COLUMBUS, Ohio – That stoic, rock-hard legend you know today as Urban Meyer told CBSSports.com he was shaken and unsure during his first year at Florida. In fact, the two-time national championship coach who began his first spring practice Wednesday at Ohio State was worried because those 2005 Gators were “awful” at one point. He considered himself an “outsider” coming into the SEC and Florida culture.
“The first November we're going for the SEC East, we're awful,” Meyer said in the same interview that produced Tuesday's story on the coach. “We're not a good team. As a matter of fact, we're bad, a really bad football team -- not aligned, selfish.
“We had some really good players on defense. On offense we're a mess. Chris Leak wasn't ready. Then we lose to South Carolina.”
That 30-22 loss was exacerbated because it came to Steve Spurrier.
“I remember walking to my radio show and there are some boos,” Meyer said. “The phone calls were absolutely brutal. I'm looking at my guy [radio host] and I'm just getting greased. I'm thinking to myself, ‘What are you doing here?'"
The depths of Urban Meyer's concern in 2005 reached a critical point later that same month. In his first meeting with Florida State, the Gators beat the Seminoles 34-7.
“[Assistant coach] Chuck Heater, who is a very astute person, looked at me in the lockerroom. It was the most emotional [we'd been] after we beat FSU,” Meyer said. “We were just exhausted. He looks over at me with tears in his eyes, ‘That was a program changer. We're going to be OK.'
“Up until that point [it was] who's this clown from Utah?' “
Florida took off from there winning five bowl games – including two national championships – in six years. That 2005 season accounted for three of only 15 losses in Gainesville but his incessant drive caused physical problems that led him to resign twice. Less than a year after leaving Florida for good in December 2010, he took the Ohio State job in late November 2011.
The Buckeyes have the talent to win the Big Ten, if only they could. An NCAA-mandated postseason ban in 2012 will keep Ohio State out of a possible Big Ten championship game and bowl game.
“The bowl ban was the biggest thing,” Meyer said. “One scholarship, two scholarships, you can work through that kind of stuff. That bowl ban, that was a shot.”
Even though that '05 Florida season ended a respectable 9-3, Meyer felt like “we were in this cauldron” at times. He was trying to convert Leak into a zone-read, spread option quarterback, a concept foreign to the player and to a large part of college football at that point. Tim Tebow arrived in a key backup role in 2006 as part of “the best recruiting class in the history of college football,” according to the coach.
“I was shocked. To say I was ready for the SEC, I was not,” Meyer said. “We got ready real fast, though. There's a culture I had to get used to. The recruiting culture, speed-of-the-game culture. I never coached in the SEC, I'm not from there. The Spurrier culture, that was always there. Every step I took he was always there.
“[Wife] Shelley felt it. I felt it, every step I took until we won in '06.”
Meyer said the two coaches had always been friendly, though.
“We hit it off great. We would call each other. We'd all sit together and have dinner. His wife was incredible. But I'm not one of them. I never lived in Florida, never played in Florida. I was an outsider coming in.”
Other interview nuggets from Meyer …
CBSSports.com: How did you get out of that initial funk?
Meyer: “We won. We had two weeks off [after South Carolina] until we played Florida State and we had a great day, beat them 34-7. That afternoon, that evening everybody started committing. What I think is the best recruiting class in the history of CFB starts to come together. [Brandon] Spikes, Tebow and [Percy] Harvin. It just goes berserk after that. Three 13-1 seasons in 4 years.”
CBSSports.com: Did you learn something about the Florida in the SEC in that moment?
Meyer: “The SEC is different, in a positive way.”
CBSSports.com: During your time away you were very vocal about cleaning up recruiting. In fact, you went to Indianapolis at one point to consult with the NCAA.
Meyer: “Sometimes maybe it's blown out of proportion, assistant coaches when they lose a guy. My problem is I listen to it all. To say I know, I don't know. I tried to investigate. I'm not an investigator. I'd ask my coaches, ‘Why would that kid go to that school?'
“You couldn't accept he just went there. Your ego got in the way. I'd be so hard on our coaches, ‘How did you lose that kid to that school?' Instead of just move on, move on.”
By the way, did you know?: Meyer was drafted by the Atlanta Braves and played two years in their farm system (1982-83) before walking on Cincinnati.
“He would carry a notebook around,” said Robb Williams, a noted trainer who was working on his master's at Cincinnati at the time. “He was just a student. He was just an older guy. An older walk-on.”