Finally The Hype Meets The Reality

The hype that has been building since the day that Urban Meyer said yes to Florida's proposal to become the Gator football coach finally goes head to head with reality today. It is unlikely that the final result will come anywhere close to the collective expectations of the Gator Nation but at the end of the day, the only expectation that has to be satisfied is that of Meyer. If he's satisfied, then everyone should sit back, take a deep breath and find a way to put things in proper perspective.

The collective expectations of the Gator Nation are calling for a blowout of mammoth proportions when the Gators take on Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference. A close game, albeit a victory, will have many of the faithful shaking their heads, wondering why all the hype and questioning the Gators' ability to achieve much more this season than was accomplished in any of the three previous disappointments under Ron Zook. A win is a win is a win, however, but in this case, for hype to match reality the win has to be huge.

Then there are the expectations of the non-Gators, particularly those of Florida's closest rivals. Anything less than a blowout will have them crowing that with all their athletes, with all this new and better coaching, with all the talk about how great it was that the Gators stayed out of trouble in the summer --- you get the picture because the list will go on and on --- that the results were strikingly similar to those of the last three years under the Zooker.

That's where this game is heading and there is no way to curtail the expectation or reel in the hype, but Florida fans in particular should understand that if this first football season under Meyer is to be a success it is likely to be a work of art that is in a weekly progression. Check out what Meyer did at Bowling Green and at Utah. The first year was good --- very good in fact --- but that first year paled in comparison to what was accomplished in the second year.

Of course, the expectations are so much higher at Florida than they ever were at Bowling Green or Utah. At Bowling Green they were simply looking for someone who could raise the program out of the muck and into medioctrity. That they got so much more was a bonus. At Utah, they were hoping to step from their mediocre mode into one of consistent respectability. There Meyer delivered a first taste of what it's like to drink from the private stock.

Florida knows that sweet taste, the one of consistent, big time football success. One of the reasons there is so much hype and expectation for 2005 is that the last three years produced an abundance of athletes capable of delivering at the highest levels just not the legacy of championships. Unlike the situation at Bowling Green and Utah, Meyer inherits players capable of replicating his second year success at those stops in his first year at Florida. He's the first to tell you that good coaches coach a lot better when they have very good players. He will also tell you that it's not just about what happens on the field but between the ears.

At Bowling Green and Utah --- and now at Florida --- Meyer sold a brand new outlook that really wasn't new. Oh, there are some aspects of Meyer's way of doing things in his whole life development plan that are uniquely his design but if you get at the core of his value system that he's implementing with the Gators you'll find some Woody Hayes mixed in with some Earl Bruce, Sonny Lubick and a few other coaches who never departed from time tested ways of turning boys into men.

In the first nine months, Meyer has found far less resistance to the changes he's implemented than what he expected when he took the job. There has not been anything close to the player revolt that many expected when he instituted his my way or the highway offseason program. By and large, the players have conformed to his way of thinking but don't for one second believe that just because they made it through the summer without anyone getting arrested or in serious off-campus trouble that the battle for the minds of his troops is over.

That's a battle that remains day to day and likely will never end. It is always a battle dealing with 85 18-22-year-old minds. Some of them grow up too fast and others need a cattle prod to leave adolescence. Meyer says there has been little resistance but you can bet that there are a few trenchmarks in the soil of The Swamp and on the practice fields where fingernails dug in while players were drug from the old ways into the new reality.

Watching Meyer wage his battle for the hearts and minds of his players has only heightened the expectations of the Gator Nation. Three unsatisfying years of close calls, fourth quarter meltdowns, hearing how we're getting better and better and how everything is correctable has created a mindset of urgency among the faithful. Sprinkle in the off the field incidents and you have cans of jet fuel heaved onto an already raging fire.

In part, Meyer has been both fireman and arsonist since he got to Gainesville.

On one hand he's busily gone stamped out the old fires flame by flame. While certain rivals spent their summers calling for hook and ladder crews to battle out fires that threatened to go out of control within their football programs, Meyer was in a preventative maintenance mode. He put out the fires within his program months before so he spent the summer with his staff ensuring there was no tinder dry environment for the occasional sparks to turn quickly into a total blaze.

On the other hand, Meyer has been the perfect arsonist because in putting out the fires within his program, he's flicked his Bic on a Gator Nation doused with a flammable need to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear --- those 12 years Florida football could compete at the highest levels. In many ways, the flame of expectations is burning brighter than it did when Stevie Wonder returned to Florida as the conquering hero in 1990, setting the Gators on a path of pillage and plunder through the Southeastern Conference that brought EIGHT (I will always count 1990 as a title … and if Florida had to forfeit the 1984 title then Bama should forfeit 1999) conference championships and one national title. When the Old Ball Coach got here in 1990, there was no championship legacy to feed expectations, just the hope that one of these years there would not be a collective cry of "wait till next year." Meyer arrives to a Gator Nation spoiled by championships and the ravishing appetite for more that winning big will give you.

So the fire burns brightly tonight and if the Gators deliver a blowout win that somehow manages to meet or exceed the expectations of the faithful, the level of hype and anticipation for Louisiana Tech and that game on the September 17 calendar will reach proportions that haven't been seen in years. But what if it's close? What if the offense sputters? What if the defense has some breakdowns?

If any of those things happen, there will be some naysayers parroting a theme of "I told you so" and of course, there will be the collective giggles of Florida's rivals, all of whom will claim they knew all along that the Meyer hype would come to a crashing halt once real games were played. Neither the doubts of the naysayers if it's close or the expectations of the faithful if it is a blowout will matter, though.

The only opinion that is going to count is Urban Meyer's. If the past nine months are any indicator of things to come, don't expect too much elation if the Gators win big or too much disappointment if it's a close call. He knows better than anyone that this is simply the first of 11 steps on this journey that is the 2005 football season. The idea is to come out of game one with a win, dissect the film, learn from the mistakes and then move on to game two.

In a lot of ways, the past nine months has been like a pregnancy minus the ultrasound. As the hours tick down toward the opening kickoff, it's like going into labor. Sometime around 9:30 or 10 p.m. tonight, there will be a delivery. Since there's no ultrasound to predetermine the outcome, emotions could range from the exhilaration of expectations met to the disappointment that the hype failed to match up to the reality. Pay no attention to those folks. Instead, watch Meyer closely. If he's satisfied with that first delivery, that's all that matters.

Al Davis used to say, "Just win, Baby." That needs to be the mindset of the Gator Nation tonight and every step along this 11-game journey.

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