The innovator always at work: Meyer demonstrates a new rock-paper-scissors technique he hopes to use in Glendale, Arizona, site of the BCS National Championship.
Gainesville, Fla. – Urban Meyer knows something about unfairness. Two seasons ago the second year Florida head coach had to listen while pundits across the nation knocked the Bowl Championship Series and a system which kept an undefeated Auburn team from playing for the national title. The Tigers beat ACC champion Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl but USC – owners of an impressive 55-19 destruction of previously unbeaten Oklahoma – was everyone’s unanimous champion in 2004. Still, the consensus was that Auburn deserved a shot at the Trojans.
The problem? The Alex Smith led Utah Utes were also undefeated – and coached by Meyer.
“I die a little bit every time I think about it,” Meyer says.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t want to brain an intern or strangle a small dog over the thought of it. We had a good team in ’04. A fine team. To have worked that hard and not even be in the equation….” He trails off and sits in his office, contemplating. The room is brightly lit and fiendishly organized. There are stacks of three ring binders everywhere, all of them neatly labeled with things like “12/6 PERSONNEL PKG.” and “OATMEAL CRAN COOKIES W/ HAZEL GLZ.” Meyer is the only coach present.
“Sometimes,” he says suddenly, “when I’m sitting at home watching game film I’ll use the google to find a picture of the crystal ball and…. It’s hard to explain. Have you ever seen the movie Punch-Drunk Love? There’s this part: Adam Sandler’s character, he’s finally pouring his heart out to the girl, and that scene has always been close to my own heart. It’s something real special.”
Meyer pauses. Upon first meeting him it’s impossible to get a sense of the forces at struggle deep within. He is incredibly cordial and measured, a man every bit in control as a career 59-12 head coaching record would indicate – but now there is a brief crack in the armor. Without getting up from his chair he wheels over to a nearby computer and quickly brings up a picture of the BCS national championship trophy. Meyer stares intently at the screen, nodding quietly.
“I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty,” he whispers, eyes never leaving the crystal football glowing out from the monitor.
No one should be surprised that Urban Meyer is willing to buck trends. It started during his childhood years.
“A lot of people said you can’t wear white after Labor Day. They were adamant about it. My whole town was dead set against it,” Meyer recalls. He is, fittingly, wearing an off white polo, board shorts, flip flops and his requisite visor. Three yellow Livestrong bracelets encircle his left wrist and a dark brown band the color of old oak is on his right (“You wear it if you support watersports,” Meyer says matter-of-factly.)
“Well, I wore white. I wore it all year. And you know what? Other people started doing it too. I had a vision, even then, and I wasn’t going to let anyone stop me. My whole life people have told me I couldn’t do something, and my whole life I’ve proved them wrong by doing it. Whatevs.” This last word is accompanied by a shrug and pantomimed shoulder dusting.
This unassuming family man is an odd choice for a maverick, but the records don’t lie: mixing coca-cola and pop rocks. Eating play-doh or paste and, sometimes, both. Peeing while sitting down. Insisting on being dropped off in front of all the kids at school.
“Yeah, I kissed my mommy in front of ‘em, too. So what?” Meyer pauses. “My mother was a saint. I want you to print that.”
Unorthodox as his methods may be they’ve also proven successful. Meyer is poised to lead Florida to its first national championship since 1996 and its second overall – and he’s no longer doing it in the shadow of former Gators coach and Southeastern Conference legend Steve Spurrer, now at South Carolina.
“What he’s done at Florida is simply, utterly phenomenal,” Mississippi head coach Ed Orgeron said when asked about Meyer. “‘Urbane’ Urban, as I cheekily refer to him in my weaker moments, cannot be classed with our base lexicon. If I were to ascribe him an adjective I’d likely choose ‘sidereal’ but, if pressed, I might commit to a less fitting word or, even better, a portmanteau of several terms whose individual meanings may hint at his excellence but, collectively, would do justice to a man of Urban’s stature. Outstandellence, perhaps? I may have to think on this.”
“Let me be frank,” Oregeron continued. “The father-son dichotmy is a fundamental Jungian relationship. Meyer is not in fact a direct scion of Spurrier in terms of genetics or coaching philosophy but there is no doubt, no doubt, the two have striven against one another as elder and youth in a struggle that goes back to the dawn of civilization. Theirs is a cyclical duel, destined to occur through reincarnation with each cohort of man. When first they met it was Spurrier who prevailed, cutting off Meyer’s hand and forcing him into a near fatal jump into Cloud City’s core, as it were. The last time resulted in a back and forth battle with the father realizing the error of his ways and sacrificing a PAT for the good of the son. We cannot underestimate the emotional costs of that kind of fierce martial striving. I admire Urban as a coach, a family man and a humanitarian but, most of all, I admire him for the obstacles he has overcome. He deserves to lift the crystal footbaw no matter the outcome.”
“Footbaw,” he added.
