seen all the Gators so united and the expectations so high as they are now. Obviously with our schedule it's going to be tough but people are expecting some big, big things and I think we're going to have a great team. I just met with Coach Meyer and he was very welcoming and made me feel really comfortable. He made me feel like an important part of the Gator nation."

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