Meyer: Changed Attitudes, Raised Expectations

At some point, and Urban Meyer probably can't pinpoint exactly when it happened, the older players who have endured 15 losses in the last three years decided enough was enough. Sick of losing, that's when they really bought into his way of doing things and that is exactly when the Florida Gators stopped being a team that's going through a coaching transition into a team that has a chance to be very good in 2005.

Coaching changes can be messy affairs and the firing of Ron Zook was about as messy as it got. Rather than let things get awkward, Meyer stepped in on day one and took charge.

"He was different than anything we had seen," said sophomore safety Kyle Jackson. "He told us what he expected and let us know that there was only one way to do things and that was his way."

That was step one in the transition. Step two meant changing from a team that has folded in one fourth quarter after another to a team that expects to win each time it hits the field. Meyer is a firm believer that success on the field is a direct reflection of living right off the field. He came to Gainesville fully aware that the previous three summers were ones in which the police blotter in Gainesville was a far too familiar place to find Florida football players. Off the field issues clouded Florida's program when he arrived so he changed that by making at risk players aware that they would have to undergo wholesale lifestyle changes. To combat the off the field problems, he had to start with changed attitudes.

"We have a sign here, and it says that to change something in your life you have to change the way you think, the way you believe and your expectations," said Meyer Friday afternoon at Gator Media Day.

So Meyer has gone about changing the way the team thinks, the way they act in public and on the playing field, the way they train, the way they go to class and the way they compete. He's used techniques that are old school and some that are products of his very fertile imagination. At Utah, he motivated his players to beat arch-rival Brigham Young by placing BYU logos in the urinals. That hasn't been done yet at Florida but it wouldn't be surprising if it happens.

He's totally into getting into his players heads, and once into their heads, he wants to re-program them. With Meyer, there is only black and white. There aren't any grey areas. There are winners and there are losers. Winning starts with what's between the ears.

"I can't tell you what you're thinking," he said. "I can't tell you your beliefs or your expectations. What I can measure is your attitude, behavior and performance."

Attitudes began changing immediately when players discovered that failure in the classroom and visits to the county lockup were no longer tolerated and could result in early tickets out of the football program. Players discovered a coaching staff that was fully involved in every aspect of their lives.

Meyer expects his assistant coaches to know the players inside and out. A position coach better not show up at a meeting without knowing that a player has a new girlfriend or that he skipped a class or did poorly on a test. The assistants are expected to know all that plus the player's parents, brothers, sisters and friends. Players come out of class to find an assistant coach sitting outside on a bench checking up on them.

It may sound heavy handed, but it is necessary especially to transform a team from one of underachievers with a penchant for off the field trouble to one that can compete for championships.

"I hear that kids have changed," said safeties Coach Doc Holliday Friday. "Kids haven't changed. It's the parents that have changed, the teachers, the coaches. Not the kids. The kids want to be told what to do. They want to be disciplined. They want to have a coach who is involved in their lives."

The leadership starts at the top with Meyer and with his assistants, but it doesn't work unless there are leaders among the players. Meyer knew that the summer months would be critical. One by one as other schools in the SEC and around the nation made the headlines for one arrested player after another, it was quiet in Gainesville.

The quiet was made possible because players like Jarvis Herring adapted to the new role of team leader. Herring will be the first to tell you he was perfectly content being a follower but Meyer forced his hand, called him out and made him assume the mantle of leadership.

Quiet guys like quarterback Chris Leak and Mike Degory were called out as well. Meyer called them selfish because they were only concerned about themselves. He made them take an active role. The result was a summer in which there were no arrests in Gainesville.

"I would have been extremely disappointed in the leadership of this team if we had issues," said Meyer. "It wasn't [the staff]. That was a bunch of older guys saying, 'No, we've had enough nonsense.'

"That is the behavior part of it: Attitude, how you go out every day that was hot. We went hard today. Their attitude just kept going. Performance will measure that in about 22 days. That is how you measure leadership to me. So far, it is a passing grade because of what they did throughout the summer and since we have been here."

Now the passing grade for leadership in the summer must be translated to wins on the field. No one is more aware of that than Meyer but he has confidence that his team's level of expectation has risen.

While the expectations are high, there are those memories of fourth quarter collapses in the past three years. There are also questions about toughness. Meyer inherited a team that he felt was lacking toughness and bordering on soft. He knows there is talent enough to win games and have a super season. He also knows that if the team lacks the fortitude to play strong in the fourth quarter and play with toughness that it will be business as usual as in the same things that have happened the past three years.

"Our toughness and finish are the two things this team is being challenged on right now," said Meyer. "If we do not [finish and play with toughness] we will be an average team, again."

The next step in the transformation he hopes will happen in three weeks before the Gators open their season with a Wyoming team that Meyer says is going to be tougher than Florida fans expect. That step will occur when the team leaders who have led the team through a trouble-free summer become the true leaders on the field.

"At some point, when is it going to become Chris Leak's offense?" Meyer asked. "When is it going to become Brandon Siler or Jarvis Herring's defense? I haven't seen that happen, yet. I still have 22 days though."

When the leaders take over on the field, Meyer knows the issue of trust will be satisfied completely. Trust is the final byproduct of on the field leadership. He's said before that if you give him a few minutes, he can easily tell who is going to win a football game just by watching things like the kickoff returns and what the quarterback is doing when he drops back to pass.

"In the Peach Bowl, Chris Leak kept watching the left tackle on the offensive line because they were bumping him," said Meyer. "That's not trust. You have to trust what's happening."

As quarterbacks Coach Dan Mullen said, "If the quarterback is looking at his left tackle, worrying more about what he's doing than what is going on downfield with his receivers, he's going to throw interceptions. The quarterback has to trust his linemen if he's going to make the right decisions and throw the ball where it's supposed to go. No trust? You get interceptions."

Meyer knows he has plenty of offensive firepower. He's waiting to see the trust develop.

"When that happens [trust develops], watch out because the Gators are going to get you when it happens and it has not happened yet," he said. "We had a good first year at Utah and it [trust] did not happen and after the second year of spring practice I looked at my wife and said 'The only people that can screw this up are the coaches, because the players have this down.' We're putting much more pressure on the players this year. We need second year production out of a first year offense. We want it to happen as fast as the Gator Nation does."

If it happens that the Gators win and win big in Meyer's first year, then look back to how Meyer called out players in the spring to become leaders. Look back on how those leaders kept the team out of trouble off the field during the summer months, and look on the field and see how those leaders stepped it up to take charge of the team. If Florida wins big, those will be the cornerstones on which a championship was built.

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