Talk to any SEC coach and they’ll mention two things before everything else: don’t get stuck in Baton Rouge after dark, and the SEC is the toughest conference in the nation.
The Arizona bound Gators, though, needed some last minute help from both the pollsters and the Trojans to make it to the title game. Before USC lost to unranked UCLA in the regular season finale Florida was third in line to face top ranked Ohio State, behind both Southern California and Michigan. The uninspiring win over South Carolina didn’t help, and then there was the matter of Division I-AA Western Carolina: Florida won 62-0 and was criticized roundly for the late season “cupcake”.
Meyer has a strong opinion about Western Carolina.
“What’s wrong with directional schools? USC’s a directional school. Southern California. They gave us a great game, a strong test of our skills and our will. Plus, Western Carolina needed our help, they need our money. There’s good people down there. If you’re against us giving good money to good people I think there’s something wrong with you. Un-American. Are you un-American? Well fuck you because I love my country.”
Meyer punctuates this by nearly ninety seconds of defeaning silence, staring intently at a spot on the wall before leaping from his chair and screaming. There is a huge “V” shaped vein bulging on his forehead. He goes to a nearby white board and starts drawing a play. There are four other coaches in the room now: running backs coach Stan Drayton, offensive line coach Steve Addazio, wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. None of them say a word.
(Later on Mullen would explain: “We don’t do anything until Urban gives the signal. Mainly we try not to interrupt his train of thought, but I won’t lie to you: it’s for our safety too. We had a grad assistant who asked why Urban drew up a play with four post corner routes. I think he’s coaching in Malaysia now. The key is to remain perfectly silent and still until he’s done. And don’t make direct eye contact.”)
Meyer’s movements are sharp, violent, like watching the awful agony of a star collapsing on fast forward, all force directed inward in a spiraling madness of invocation and full-bore entropy. It’s a frightening thing to witness.
The results are just as terrifying. After a full six minutes of stabbing, slashing and eradication Meyer is finished. He steps back and reveals a surface churning with multi-colored arrows. There are at least six reverses, two passes, an intentional fumble and something written in red called “46 drillerator shotgun spread mutation X Z thundo-cat slide hufflepuff”. Incredibly, there are sixteen distinct arrows leading to and away from the single throbbing blue “O” marked as “TEBOW”. Meyer, 42, stands off to the side with his shoulders shaking and a single bead of sweat showing near his widow’s peak. The room suddenly feels smaller.
“You think you can handle that, Timmy?” Meyer asks aloud. His voice – which sounded crisp and clear at the beginning of the day – crackles with the stunted growl of a forty year scotch drinker. There is a low hum followed by a teeth rattling roar. The room shakes, and small bits of plaster flake downward. A pause, then the intensely happy yapping of a puppy retrieving a stick for its master. Incredibly enough it sounds like its coming from beneath the ground.
“He was napping, but he can hear us,” Meyer says to no one in particular. “It’s almost yard time, anyway. We’ll take him out of the pen and let him run around, maybe catch a few deer.” He stares at the play diagramed on the board and drums his fingers.
“I wonder if it’s possible to just let Timmy hike it to himself?” he muses, idly. “I’ll get [director of football operations] Bob [LaCivita] to look into it.”
Meyer still doesn’t budge, his eyes glued to the wall covered in runes and arcane scribblings.
“This is how you do it, you know. You have to be on the edge, always. Razor sharp. Blood seasons. Chew that marrow, yeah. Time for lunch.”
He walks out the door without another word. The other coaches don’t say a thing, their heads still down, waiting.
When two harlots came to Solomon with claims over a single baby, the king with the legendary wisdom proposed a solution: cut the child in two and divide him equally. The true mother cried out to give him to the other woman while the liar agreed to split him with a sword. It was a clever solution to a seemingly intractable problem and perhaps the first ever example of lateral thinking. Meyer thinks about it a lot.
“Where Solomon went wrong is not cutting the baby in two. He should have. It wouldn’t have solved the immediate problem, but it would’ve solved a larger problem by saying, ‘Look, harlots. Don’t be going around smothering your children by accident then stealing other ones to replace your dead babies. You do that and all you’re gonna get is half a baby. Literally,’” Meyer says.
He’s talking about the BCS, of course.
In 2003 LSU and Oklahoma played for the BCS title in the Sugar Bowl while the Associated Press number one ranked Trojans played Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Bayou Bengals and USC both won out and for the first time in the history of the Bowl Championship Series the title was split.
Couple that with Auburn’s predicament in 2004 and you have the basis for a conspiracy case against America’s best conference.
The SEC is “everything you think it is, and more,” says Meyer.
“I never believed it until I got here, but it’s true. We’ve got the athletes, the facilities, the fans, the atmosphere, the tradition, the defense, the coaches. We’ve got everything. I have never seen such utter destruction in all my life.” He’s not kidding, either: Meyer’s first loss as a Gator came at Tuscaloosa to the tune of four touchdowns in a game that wasn’t even that close.
