I had a professor who once said the book you’re reading now is only as good as the one you just finished. Meaning, we judge the present based on past experience. We refer to the past in order to place the present in its proper context. If the last thing you read turned out to be your all-time favorite novel, the next book probably won’t be that great. Conversely, if you’ve just slogged through a terrible story, your next read will, most likely, be great. This theory applies to most things: movies, food, sex and, most definitely, sports.
The old maxim states that it’s hard to follow a legend. Iconic figures cast long shadows over their respective programs/franchises. The Dolphins haven’t been relevant since Marino and Shula retired. The great Peyton Manning is struggling to live up to his boss, John Elway’s, legacy. UCLA is still searching for a new John Wooden. It took Alabama 25 years to find a new Bear.
When Steve Spurrier left college coaching for the NFL he left a crater-sized hole at the University of Florida. Spurrier put Florida football on the map. He was a man of firsts: winning the school’s first Heisman trophy, first SEC championship, and first National Championship. He was and is a living legend.
By comparison, Ron Zook was a failure. His teams were mediocre. He alienated students, and couldn’t keep his players out of the news. If Zook had followed Charley Pell, or even Galen Hall, he would’ve been an acceptable coach. However, Spurrier raised a generation expectant of championships. Zook was in over his head, big time.
Urban Meyer’s tenure at Florida would be deemed successful no matter who he followed. National Championships bookending a Heisman Trophy winner is unprecedented. However, since he followed three years of milquetoast football Meyer’s accomplishments were that much sweeter for Gator fans. Even his subpar inaugural season was tolerable because, hell, he couldn’t be any worse than the last guy. By the end of his tenure, Meyer had built his own legacy in Gators lore.
Meyer’s departure from UF has been acrimonious, to say the least. He was less than transparent in his retirement/un retirement/second retirement. His health problems went into remission rather quickly as he jumped at ESPN’s first offer. He was completely cured by the time Jim Tressel’s job opened up.
It’s been fascinating watching Gator zealots turn on their former messiah—he of Urban Renewal. The qualities Florida fans once defended are now their ammunition.
Once upon a time fans stuck up for thuggish players, claiming that Meyer was actually a disciplinarian—hey, he had the pit! Now fans shake their heads at every seedy Percy Harvin, Brandon Spikes, or Aaron Hernandez story that surfaces. How could Meyer have such ruffians on the team? Turns out Timmy Tebow is a mighty fine smoke screen.
Gators shrugged off nicknames like Urban Whiner. Hey, his politicking got the team into the BCS game against Ohio State—which UF dominated. Now Gator Nation kvetches at every story where Meyer ruffles another team’s feathers, lands a 5-star commitment, or narcs out a program for recruiting violations.
All the personality traits that made Meyer so likeable as a UF coach—the fact that he ticked off every other school in the country—now make him detestable.
Also making it easier to dislike Meyer is Will Muschamp. Muschamp came in with a sterling reputation, a strong pedigree, and a championship ring on his finger. He was the Million Dollar Man at Texas—not to mention coach in waiting. Granted his first year at Florida was abysmal. However, Meyer didn’t leave on a high note and apologists made comments that the cupboard was bare. In his second season Muschamp was a 4th quarter fumble from playing in the de facto national championship game—aka the SEC Championship Game. Between the early fanfare, successful sophomore season, and Muschamp’s intensity—the man was born to coach in college—it’s been easy for Florida fans to forget about Meyer.
Why then, if the Gators are back in good position, is Meyer public enemy #1 in Gainesville? Sure, he left on bad terms, but it’s not like he’s coaching a division rival. Yes, he left a ton of garbage in his wake. But the stories that are now surfacing were around during his tenure, only championship teams deodorized them. And yes, he’s coaching a rival program in a rival conference. But again, Ohio State and the Big 10 are UF and SEC whipping boys.
The answer to why Gators cannot stand Urban Meyer is twofold. It starts with Steve Spurrier. It ends with Will Muschamp.
Steve Spurrier is Florida through and through. Orange and Blue blood courses through his veins. He has publically stated that he roots for UF 364 days a year. He’s been inducted into the Gator Ring of Honor—while coaching for South Carolina. Whether with Duke, South Carolina, or in the NFL with Washington, Spurrier’s loyalties to his alma mater have never wavered. Spurrier took courses in Carleton Auditorium, hung out in Turlington Plaza, and took laps around Lake Alice. Fans love Florida. Spurrier loves Florida. Always has, always will.
Next is Muschamp. When he’s winning, fans always love their guy. Will Muschamp has a ton of potential. Fans feel it. Plus, Muschamp is the antithesis of Meyer. Where Meyer looked like a politician working the sidelines, Muschamp looks like a player ready to jump in the huddle. Muschamp brings the same kind of enthusiasm to the Florida fan base that Meyer did, only through different means.
Ultimately, the vitriol towards Meyer has been brewing since his first day on campus. When he was hired fans were initially upset. They expected Mike Shanahan, Bob Stoops, or even the prodigal son, Spurrier. Meyer was an outsider. He had no ties to the school, just a mercenary seeking a better gig. As he embraced the school’s rivalries, owned the conference, and hung banners, people slowly forgot that Meyer wasn’t a “Florida guy.” He became the face of Gator Nation: America’s hotbed for great, young coaches.
When Meyer abruptly quit and then resurfaced at another top-tier program, old wounds resurfaced. Fans’ longstanding fears were finally upheld. Meyer never really was a Gator; he was a reminder. A reminder that loyalty in sports is dead.