— Back in the mid-1990s Gary Barnett led Northwestern to its first Rose Bowl appearance since, well, Chicago was considered northwestern. At the time, Barnett was relatively young and unquestionably dynamic, and so he became a coveted attraction on the banquet circuit.
A fixture of the Barnett speech was an anecdote that was charming for both its brevity and its self-deprecatory nature. Barnett would tell the audience that one evening, so pleased with himself for having led the Wildcats to Pasadena, he shot up in bed and awakened his wife.
“Honey,” Barnett asked, “do you know how many truly great coaches there are in college football?”
To which his devoted but honest wife replied, “One less than you think.”
Which brings us to the head football coach of the Florida Gators. On Thursday evening, Urban Meyer, age 44, will lead his football team into Dolphin Stadium to face Oklahoma in the BCS Championship Game. Considering all that Meyer has accomplished in the past five years, is this a man who could pilfer Barnett’s anecdote and tell it with any semblance of plausibility? Has humility passed Urban Meyer by?
Since 2004 Meyer has performed the following feats:
Meyer has yet to clean the Augean stables in a single day, but then he’s still young.
In the past half-decade, Meyer has not only fulfilled the promise that he displayed at Bowling Green at the outset of the decade; he has compiled a resume surpassed in all facets by only one man, Pete Carroll of USC (one more reason why a USC-Florida title game would have been the most captivating match up possible). The Ashtabula, Ohio, native is more than just successful, however; he is caricature-proof.
Think about it. Joe Paterno has the age thing. Bobby Bowden has “dadgummit”. Mark Mangino is portly, Mike Leach is eccentric and Mack Brown has that honey-baked drawl. Charlie Weis is “the Jersey guy,” Greg Schiano is chopping wood somewhere, Jim Tressel is trying on a vest and Pete Carroll is leading more cheers than the Song Girls. Ty Willingham is/was holding one elbow in his hand, his other hand pursed against his lips in contemplation. Ron Zook just went water skiing, holding the rope in one hand and swinging a kettle ball with the other. Rich Rodriguez just unleashed an expletive stream, Nick Saban just burned a hole through you with his stare and Les Miles just hit on 16.
And then there’s Urban Meyer, whose definitive trait is … perfection.
Begin with the features. How many head coaches — How many people? — are handsome enough to anchor the evening news? And not the local news, the national news. Meyer looks as if he just walked off the top of someone’s wedding cake.
Having spent the first two dozen years of his life in Ohio, Meyer’s accent is distinguishable by being indistinguishable. He is married and if you round up 2.5 children, you get three, which is equal to the number he has. He has yet to endure and/or author an embarrassing YouTube moment, and the nearest he has ever come to ignominy is when a message he texted to then-high school senior Tim Tebow became public knowledge.
About that message: Meyer informed Tebow that if Florida were scoring 50 points a game, they wouldn’t need him. He then promised Tebow that if he came to Gainesville, Heismans and national championships would be waiting for him.
What once sounded outlandish has now come to pass. And, OK, the Gators still do not average 50 points per game, but in the rugged SEC, 45 points per game will do.
Standing on the opposite sideline Thursday night will be Meyer’s Sooner counterpart, Bob Stoops. And if Stoops had time to read this, as opposed to figuring out how he will possibly replace tailback DeMarco Murray, he might smile knowingly.
Back in 2004, when Meyer was at the advent of his legend, Stoops was at the zenith of his. Four years older than Meyer and also an Ohio native, Stoops had, in his first five seasons in Norman, produced an undefeated season, a national championship, two BCS bowl wins and a Heisman Trophy winner. Sound familiar? Stoops, then 44 years old himself, was Big Game Bob.
Then Stoops lost a national championship game to LSU. The following season Oklahoma returned to the BCS Championship game — a career achievement for most — but Stoops’ Sooners were humiliated by USC, 55-19. Two years later the prized blue-chip quarterback Rhett Bomar was sent packing and then the Sooners became the foil for Boise State’s Fiesta Bowl heroics, while most of us forgot the epic fourth-quarter comeback OU made just to tie that contest and, ever so briefly, take the lead.
Bob Stoops was Urban Meyer, and while he need apologize to nobody — this will be his fourth national championship game this decade — he understands that Meyer has yet to experience the second act of his career. The fall from grace, or from immortality.
Urban Meyer will lead the Florida Gators into Dolphin Stadium on Thursday night with an opportunity to advance the legend. Young, rich, handsome, successful, with another crop of five-star recruits on their way to Gainesville next month, Meyer is on the cusp of building an empire that is the East Coast’s answer to USC — many would argue that he already has.
His counterpart will be a man who has tasted that nectar, who is not so far removed from recalling when his coaching record was without a blemish. Bob Stoops has the opportunity to welcome Urban Meyer to the club of truly great coaches who, at some point, came up short when it mattered. Heck, even Carroll lost a national championship game once.
“Do you know how many truly great coaches there are?”
We’ll have a more definitive answer by Friday morning.