“I cried man tears that day,” Meyer says, flatly.
So what to do with a system that seems to want the SEC out and everyone else in?
Enter Tommy Tuberville. The Auburn head coach saw 2004′s pattern building up again in 2006 for his then 5-0 Tigers and decided to do something about it: he spoke out in favor of a playoff, saying it would be the only way an SEC team made the championship game.
“I’ve about had it with this playoff deal. We all understand in our conference how tough it is. In our conference, that’s about the only chance we’d have to make it,” Tuberville said in October.
Nevermind that Tuberville jumped the gun a bit (Auburn would go on to lose two games by an average margin of almost twenty points.) Meyer considers him a hero of sorts and followed his lead when, late in the season, it became clear that Florida would need help to make it to Arizona. In a November 20th press conference Meyer broke down each contender’s case and concluded that only USC and Florida deserved to go but that Florida’s case was better than anyone else’s.
“We went to a hostile environment [then no. 11 Auburn], played our hearts out. We were on the 6-yard line and failed to get it done. So I think when you look at all that, there’s two schools out there that probably can go ahead and say, ‘OK, we deserve a shot. Here’s our schedule. We played a difficult schedule.’ Western Carolina has more going for them than you think,” Meyer said. “Do I believe that the SEC should be in it? Absolutely.”
He addresses the issue now: “Frankly, I didn’t go far enough. It still took a USC loss to get us in, but the pollsters listened. Maybe they’d listen again?”
He’s referring to the idea that’s set college football on fire: to once and for all remove the bias of the BCS against SEC teams.
“I originally called for a playoff in that press conference, okay? Yeah, I admit that. But like Solomon I didn’t go far enough. We all want a piece of that baby and we should get it. I propose that there should be an SEC team in the title game every year, no exceptions. Two SEC teams preferably, but I don’t mind sharing. Notre Dame has a clause that if they’re at least eighth in the BCS they get in. That would work for us. If an SEC team is at least eighth in the BCS, it’s in the championship game, period,” Meyer says. He smiles for the first time in at least three days. “I’m not even to the juicy part yet.”
“It’s all well and good to get us into the game,” he continues, “but what happens during the game? Frankly no one wants to see another 1995 [when Florida lost 62-24 to Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl]. That’s why whenever a non-SEC team is favored against an SEC team in the title game, we go straight to rochambeau.”
Rochambeau, or, to the rest of us, rock-paper-scissors.
“It’s the only reasonable thing to do,” says Meyer.
“Look, Ohio State is favored. By a lot. And they’re good. But the SEC – America’s best conference – hasn’t had a unanimous national champ since Tennessee [in 1998] and it’s about damn time we did. For everyone’s benefit, but especially for the American people. We barely made it to the title game and I’ll be damned if we’re gonna leave our winning it up to chance like we did with our getting there in the first place. Frankly, no one wants to see an Ohio State-Florida match. Not even me. It’d be unfair to everyone. This is the only logical solution.”
According to Meyer rock-paper-scissors isn’t chance. To that extent he’s been compiling a new notebook – entitled “RPS ’07 4EVAR” in bold block letters alternating in orange and blue – and he isn’t afraid to show it off.
“There’s the Avalanche: rock, rock, rock. It’s a pretty physical gambit. I prefer the Fistful o’ Dollars, myself,” Meyer says, demonstrating with a fist then two successive open palms, “because it puts ‘em on their heels with offense then takes care of things with good ol’ solid defense. It’d be fitting, given our conference.”
He tosses out more terms: the Scissor Sandwich, the Crescendo, the Bureaucrat. The other coaches nod, their downcast eyes glazed in awe and devotion and not a small amount of fear. Soon he picks up a marker and attacks the nearby white board with a visible fury, diagraming hand progressions, feints, rhythm patterns and finger exercises.
He pauses. “One thing we won’t do is the Toolbox [scissors, scissors, scissors]. Because so many people go with rock it’s pretty much suicide, and I know [Ohio State head coach] Jim Tressel is probably preparing for a football game or something so he’ll definitely show up with rock.”
“I am gonna mind fuck that guy out of existence,” he adds.
Meyer goes back to the white board and the diagrams. He’ll be there all night: the maverick, the constant innovator, the man who brought the spread and the LBCLGotB offense to the SEC. The janitors complain that he never leaves the office and so they can’t clean. The secretary down the hall will tell everyone who wants to listen that she can never get a hold of a pen or paper when she needs it because Meyer has scribbled plays on everything in sight. They do so quietly, though, because Gainesville is Urban’s town… and he’s bringing home the crystal ball.
There is little doubt he’s prepared for every contingency. When asked what would happen if he should lose at rock-paper-scissors in Arizona, Meyer doesn’t even blink.
He points to a nearby TV equipped with a much used Nintendo 64 and says, “Then we go to Mario Kart.”
With much thanks to the RPS. Keep on rockin’, fellas.